The Mission San Fernando Rey de España is one of the earliest Spanish Franciscan missions established in California. Founded in 1797, it was hugely successful as a religious, cultural, and agricultural center in the San Fernando Valley for its first several decades. Despite maintaining the presence of Franciscan friars and Indian neophytes even after the secularization of the missions in 1834, the mission was confiscated and sold by Pio Pico--the last Mexican governor of Alta California--in 1845. A year later, American forces seized Los Angeles during the Mexican War. The mission was returned to the Catholic church in the 1860s in state much reduced, but massive restoration efforts during the 20th Century returned much of tis former architectural glory. The convent has been added to the National Register of Historic Places and is a recognized California Historical Landmark.
The San Fernando Valley was discovered in 1769 by the first European
expedition in California. The Spanish soldier Gaspar de Portolá led a party of
armed men into the unknown territory, discovering the valley while en-route to San
Francisco Bay. Large areas of the newly-discovered territory, then known as Alta California,
were settled. The pueblo of Los Angeles founded in 1781 and flowered under the influence of nearby Mission San Gabriel Arcangel. Seeking an intermediate mission to bridge the gap between Arcangel and new missions in Santa Barbara, on September 8th 1797
the Basque missionary and governor of the Alta California mission system, Padre
Fermín de Francisco Lasuén de Arasqueta, baptised ten Native American children
and founded the San Fernando Mission. The complex was the seventeenth mission built
in California, and was named after the 13th century saint-king of
Spain, Ferdinand III.
The original complex had a quadrangle layout, complete with
a bell tower and olive mill. A church was built in 1791, but was replaced with
a series of progressively larger chapels as the congregation grew. By 1804 over
one thousand Native Americans resided in the mission. The third chapel was damaged
by an earthquake in 1812, and replaced with a new church in 1818. The mission
was subsidised through trade between the Native American residents and merchants
travelling along the same route that would one day become the El Camino Real, though this trade frequently
waxed and waned. During the 1830s Alta California was being split between Spanish colonials and independent Mexicans, and the San Fernando mission
was confiscated by the former in 1834. However, ownership of the area frequently
changed between the two, disrupting the lives of the monks and laypeople living
there. The Native American converts gradually left, and by 1847 the mission was
A gold rush occurred in an adjacent ranch in 1842, and the
region was soon filled with prospectors that frequented the San Fernando church.
Their motivation, however, was hardly spiritual and the chapel floor was
dug up on more than one occasion by treasure hunters. During the 1850s and
1860s it was used as a stagecoach station for the Butterfield Stage Lines, and by the end of the century it
was being used as a farm. In 1923 it was reclaimed by the Missionary Oblates of
Mary Immaculate, who have operated the mission as a working church ever since.
The original adobe buildings have been rebuilt many times
over the long time that the mission has existed, and the Oblate priests have
been actively restoring the property despite having to completely rebuild the buildings
after the Sylmar earthquake in 1971. One of the most splendid structures is the
long “Convento” building which served as Padre Lasuén's quarters and a guesthouse, and is the largest freestanding adobe structure in California. A colonnaded
cloister faces the roadside, the rounded arches holding up a terracotta roof.