Jesuit Missions

1697-1767: The First Jesuit Missions in Baja California

“La Californie or Nouvelle Caroline: theater of the apostolic works of the Companion of Jesus in North America.” Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

California’s colonization began with the first Jesuit missions in Baja California.  The first attempt to establish a mission took place in 1683 in San Bruno, 10 miles north of today’s city of Loreto. This failed effort was led by Navarrese Father Matías Goñi and Jesuit priests Eusebio Kino and Juan Bautista Copart, who were all members of the Navarrese Admiral Isidro de Atondo’s crew. While barren lands and feuds with the natives put a halt to California’s first land conquest the spiritual conquest continued to advance. Soon after the Jesuits returned to Mexico, led by the courageous missionary and explorer Father Kino, they sought permission to return to California to try again to establish a mission.

1699-1817 Mission of San Francisco Javier de Viggé Biaundó

Mission of San Francisco Javier de Viggé Biaundó. Photo: Simón Oscar Mendoza S.

Baja California’s second Jesuit mission was erected on very rocky terrain near the Viggé Biaundó stream in La Giganta mountain range in October, 1699. Founded by Father Francisco Piccolo and named after the Basque saint Francis Xavier, this mission too was short-lived: natives decimated the place under the direction of their chiefs and medicine men.  Father Piccolo had no choice but to withdraw from La Giganta.

At the end of the following year, Juan de Ugarte, a newcomer from Mexico, resumed the construction of the mission. Around 1758, Father Miguel del Barco finally completed the project.

Ugarte wasn’t the first Basque to visit the region, however. In December of 1684, Navarrese Admiral Isidro de Atondo pioneered the first path to the Pacific Ocean by leading an expedition from the east to the west of the peninsula. They were the first Europeans to traverse Baja California.

1705-1721: Mission of San Juan Bautista de Malibat-Ligüí

The mission of San Juan Bautista de Malibat-Ligüí was founded by Juan de Ugarte’s brother, Pedro de Ugarte in November, 1705. Although the area was originally populated by the Monqui people, the mission was later repopulated by the Cochimí. The mission was called Ligüí by the Monqui and Malibat by the Cochimí.

The cross that signals the location of the mission of San Juan Bautista de Malibat-Ligüí. Photo: Simón Oscar Mendoza S.

The first mission church here was built from tree branches. Some time later, with the help of the natives, Ugarte built a chapel not from wood, but with adobe. Although the Jesuit made clothes for his two young assistants and asked that they wore them, the boys would remove their garments as soon as they left the chapel to avoid being mocked and laughed at by their own people. Pedro de Ugarte spent five years of his life building his mission. Inspired by his brother’s success with the Mission St. Francis Xavier, Ugarte was determined to replicate his brother Juan’s methods to convert the natives to Christianity: tasking them with farming the land to make it fertile so that it would be a place they would want to learn Christian doctrine. Pedro’s vision failed to engage the adults; the priest therefore used child labor by making work look like a game.

1705-1828: Mission of Santa Rosalía de Mulegé

Mission of Santa Rosalía de Mulegé (1705-1828) Photo: Simón Oscar Mendoza S.

The mission of Santa Rosalía de Mulegé was founded and built by Jesuit Juan Manuel de Basaldúa in 1705, at the mouth of stunning Bahía Concepción, a location known by the Cochimí as Mulegé. The stone building that stands to this day was finished in 1770. The mission was closed down in 1828, however, and remained shut until its interior was restored in 1970. The original outer architectural features of the church remain the same. Mulegé served as the example for two other missions: San Ignacio de Kadakaamán and La Purísima de Cadegomó.

Mission Santa Rosalía de Mulegé, however, was threatened by water at the site, and so to combat the problem with water over-running the land, Basaldúa and his missionaries loaded pack animals with dirt to raise the building safely above the water.

1720-1748: Mission of Nuestra Señora del Pilar de La Paz Airapí

Mission of Nuestra Señora del Pilar de La Paz Airapí.

The mission of Nuestra Señora de La Paz was founded by Jesuits Juan de Ugarte and Jaime Bravo on November 3, 1720 in a location known by the Guaycure as Airapí, what is now the city of La Paz. The missionaries traveled from Loreto to La Paz in El Triunfo de la Cruz, anewly -built ship by Ugarte himself. El Triunfo was the first vessel to be assembled in California: “It was a sloop the most beautiful, neat, sound and big that, according to Americans and Filipinos alike, was ever seen in those coastlines.”

Sometime before sailing to La Paz, Ugarte instructed Father Everardo Helen to head to Huasinapí, the Guadalupe Mountains, to establish the mission of Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe. The Cochimí had asked for a new mission, since Juan de Ugarte had met them the year before when he collected wood for the ship. Because of past clashes, the Guaycure people of La Paz, on the other hand, did not hold a favorable impression of the Spaniards, and every attempt to convert them proved unsuccessful to that date.

1720-1795: Mission of Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe de Huasinapí

The Mission of Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe was founded in 1720 in what was known by the natives as Huasinapí, today’s Guadalupe Mountains. The location was picked by Father Juan de Ugarte after spending four months in the mountains collecting wood for what would be the first ship made in California: El Triunfo de la Cruz.

Ruins of the Mission of Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe. Photo: Gilberto Amador Soto.

The Jesuits of Baja California owned one single ship. It was a creaky old boat run down by the multiple round trips to Mexico. They tried fixing other old vessels and even ordered a new ship to be built at the other end of the Gulf, but as costly as these vessels were at that time, they were not in service very long. Ugarte pondered the precarious situation and decided it was best to build a ship in California instead. A dependable ship would facilitate the exploration of both sides of the Gulf, which would allow him to prove that California was, in fact, a peninsula. Ugarte also thought of another benefit to building a ship in California: it would enable him to search the south of the contracosta for a suitable port for the Manila Galleon.

1728-1840: Mission of San Ignacio de Kadakaamán

Mission San Ignacio, California’s biggest and most prosperous mission for years, was founded by Juan Bautista Luyando in 1728 in the location known by the Cochimí as Kadakaamán, today’s city of San Ignacio. Mission an Ignacio fostered the expansion of the Jesuits in the interior of the peninsula and it remained in operation until 1840.

The church of the Mission of San Ignacio. Photo: Simón Oscar Mendoza S.

The church still standing to this day was built by Dominican Juan Gómez in 1786.

Father Luyando, born in 1700, was from a Mexico City noble-class family. According to historian F. J. Clavijero, the family was related to the first founder of the Mexican Society of Jesus. Father Luyando’s family inheritance of 10,000 pesos financed the Mission of San Ignacio.

Father Sebastián de Sistiaga took over the mission in 1732 after Luyando returned to Mexico for health reasons. Once in Mexico, Luyando filled positions of high responsibility at multiple schools. Some time later, after the Jesuits where expelled from this area, the Franciscan Juan de Medinaveitia would join the long list of Basque administrators of the Mission of San Ignacio.

1730-1840: Mission of San José del Cabo Añuití

On his quest to find an appropriate location for the 12th Jesuit mission, Visitor-General José de Echeverría, a San Sebastian native, sought to accommodate two goals: the conversion of the Pericú (“Edu” in their native tongue), and the construction of a stopover point for the Manila galleons on the south of the peninsula. Echeverría was aware of the Pericú’s belligerent reputation and anticipating conflict, he appointed Nicolás Tamaral as administrator of the new mission, who was a Sevillian seasoned in mission life.,

Mission of San José del Cabo circa 1765. Painting: Father Ignacio Tirsch.

Accompanied by a single soldier, the duo sailed for La Paz in March 1730 from Loreto. When they reached an estuary by the beach on foot, they determined this place in the Bay of San Bernabé would be the best location for the new mission.  The name was coined by Sebastián Vizcaíno, and it became popular among seamen after the 1500s. The natives gradually approached the missionaries. By the fourth day, the settlement had welcomed more than 300 native men and women. The Fathers baptized many children – Echeverría himself christened 15 children. He was so full of joy in San Jose that when he was informed that a sloop would be arriving to take them back home, he replied: “… it may leave without me, I am in no rush to go anywhere. I will remain among these Californian angels for a few more months.”