The Mission holds an important position in the history and economy of California. Culturally, Old Mission San Luis Rey has been an influence on its community from its founding in 1798.
Franciscan Missionaries from Spain established the site. Native American Luiseno Indians lived in nearby villages and at the Mission itself. The Franciscan Friars and Luiseno Indians built the Mission together. Mexican and early American settlers to the area influenced the direction of the mission and its properties. It is a registered National and State Historic Landmark.
The Mission serves as an important field trip venue for elementary, high school, and college students of architecture and American History. Old Mission San Luis Rey is architecturally significant for its distinctive and quintessentially Spanish Colonial features.
Relatively intact, the Mission church has not been significantly altered since its completion nearly two hundred years ago. The mission is recognized on the National Register of Trees for having the first pepper tree and the largest Japanese bottlebrush tree in California. The Lavanderia is one of the only remaining open air Native American laundry and bathing structures in North America.
1798 - Founding the Mission
Mission San Luis Rey de Francia was the eighteenth Franciscan outpost established in Alta California in a chain of 21 California missions.
It’s named after St. Louis IX, King of France. The Mission was administered by Fray Antonio Peyri, and was developed and occupied continuously by Spanish missionaries and Luiseno Indians for over thirty years, until the period of secularization under Mexico.
History records Fr. Peryi, the first administrator of the Mission, as a kind and loving pastor. The native population was atracted by his lifestyle, teachings, the Mission’s dependable food supply and the opportunity to learn the language and customs of the newcomers.
Mission San Luis Rey had a system of fountains and pools in what is called “The Lavanderia.” This enclosed area provided drinking water, laundry facilities and a bathing area. An early irrigation system built of clay pipes watered the gardens and fruit trees beyond The Lavanderia.
1815 - Mission Structure and Life
At an early date, Mission San Luis Rey became known as the King of the Missions. It was once the largest building in California and remains the largest of the California missions.
The complex is in the shape of a quadrangle with buildings of adobe construction. The settlement became one of the most populous and prosperous settlements in the province in terms of size, population and production.
According to early Native American writings, many natives lived at the nearby Native American Village or an outlying village. In family life the mother would stay at home tending to chores, the children went to school at the Mission, older children worked as an apprentice on farms or ranches, and the father went hunting with bow and arrow or gathered wood. It is not clear how many actually lived at the Mission.
By 1824 the Mission included a massive church, a friary, workshops, hospital, schoolrooms, communal kitchens, storehouses and homes for Luiseno Indian neophytes.
In 1832, the neophyte population numbered over 5,000. Moreover, 57,000 head of livestock grazed on Mission lands and the Mission produced 67,000 bushels of grain in a single year. Three years later the settlement was officially secularized.
1834 - Mexican Secularization / 1865 - American Occupation
Life at the mission flourished until 1834, when secularization took place and the mission was turned over to the Mexican government.
The Luiseno Indians were given Mexican citizenship, but the Mission holdings were confiscated by new settlers.
In 1846, Governor Pio Pico sold the Mission for $2,437. The property was divided, its buildings stripped of material goods by area settlers and left to ruin.
The mission buildings were occupied between 1846 and 1865 by various U.S. military troops, including the Battalion of Mormon Volunteers. In 1850, California became the 34th state of the union and the remaining mission lands were incorporated into the United States.
In 1853 the federal government refused to recognize Mission Indian land claims. However, a separate claim was recognized to church buildings, cemeteries and gardens that had been designated for parish use in the various secularization decrees.
On March 18, 1865, less than one month before his assassination, President Abraham Lincoln signed a proclamation returning Mission San Luis Rey to ecclesiastical control.
1892 - Restoration
In 1892 Father Joseph Jerimiah O’Keefe, an Irish-born, Spanish speaking member of the “German” St. Louis Franciscan Province, came to San Luis Rey to supervise the Mexican Franciscans from Zacatecas, Mexico.
Together they began the arduous task of restoration. After preliminary repairs, rededication of the mission took place on May 12, 1893. Through the hard work of this early group of Friars, the mission was brought back to life.
The years following Father O’Keefe’s departure in 1912 have seen gradual, yet extensive restoration. Further improvements and reconstruction of its structures have almost completely restored the early grandeur.
In 1970, Mission San Luis Rey became a National Historic Landmark; however, it does not receive federal or state funds for support. Instead the mission depends on the generosity and support of its volunteers and visitors to help continue the restoration efforts.