Mission San Francisco de Asís is the oldest building in San Francisco.

When I relocated to California, I began slowly ticking California missions off my travel checklist. There are 21 missions in California, all built between 1769 and 1833, with the last mission, being a mere half mile from my house, in Sonoma.

From genocide and smallpox, to helping to influence California statehood and metropolitan development, missions are controversial and bittersweet historically.

I was recently in San Francisco to see a concert and visited Mission Dolores, also known as Mission San Francisco de Asís – my 5th mission. It’s the oldest building in San Francisco and has one of the few existing cemeteries – and the oldest – in the city.

A visit to California is not complete without a visit to at least one mission. If you are in San Francisco, that mission is Mission Dolores.

The Basics

Mission Dolores is located in San Francisco. It’s located three blocks east of Market St., where there is a BART (train) station. Parking is plentiful. It’s also three blocks from the iconic Bar Tartine – visit the Mission prior to dinner service, which starts at 5:30.

The mission, and the accompanying Basilica, are functioning churches, operated by the Archdiocese of San Francisco. A self-guided tour is offered (you can schedule a guided tour ahead of time if you wish), with donation proceeds benefiting the preservation of the facilities.

Self-guided tour at Mission Dolores

The Mission has a vast history. If you’d like to learn more, a great guide to the history of the Mission is available from FoundSF. That guide includes details about the founding, the treatment of the Native populations, and the political implications of the Mission’s existence on the city and state.

Mission San Francisco de Asis in San Francisco, California - Stierch.jpg

Stop #1: Misión San Francisco de Asís

The first stop on the self-guided tour is to the original adobe Mission.

This is the second incarnation of Misión San Francisco de Asís. It was built in 1791. The original, a small building made of wood and thatch, was originally located 1 1/2 blocks away from the current Mission.

The current Mission was founded by Spanish priest, Junipero Serra, and named after Saint Francis of Assisi. The city’s name, San Francisco, can be credited back to the founding of the Mission.

Approximately 26,000 adobe bricks serve as the walls of the Mission. Those adobe walls have survived many earthquakes, including the devastating 1906 and the 1989 Loma Priesta earthquakes. Pretty remarkable.

The roof is made of redwood logs and rawhide. The ceiling, a colorful mix of burgundy, sage, cream and goldenrod yellow, is painted in an Ohlone Indian design with vegetable dye.

The altar at the original Mission. It's still a functioning church.
The altar at the original Mission – it is still used for worship.

Still an operating church, the Mission’s altar is from Mexico and dates back to 1796. During the first two months of the Mission’s operations, over 28,000 baptisms took place.

The Noe family is buried inside the Mission
The grave of the Noe family buried inside the Mission

There are four burials inside the Mission:

  • William Leidesdorff, businessman and one of the first settlers in California of mixed race heritage (Afro-Cuban, Indian, Jewish!);
  • José Joaquín Moraga, who is credited with founding San Jose, California;
  • Reverend Richard Carroll, former pastor at the Mission; and
  • The Noe family (photo), including José de Jesús Noé, the last Spanish mayor of San Francisco and of whom the Noe Valley neighborhood of San Francisco is named after.

While visiting the chapel, be sure to check out the side altars. Catholics may be excited to see a chair where Pope John Paul II sat when he visited in 1987.

You’ll exit the Mission and walk past a diorama, which was on display at the 1939 World’s Fair.

Stop #2: Mission Dolores Basilica

This is the second incarnation of a church that was destroyed in the 1906 earthquake (again, while the Mission next door remarkably survived!). It was completed in 1918 and was designated a Basilica in 1952 by Pope Pius XII. A Basilica is designated by a Pope, as being one of the most significant Catholic churches due to their history, architecture, antiquity and art collection.

The stained glass windows in the Basilica are amazing. Made in Munich by Franz Mayer & Co., there are 21 windows depicting all of the missions in California and there other pieces showing angels (left photo) and Saint Francis of Assisi.

The photo on the right represents Mission San Francisco Solano, the mission near my house here in Sonoma!

The red glass is extremely rare – Franz Meyer & Co. was bombed in 1944, during World War II, and the “recipes” (for lack of a better word) documenting the red glass making process were destroyed.

Altars are located throughout the Basilica, including one commemorating current Pope Francis and memorializing Pope John Paul II. John Paul II visited the church in 1987. He was the first Pope to visit San Francisco. During his visit to the Basilica he met with people living with AIDS/HIV, including famously embracing a child born with AIDS.

St. Martin de Porres
St. Martin de Porres

There is also an altar devoted to St. Martin de Porres, a Peruvian saint and the patron saint of black people, mixed-race people, race relations, innkeepers, barbers, public health workers, lottery winners, television and more. He could also talk to animals, hence the dog and cat.

You’ll pass St. Martin de Porres as you exit the Basilica and head past an exhibit displaying historic photographs, en route to the museum.

Mission Dolores Mosaic, Guillermo Granzio, 1984
Mission Dolores Mosaic, Guillermo Granzio, 1984

Stop #3: Museum

Heading to the museum you pass by a beautiful mosaic designed by local artist, Guillermo Granzio (1923-1996). The mural depicts the arrival of the Spanish in the Bay Area, Junipero Serra, Native peoples, birds, plants and more. Learn more about it here.

Follow the tour signs and visit the museum, which opened in 1976, celebrating the bicentennial of the Mission.

The museum includes relics of Junipero Serra, intricate church vestments, and an impressive collection of jewelry, weapons, clothing, and every day objects utilized by the Indigenous people who lived at the Mission. Check out the abalone necklaces by the door, they are beautiful and sacred items.

Junipero Serra statue next to the museum
Statue of Junipero Serra in the courtyard by the museum

Stop #3.5: Junipero Serra

This statue is one of the many artistic depictions of Junipero Serra. He became a saint in 2015 and is very controversial – for good reason.

Serra’s goal, when he relocated to San Diego from Spain, was to convert as many Native peoples as possible to Catholicism. He founded nine missions and died in 1784.

When Native peoples visited the Mission, often seeking food (thanks to the Spanish decimating the ecosystem), the priests would invite the Indians to stay at the Mission for food and more – to be converted and often enslaved to farm, build structures and serve the priests.

Priests focused on converting Indians, including culturally – forcing them to lose their Native languages and culture – even their names.

Junipero Serra preaches to Native peoples, 1787
Junipero Serra preaches to Native peoples, 1787

Smallpox, syphilis, and other diseases permeated the Mission. Indians were beat if they spoke their Native language. Lack of foodstuffs caused the Mission to rely on missions outside the area (including Sonoma) to feed “residents.”

Things went bad, fast, and people started leaving – in the summer of 1795, 280 people left.

Last year, protests were held by anti-Serra-sainthood groups, including Indigenous descendants of the Native peoples who lived at the Mission.

On the flipside, supporters of Serra’s sainthood, including some Native peoples, are seeking opportunities to engage Indigenous culture in San Francisco, including Ohlone language classes.

No matter where one stands on Serra’s sainthood, one cannot deny the lasting, painful impact that the mission system had on Native populations – approximately 5,000 are buried at Mission Dolores.

Cemeter

Stop #4: Cemetery

This was a real treat. I love cemeteries – they represent the delicate balance of life and death, the culture of a community, and often hold rarely told stories about those buried within the cemetery walls.

The cemetery at Mission Dolores is the oldest in San Francisco. It used to be way bigger, but, land demands for the growing local population required the cemetery to shrink. Those who were once buried in “old” big cemetery are primarily buried in mass graves in the smaller cemetery.

It’s a perfect representation of the diversity of the region – Ohlone, Irish, Spanish, Mexicans, Italians, French – are all buried here.

Kateri Tekawitha
A memorial for the Native peoples who are buried at the Mission depicts Saint Kateri Tekawitha, a Mohawk woman and the first Native American saint.
The grave of Fastino (Bay Miwok) and Obulinda (Ohlone) at the cemetery. Both Indians were baptized at the Mission. Turns out the Mission’s curator is a descendant of the couple.
A traditional Ohlone tule house is another reminder of the impact the Mission had on local Native populations
Francisco de Haro was the first Spanish mayor of San Francisco
Luis Antonio Arguello was the first California-born governor of Atla California
Día de los Muertos items for sale at the gift shop
Día de los Muertos items for sale at the gift shop

After exploring the graveyard, visit the gift shop. It’s chock full of everything from rosaries to abalone jewelry, Day of the Dead items handmade in Mexico, fridge magnets and books.

Final thoughts

Mission Dolores is a powerful experience – the beauty of the architecture and art, the haunting memory of the Native populations that died helping to expand the Catholic faith, the notable San Franciscans who are buried on site, and more.

The fact that the Mission has survived so much – earthquakes, famine, disease, genocide, battles, and the Gold Rush – is remarkable and something many of faith would consider a “miracle.”

A visit to San Francisco generally includes a trip to Fisherman’s Wharf, a ride on a trolley, and a boat ride on the Bay, but it cannot be truly complete without a visit to where San Francisco was born – Mission Dolores.

Take note

Mission Dolores is open every day except Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter and New Year’s Day. Hours vary depending on the time of the year (see website). The Mission does not receive public funds to preserve the property and suggested donations are $5 (adult) and $3 (seniors, students). Guided tours are available with 4-6 weeks notice. The property is ADA accessible.

Take action

Mission Dolores is located at 3321 16th St., San Francisco, California. Visit the Mission’s website for more information, which includes info about tours, church services and special events. You can also call (415) 621-8203. Finally, visit San Francisco Travel to learn about more cool stuff to do in the city by the Bay.

Have you ever visited a California mission? 

Share your thoughts below!

Mission Dolores - Oldest building in San Francisco - Stierch.jpg