Wednesday, May 8, 2013

The Missions of California

Living and traveling in California has provided the opportunity for many encounters with the "other" religious colonization of America--where empire was the first and the open, acknowledged purpose; and religion and conversion the added feature.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the chain of missions that dot the California landscape, from San Diego to San Francisco.

We have not made it our agenda to visit all the missions; but we do stop and visit when we are in the vicinity. They--the missions--are still functioning parishes, and have all been restored to what now is accepted as their original state.  Who would know?  That is another whole issue.

What interests me is their place in the community, and their place in the economy of that community.

First, and foremost, they have given the community its name: San Diego, Santa Barbara, San Miguel, and so forth.  Sometimes it stuck, and sometimes the community simply moved on, reformed itself around another focal point and/or personage and became known with another name.  Perhaps the most famous of all the missions, San Juan Capistrano, best illustrates this; the city of San Juan Capistrano is lost among all the "Beach" cities of that area, including Capistrano Beach.  Another example is Mission Santa Ines, which lies a few miles from the town of Santa Ynes.  But my favorite is Mission San Bonaventura, which lies in the heart of the city of Ventura, as it is now known, but which officially is the city of the mission's name.

It is this strange tension surrounding the "naming rights" that leads me to my second point: the era of Spanish empire may have long passed by, with hardly any concrete effects remaining; but the attached religious colonization, through the establishment of the missions, lives on and thrives.  It may not do so in its original form, but it is there nonetheless.

When I went to school in Washington, D.C., and traveled on the east coast, I visited the "shrines" of the colonial era--those havens of the persecuted who fled from Europe and established colonies where they could practice their religion.  But it was not the churches I visited, it was rather the buildings and places of the truly "new thing" that these colonists built: a land where any religion, or none, could be safe from persecution.  So we have Washington, New York, Philadelphia, to name a few--religious in the American way.

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