Founded 29 years after the first mission, the aptly named King of Missions quickly outstripped its brethren to become the most populous of all Spanish missions in California after humble beginnings in 1798. Gathering converts from the Payomkowishum Indian tribes living in the hills near present-day Oceanside, by 1825 San Luis Rey was home to over 2,800 Luiseños, roughly three times the number of neophytes at the average mission. Despite this prosperity, however, the eighteenth mission fell into abandonment and disrepair with its brethren after the newly independent Mexican government secularized Franciscan lands in 1834. A loyal group of Luiseños stayed on after the secularization, but none remained by the time the Mormon Battalion, a United States military unit, made camp at the site during the Mexican War. A group of Zacatecan Franciscans took over the church in 1893, and throughout the 20th Century, the mission underwent massive restoration. It is now one of the most impressive examples of Mission architecture remaining in California--featuring the largest surviving church, and the very first pepper tree planted in the state. The church, museum, and grounds are open to the public (fees apply in some areas).
In 1769, when the Franciscan order sent padres north from the Spanish territories in Mexico and established the first mission in Alta California,” they were among the first Europeans to inhabit the area. Due to the vast distance between Europe and the New World, Spain would be sending no armies or colony ships; the Franciscans were tasked with claiming this new land by Christianizing the native peoples and creating independent settlements that owed their fealty to the Spanish crown. At the time of the Spanish arrival, the indigenous population of the San Diego area alone is estimated at 10,000.
On June 13, 1798, Mission San Luis Rey de Francia became the eighteenth mission in a chain stretching northward 600 miles to the San Francisco Bay. Along with San Juan Capistrano, this new mission tightened the link between San Diego and San Gabriel Arcangel in Los Angeles, the latter of which capped the only overland route between Alta California and Spain's holdings in Sonora--a crucial highway for supplies and travelers through the deserts and mountains of northern Mexico.
Named after Louis IX, the medieval Crusader King of France, Mission San Luis Rey de Francia was founded by the second president of the California missions, Father Fermin de Lasuen. Following standard procedure, two padres--Fathers Antonio Peyri and Jose Faura--were left in charge of the new enterprise, but it is Peyri with whom the mission became synonymous. By 1802 he had personally designed the layout of the complex and began directing its construction. In 1804 the traditional mission quadrangle was completed, and by 1815 so was the large, Moorish-inflected church building, which is the only surviving mission church with a cruciform (cross-like) floorplan. It is also the only mission church topped by a wooden dome and cupola.
By the 1820s, San Luis Rey was moving toward the peak of its prosperity. Despite the Hidalgo Rebellion that wrested Mexican independence from Spain in 1821, Father Peyri worked diligently to maintain good relations with the Mexican government. In the late 1820s, the neophyte population blossomed to 2,869. In 1832, the mission's livestock herd peaked at over 57,000 animals. The mission itself, which spanned six acres, featured an ingenious lavanderia, where female converts washed clothing in special aqueducts, which also purified water through a charcoal filtration system before it was distributed to the fields for irrigation. When French sea captain Auguste Bernard Duhaut-Cilly visited the mission in 1827, he was enraptured with the large and ample plan, wholly the idea of the Padre (Peyri)....The edifice, indeed, is composed, i of only a ground-floor, but its elevation, of fine proportions, gives it as much grace as nobleness.1
This golden age was not to last. In 1821, the new Mexican government had granted the Franciscans ten years to complete their mission before the lands would be secularized and given to the native tribes for their own benefit. In reality, corrupt administrators carved up the mission tracts for themselves or their friends and allies. The mission communities, bereft of the agriculture and trade that had sustained them, fell apart. The much-loved Father Peyri, who had served at San Luis Rey for 36 years, departed in 1832--at first to seek help for his mission in Mexico City. Finding no succor there, he returned to Spain. A community of roughly 600 Luiseños lived on near the mission until 1842, but by 1846 California Governor Pio Pico had sold the land. One of the buyers was his brother.
Fortunately for the mission, by 1846 American troops were engaged in California from the outset of the Mexican War. From February to March 1847, the Mormon Battalion, a volunteer infantry unit of the U.S. Army was quartered on the vacant San Luis Rey grounds with instructions to prevent vandalism. Nonetheless, some portions of the mission were dismantled for building materials before Abraham Lincoln returned the missions to the Catholic church in 1865. San Luis Rey remained abandoned until 1892, when a group of Franciscans from Zacatecas, Mexico, sought a site to establish themselves. Restoration has continued from that point to the present day, with important archaeological discoveries occurring in the 1950s. The mission was also featured in four episodes of Walt Disney's 1950s Zorro television serial.
Today visitors can tour much of the restored grounds, though some portions are reserved as a religious retreat center. The Franciscan friars continue the work of their order on the site. The church is beautifully restored and holds regular services.