Our History


Half an hour inland from the Pacific Ocean, Mission San Juan Bautista is the largest of all the California Missions.  It is one of the few missions that has remained relatively intact, with services at the Church unbroken since the founding.


The Founding

Mission San Juan Bautista was founded by Father Fermín Francisco de Lasuėn, on June 24, 1797. It is the 15th of the 21 California Missions. The current Mission Church was begun in 1803 and completed in 1812.  It was dedicated on the feast day of John the Baptist.

The Mission was founded near the Mutsun Indian village of Popeloutchom. It was built on a small rise of land with the church building abuting the El Camino Real, which ran from San Diego to San Francisco. Coincidentally, the road at this point goes along the San Andreas faultline.  Earthquakes have been a constant part of the Mission history, from the quakes that delayed the building of the church structure to the damage done in the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake.

The Mission Grows

The Mission quickly thrived.  By 1805 there were 1,100 Native converts.  The Indian population peaked at 1823 with 1,248 people from 42 tribes speaking 29 dialects of 13 languages.  In 1832 the Mission’s livestock included 6,000 cattle, 6004 sheep, 20 swine, 296 horses and 13 mules. Over the life of the Mission it produced over 90,000 bushels of wheat, barley, corn, beans and peas.

The Mission enjoyed the services of several significant leaders through the active years.  Father Felipe del Arroyo de la Cuesta served for 25 years starting in 1808.  Father Cuesta was a talented linguist who did the first and most significant study of the local Mutsun language.  In 1815 Father Estevan Tapis joined the Mission. Father Tapis was also a composer and musician, creating an Indian boy choir that gave Mission San Juan Bautista the nickname “The Mission of Music.”

The Secularization

The Mexican government seized the California Missions in 1835.  The last of the Spanish priests, Father Anza, presided over the breakup of the church properties.  By this time a smallpox epidemic had hit the local population hard, with most of the Mission Indians dying from the disease.  The remaining Indians, with no Mission organization to support their labor, left the area.

The Mission property was returned to the Catholic Church by order of President James Buchanan in 1859. With California having become a State in 1850, the Church no longer held sway over the region as it had in its peak years.

Though the Mission changed in many ways over the centuries, the traditions of the Mission remain intact and the beauty of the Mission has been preserved.

The Traditions Remain

One notable example is the main altar screen or reredos, built in 1818 by Thomas Doak, one of the first Americans to settle in California.  After jumping ship in Monterey and being baptized in Carmel, he came to San Juan Bautista to work as a carpenter in exchange for room and board.  The painting was done by Doak with help from the Mission Indians after a design by Father Tapis.  The six statues located in the niches in the reredos are original and unrestored.

The church pulpit, is also original.  That and the sounding board mounted above it was built around 1812.  Too fragile to be functional today, it still sees use every other year as a staging spot for one scene of “La Pastorela,” a traditional Christmas play performed in the Mission by the famed local theater company, El Teatro Campesino.

The traditions of the Native peoples remain preserved as well in the work of John Peabody Harrington, a linguist from the Smithsonian.  Harrington recorded the oral history of Ascencion Solorsano, the last known fluent speaker of the Mutsun language.  Solorsano was born in 1855 and Harrington worked with her from 1929 until her death a year later to record the Indian way, traditions, and history.  Solorsano was the last person buried in the Mission Cemetery and the only marked grave.  Examples of her basketmaking can be found on display in the Mission.


Mission San Juan Bautista is home to an active congregation and is a field trip must-see for thousands of Fourth Grade students every year,  Please join us in our effort to strengthen the structure so the Mission can continue to serve the community as it has for over 200 years.