Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa

Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa
Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa
Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa
Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa circa 1909.
Location 728 Monterey St.
San Luis Obispo, California 93401
Name as founded La Misión de San Luis Obispo de Tolosa [1]
English translation The Mission of Saint Louis Bishop of Toulouse
Patron Saint Louis of Anjou, Bishop of Toulouse, France
Nickname(s) "Prince of the Missions" [2]
"Mission in the Valley of Bears" [3]
"The Accidental Mission" [4]
Founding date September 1, 1772 [3]
Founding priest(s) Father Presidente Junípero Serra [5]
Founding Order Fifth
Military district Third [6]
Native tribe(s)
Spanish name(s)
Native place name(s) Tilhini [7]
Baptisms 2,644 [8]
Marriages 763 [8]
Burials 2,268 [8]
Governing body Roman Catholic Diocese of Monterey
Current use Parish Church / Museum
Coordinates 35°16′50.5344″N 120°39′52.3506″W / 35.280704°N 120.664541833°W / 35.280704; -120.664541833
California Historical Landmark #325
Website http://www.missionsanluisobispo.org

Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa was founded 1772 on the Central Coast of California on a site located halfway between Santa Barbara and Monterey. It was named after Saint Louis of Anjou, the bishop of Toulouse. The Mission church of San Luis Obispo is unusual in its design in that its combination of belfry and vestibule is found nowhere else among the California missions. The main nave is short and narrow (as is the case with other mission churches), but at San Luis Obispo there is a secondary nave of almost equal size situated to the right of the altar, making this the only "L"-shaped mission church among all of the California missions.



In the year 1772, Gaspar de Portolà discovered San Luis Obispo on a journey north to rediscover the Bay of Monterey [1]. It was in this year when San Luis Obispo received its nickname as the la Cañada de los Osos ("Valley of the Bears") by diarist, Padre Juan Crespi.[4] Briefly following the discovery of San Luis Obispo, the city was forgotten. In 1772, when food supplies started to dwindle, Father Junípero Serra remembered the "Valley of the Bears." He decided to send hunters on expeditions to kill the bears in order to feed the Spanish and the Neophytes (Indians that converted to Christianity) in the north. The huge success of the hunting expedition caused Father Junípero Serra to consider building a mission in fertile soil San Luis Obispo. Upon further investigation he was convinced that San Luis Obispo would be a perfect site for a mission based on its surplus of natural resources, good weather and the Chumash, a local friendly Indian tribe who could provide the labor for constructing the mission. The mission became the fifth in the mission chain constructed by Father Junípero Serra.[2]

Father Serra sent an expedition down south to San Luis Obispo to start building the mission. On September 1, 1772 a cross was erected near San Luis Obispo Creek and Father Junípero Serra celebrated the first mass, marking the site as the destination for yet another mission. However, briefly following the first mass, Father Junípero Serra returned to San Diego and left the responsibility of the mission's construction to Father Jose Cavaller. Father Cavaller, five soldiers and two neophytes began building what is now Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa. Father Cavaller received help in the building of the Mission from the local friendly natives, the Chumash Indians. The Chumash helped construct palisades, which would serve as temporary buildings for the Mission. However due to several Indian tribes which were determined to get rid of European settlers, they set these buildings ablaze[3]. Because of this, Father Cavaller was forced to rebuild the buildings using adobe and tile structures.

Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa as it looked circa 1900. Note that the wooden belfry has been removed and the chapel façade has been modified substantially in the recent photo below.

Starting in 1794 Mission San Luis Obispo went through extensive building operations[4]. They helped build numerous buildings to accommodate the nearby Indians. They also made many improvements and additions to the Mission. The renovation was finally finished when they completed the quadrangle in 1819, celebrated a year later by the arrival of two mission bells from Lima, Peru [5]. The arrival of the bells marked the end of improvements made to Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa for many years[6]. In 1830 Fr. Luis Gil y Taboada took over the mission however 3 years later he died[7]. Then in 1842 the death of Fr. Ramon Abella marked the last Franciscan at the mission[8].

In 1845, Governor Pío Pico declared the Mission buildings for sale and he sold everything except the church for a total of $510. John C. Frémont and his "California Battalion" used the Mission as a base of operations during their war with Mexico in 1846 (see Bear Flag Revolt). The Mission fell into ruins during the period of secularization and the priests that were left would rent out rooms to help support the Mission. The Mission San Luís Obispo de Tolosa became the first courthouse and jail in San Luis Obispo County, California. In 1872, during the 100th anniversary of the Mission, improvements began, but real restoration did not begin until 1933. The Mission is still the center of the busy downtown area, and functions as a Roman Catholic parish church for the City of San Luis Obispo in the Diocese of Monterey. Although many changes have come to the Mission, it remains the center of town. In 1970 the Mission “was recognized as the center of the City of San Luis Obispo, with the dedication of Mission Plaza[9].”


In 1602, the Spanish began to show interest in California and sent Sebastián Vizcaíno, a pearl fisher, to explore the area. Vizcaino traveled the coast naming many of the cities that are important to the California coast today such as San Diego, Santa Barbara and Monterey. Spain finally chose to create Vizcaino's suggested chain of missions when it was proven that California was indeed part of the continent. The goal of creating the chain was given to the Franciscan Order. While Spain had economic motives for establishing a stronghold in California, the Franciscan order of the Catholic Church also had religious motives [10]. With these factors in mind the missions were created in order to control the coast so that the ships from Spain would remain safe as well as bring the Natives to the Catholic faith. Re-education became the method for reaching Spain's religious and economic goals as they strived to convert the Indians to Catholicism as well as make them loyal Spanish subjects.

To accomplish these goals the Spaniards had to convince the Indians that the Catholic faith was better than their own and had much more to offer them. Once an Indian decided to convert to the Catholic faith he was baptized and became a neophyte. Once a neophyte, the Indian lived in the Mission and attended masses regularly. The Spaniards taught the new neophytes more in depth aspects of the Catholic faith and introduced them to the European lifestyle [11]. As a part of mission life the Indians were taught Spanish and Latin for services, how to read music, sing as well as how to be skilled weavers, seamstresses, carpenters, tile makers, farmers and cattle herders. These lessons prepared the Indians to be a part of the Church as well as of the self-sustaining community of the mission where everyone contributed work to the success of the mission.

Modern-day uses

Hundreds of years after its creation, Mission San Luis Obispo, located in the heart of downtown San Luis Obispo, remains integral to the town and community that were built around it.

The entrance lobby and belfry of the Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa in June 2004. A statue of Fray Junípero Serra stands outside the church.

The mission plaza has grassy lawns, benches, and a fountain, as well as meticulously maintained gardens that create a welcoming environment. California's 325th registered historical landmark provides a place of relaxation as well as of historical insight. Many families bring children to play and relax while others come to learn about the history of the mission. The mission is available to people of all interest levels, from the casual observer who would like to walk through the sanctuary and courtyard gardens admission charge free at their own pace, to the individual who is looking for a Church to participate in or a guided tour and reading information

The mission is a fully functional Catholic church offering a variety of services. The Parish describes its vision in the weekly bulletin as “To be a Eucharistic Community striving to live out the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Guided by the power of the Holy Spirit.” The bulletin also includes its mission “To make our vision a reality daily by being: Loving and open, faith-filled and prayerful, gracious stewards, passionate about the needs of others”. Saturday night vigils, Sunday mass given in English, Spanish and a Bilingual version, weekday services as well as reconciliation sacraments on Saturdays are offered in order to satisfy the diverse religious needs of the community. The church bulletin, available in the sanctuary details a plethora of other services and announcements including names and contacts for church officials, small group based religious programs for all ages, as well as announcements and church schedules.

In addition to offering religious services and a glimpse into the past, the San Luis Obispo mission is active in the community, providing assistance in a variety of ways. In the courtyard there are various wishing wells, all with notices of where the money thrown into the wells go, the Saint Vincent de Paul Society. Year round the mission collects money for this organization that provides things such as food, clothing, utilities, even rent money and bus tickets for people who are experiencing financial difficulties. The mission also recognizes that while some people need financial support others need guidance, which is why there is a youth group center on the mission property. The high school and youth groups are a place where young adults come together not only to deal with the stresses of their own lives but also do so while helping others. One of the main components of these youth groups are the special service projects that the kids participate in, helping them earn a better sense of self worth.

While efforts to give to others and volunteer take place all year at the mission, the holiday season has many more programs to provide assistance to the community. The mission is involved with Toys for Tots, as well as the Giving Tree Project. In this program, underprivileged children write down a wish they have for Christmas and tie them onto the Christmas tree, each member of the church then takes the wish and buys the gift for the child. The month of January marks a transformation in the missions, when it literally opens its doors and provides overflow housing for a month to the homeless as well as cots, food, clothing, toys.



Sunday Mass Weekday Mass Saturday Mass
7:00 a.m. 7:00 a.m. 7:00 a.m.
9:00 a.m. 8:00 a.m. (Wednesdays when school attends) 5:30 p.m.
11:00 a.m. 12:10 p.m. RECONCILIATION
   Saturday 4:00 PM
   Confessions end when
   there is no one left waiting
6:00 p.m.
7:30 p.m. (Spanish)

See also


  1. ^ Leffingwell, p. 85
  2. ^ Schulte-Peevers, p. 682
  3. ^ a b Yenne, p. 56
  4. ^ a b  Ruscin, p. 53
  5. ^ Ruscin, p. 196
  6. ^ Forbes, p. 202
  7. ^ Ruscin, p. 195
  8. ^ a b c Krell, p. 315: as of December 31, 1832; information adapted from Engelhardt's Missions and Missionaries of California.


  • Forbes, Alexander (1839). California: A History of Upper and Lower California. Smith, Elder and Co., Cornhill, London. 
  • Jones, Terry L. and Kathryn A. Klar (eds.) (2007). California Prehistory: Colonization, Culture, and Complexity. Altimira Press, Landham, MD. ISBN 0-759-10872-2. 
  • Krell, Dorothy (ed.) (1979). The California Missions: A Pictorial History. Sunset Publishing Corporation, Menlo Park, CA. ISBN 0-376-05172-8. 
  • Leffingwell, Randy (2005). California Missions and Presidios: The History & Beauty of the Spanish Missions. Voyageur Press, Inc., Stillwater, MN. ISBN 0-89658-492-5. 
  • Paddison, Joshua (ed.) (1999). A World Transformed: Firsthand Accounts of California Before the Gold Rush. Heyday Books, Berkeley, CA. ISBN 1-890771-13-9. 
  • Ruscin, Terry (1999). Mission Memoirs. Sunbelt Publications, San Diego, CA. ISBN 0-932653-30-8. 
  • Schulte-Peevers, Andrea (1996). California. Lonely Planet Publications, Oakland, CA. ISBN 1-74059-951-9. 
  • Yenne, Bill (2004). The Missions of California. Advantage Publishers Group, San Diego, CA. ISBN 1-59223-319-8. 
  • Mission San Luis Obispo History
  • San Luis Obispo Mission
  • California Missions
  • Mission Tour
  • California Mission
  • Chumash Indians
  • Chumash History
  • Spanish Missions

External links

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