The 21 California missions were the first permanent European settlements to be founded on the West coast, beginning in 1769.
The fifth California mission was founded by Father Junipero Serra on September 1, 1772, and was named after Saint Louis, Bishop of Toulouse, France. Louis was born in 1274, the second son of King Charles of Naples. After being defeated in a war with Spain, Louis and his brother were sent, as hostages, to Spain for the release of their father. The brothers spent seven years in Spain, being instructed by Franciscan friars. Having absorbed the training, Louis decided to join the Order. After his release, he renounced his claim to the crown of Naples, joined the Order of Friars Minor, and was consecrated Bishop of Toulouse. Due to poverty and disease in the city, he fell ill and passed away at the age of 23.
After Fr. Serra left, the difficult task of actually building the mission remained. This was accomplished with the aid of the local Chumash Natives. Palisades were set up as temporary buildings, which were made simply from poles and tree boughs. However, due to fires in the first few years, adobe and tile structures were erected. The Church and Priest’s residence, the convento wing, were built by 1794. Many other structures made up the Mission in the early days: storerooms, residences for single women, soldiers barracks, and mills.
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.
The mission also had land for farming and raising livestock. Over the years 1804 - 1832 San Luis Obispo produced 167,000 bushels of wheat, barley, corn, beans, peas and lentils. Despite its relatively small population, it had the fourth highest production of wheat in the entire chain. The mission even had its own grist mill. San Luis Obispo had grape arbors within the mission quadrangle and there was a garden in the northeast corner. 1832, the last year for which we have detailed records, the mission had 2,500 cattle and 5,422 sheep.
After 1818, the Mission’s prosperity began to decline and by the 1840′s there was little left of the thriving community of earlier times. The buildings were crumbling and there were not sufficient funds to rebuild. In an “informe” (report to the Government written in 1830) Fr. Gil stated: “The hospital and portions of neophyte villages are in ruins and the rest of the village threatens to fall into ruins… the front of the Mission Church has to be taken down, because it threatened to tumble over”. In his 1832 “informe” he was even more dismal: “Every day the Mission structures are decaying more and more for want of sufficient hands to renovate them… the belfry mentioned last year has been demolished by rains therefore we built another of masonry.”
Governor Pio Pico sold the San Luis Obispo Mission to Capt. John Wilson for $510 in 1845. During this time, buildings were appropriated for any use deemed necessary by the civil authorities. The Mission convento wing housed a school as well as a jail and first county courthouse. It was returned to the church by the U.S. in 1850.
Since then, it has been the parish church for the city. At one point it was remodeled to look like a New England style church with a steeple, but it has since been restored to its original appearance.
Learn more about the missions and other great places to visit along the coast in “Along the King’s Road: A Guide to Touring the California Missions.” Get your copy today!