In the late 1600s, setting up missions was the key activity of the first Spaniards who arrived to what is now Baja California. The city of Loreto was the site of the very first mission (Jesuit) in the state, which culminated to the grand total of 23 missions between the years of 1683-1767, a number cut short by several factors. The conversion was reduced drastically by the fact that there was a shortage of converts, a fact of life when the first settlers, the Jesuits, brought a barrage of diseases such as small pox, typhus, venereal diseases, among other sicknesses, with a reported 48,000 people in the local communities reduced to a mere 8,000.
There were also the suspicions of the Spanish government that the Jesuits were becoming too wealthy for their taste of those back home. After the Jesuits were unceremoniously pulled out and returned to Spain (according to certain sources, they were forced out by gunpoint), the next barrage of missionaries were the Franciscans, headed by Father Junipero Serra. Only one mission was built here in Mexico because orders from higher up dictated that Father Serra go and establishmissions in Alta California (now California), resulting in 21 missions up north and the beatification of Father Serra.
Dominicans, who built a total of 11 missions between the years of 1774-1849, arrived to take over some of the Jesuit missions as well as to build their own. This reign was cut short by the Mexican independence movement and since the missions were run by the Spanish government, it wasn't long before Baja California became federal territory and the mission were converted into local parish churches.
Of all the missions that were built, only a handful has survived. Most have been reduced to stumps in the middle of the vast landscapes of Baja but this does not take away from the fact that these missions are an important part of the history of this land. Mision de Nuestra Senora de Loreto Concho was one of the first missions constructed and has been since known as the "mother of all missions of the Californias". Jesuit in origin, this mission was built in a baroque style and was reconstructed after a tropical storm in 1829, drastically changing the architecture of the building. It still conserves original pieces from the 18th century such as an altar piece with five oil paintings, a crucifix, six separate oil paintings as well as the Stations of the Cross.
The baroque San Francisco Javier (also known as "Vigge Biaundo" -"Vigge" in Cochimi means "elevated land that dominates the valley" whereas except for the fact that the word is Cochimi, no one knows what "Biaundo" means-) which was built in 1699 and happens to be an excellently preserved mission. It is, in fact, considered one of the most beautifully conserved missions of the state, due to the carved stone ornaments that decorate the facade. Inside, it features a five-painting retablo that was brought from Mexico City, as well as statues of San Francisco Javier and Our Lady of Guadalupe and two chapel bells that date back to 1761. There is also a miraculous icon of San Francisco Javier in a retablo with the unusual feature of almond-shaped eyes.
About 142 kilometers south of Guerrero Negro, Mission San Ignacio is also one that is worth seeing. Because it has been in constant use since 1840, the building has been well taken care of and conserved in its original state. The bell, the statue of Saint Ignacio de Loyola, the wooden pulpit, the eight-panel golden retablo and four of the statuettes located in niches inside the building all date back the 18th century.
Mission Santa Rosalia de Mulege is another mission that has an interesting history as well. Founded in 1705, Santa Rosalia is located in settlement that goes by the name of Mulege (pronounced "moo-le-hey"), a Cochimi word that means "large hill with a white mouth".
The area itself boasts of many attractions such as the Church of Santa Barbara, a church constructed with steel plates, supposedly built by the illustrious Gustave Eiffel, of the Tower fame. The mission, on the other hand, was built completely of stone in 1766 and passed through the various hands of first the Jesuits, then the Franciscans and finally the Dominicans. The mission ceased to function as one, 62 years later, in 1828. It has since been extensively restored.
These are only a few of the many missions that Baja California offers and to name them all would require more editorial space than actually allowed. There is no doubt, however, that seeing the missions can be a rewarding experience so if you are ever in the region and want to add another facet to your visit, take a look around at these historic edifices. Missions dot the whole length of the peninsula so look for the one nearest you.
The Missions in Baja California: A Short Historical Introduction
- Fumiko Nobuoka