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The Carmel Journals | A Visit to the Beautiful Carmel Mission



Founded by Junipero Serra in 1771, the Carmel Mission is one of twenty-one Spanish Missions established in California by Catholic priests of the Franciscan order between 1769 and 1833. It is also one of the most beautiful. The official name is Mission San Carlos Borromeo Del Rio Carmelo, but it is commonly known as Carmel Mission.

Carmel Mission has been designated a National Historic Landmark by the National Park Service. It is also a currently active parish church of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Monterey.

The complex comprises the beautifully restored Basilica, four Museums, the Blessed Sacrament Chapel, the Courtyard, the Museum Store, and a Cemetery. At least these are the parts that are open to the public. There is also a School, a Rectory and a Parish Hall. You can read the story of the Mission on the Mission’s website, but also at this page on Wikipedia.



The door in and out of the gift shop that gives access to courtyard and garden by the Basilica


There is parking out front, and also a little to the side, and access to the complex is through the Museum’s gift shop. A $6.50 (for adults) entry fee will give you access for the whole day, and yes, they do accept credit cards. I asked if I could use a tripod for indoor shots, and they said it was quite all right, as long as I did not get in the way. I had chosen a quiet week day and time for my visit, so there were few people around. Nobody got in the way of my photos, and I did not get in anyone’s way.

FYI the busiest times are on weekends, of course, and during services, as well as special events hosted at the Mission, like concerts, art exhibits, lectures and other community events.




Above and below you can see the Mission’s courtyard with the garden and fountain (no water running), and the building that houses the Sir Harry Downie Museum. This museum holds Harry Downie’s personal workshop as well as other preserved Mission altar artifacts. The inside is also fitted with benches for visitors to sit and watch a video that runs non stop on a TV monitor.

The statue is of Junipero Serra, the founder of the Mission, whose body is buried beneath the Chapel floor.




Image above: the building you see behind the fountain is part of the Convento Museum, which holds Father Serra’s old living quarters. You will see photos of the inside rooms further down the post, as I was able to photograph undisturbed.




For those of you who enjoy my Shinrin-Yoku/forest therapy posts and invitations, that beautiful big tree by the Museum building is a Cork Oak. I had never seen one in person before, and it is quite majestic, with a thick and textured bark. Of course I had to say hello and gently touch.




Against the building that houses the Convento Museum, there is a shrine to the Virgin Mary holding baby Jesus. The shrine itself looks old, but the statue does not. It is pretty, but does not look like anything special, and I was unable to find further information about it. Often, whenever there are shrines to the Virgin Mary, there is an energetic and magnetic/telluric significance that goes beyond a desire by a group of Catholics to have an extra place of worship. But it does not seem so in this case, at least not that I have been able to discover so far. If you know more, please share in the comments, as I would love to know.




Padre Serra had founded the original Mission in nearby Monterey in 1770, but by 1771 had moved it to this location as the nearby Carmel river provided the fresh water source and good soil which were lacking in Monterey.

The Mission has seen several updates and renovations over the years, the most recent of which initiated by Monsignor Philip Scher in 1931, when he appointed Harry Downie as curator in charge of the restoration. It took the rest of Downie’s life to restore the mission, ancillary buildings and walls, and the grounds to what it is today. As a result of Downie’s dedication, the Basilica of the Mission is one of the most authentically restored of all the California mission churches.

Below is a close up of the Star Window.




Below is the interior of the Basilica showing catenary arches and reredos. The interior is far simpler today than it looked originally, when it showcased as many as seven large-scale side altar pieces along the walls, complete with statues. The original reredos were destroyed when the last portion of the ceiling collapsed in 1851.

As far as the statues, paintings and other artifacts are concerned, the present furnishings are mainly the originals.




The side chapel within the basilica is dedicated to “La Conquistadora”, or Our Lady of Bethlehem, whose statue holds center focus in a fine gilded wood and crystal niche. While I was moving about the church quietly taking photos, I saw several people kneel at this side altar dedicated to the Mother of Jesus and offer a prayer.




The big white rectangle on the floor is not a teleporting station (I wish), but the marble plaque below bleached by the light.




I was pleasantly surprised to see real candles, as opposed to LED ones in this chapel.




As you exit the basilica, on the right you can see the entrance to the Mora Chapel Museum, which houses the Junipero Serra’s Monument, the original silver altar service of Carmel Mission used by Father Serra, and the Joseph Mora Collection of early Mission vestments.

I find it a little intense to walk up to these life size sculptures, as I always tend to take a quantum leap and imagine them as living humans, with all the emotions, joys and tribulations of that moment in time.


Beyond that, this is quite a beautiful room. Check out that ceiling!




Through a back door of the Mora Chapel, you access the Convento Museum. The first room (image below) used to be the guest dining room, and used for entertaining travelers and guests as there were not hotels in early California.

A descriptive plaque on the wall tells how, among the more famous visitors entertained here, were Count de La Pérouse, Vancouver, Malaspina, Beechey, and the early Governors and Commanders.

Next to this room is California’s first library, at least so said a sign on the wall. It looks very different from the photos I have seen on the Mission’s website. I am wondering now if there is another room that was the library, and is located elsewhere, in an area I have not seen. Or maybe, they changed things around.




Here comes the kitchen. On the left wall is the water reservoir (lavabo). Beneath the tank there is a stove for heating the water with hot coals, thus creating a water heater for the sink in the dining room (refectory).

Against the wall to the very right is the stove (figone) which was fueled with charcoal. On the floor are the matates, which were used for grinding corn. On the iron stand in the corner is a distillado, used to filter water by placing it in the upper container and allowing it to drip below.




The room in the image above is clearly a bedroom, though whose I am not sure, not Junipero Serra’s, whose cell is pictured further down. Next to it was the living room that was used for guests, which you can see in the image below. The ghostly reflections are due to the fact that I had to photograph it through a glass window, and I chose not to have the polarizer on because of the already low light conditions. FYI: I have managed to make all the indoor spaces look much brighter than they actually are when experienced in person through careful editing. This way you, my readers, can get a clearer virtual tour. For the fellow photo enthusiasts among you, I shoot in RAW.




Above you can see the very spartan cell of Junipero Serra painstakingly recreated with also his own personal Bible.




Above and below is the entrance to Casa Munras, which houses some of the Munras family original furniture, as well as original Mission artifacts. In this room as well there is a video played on a TV monitor and benches on which visitors can sit and watch. Which is why I did not take photos of the inside.

Looking at the furniture and photographs of the people gave me another quantum leap moment, as I was transported back in time imagining myself in those rooms with those people, and wondering if there is another dimension in which all of that is still the present moment, and I am (to them) the imagined future to potentially be.





I completed my tour with a visit to the cemetery. Above you can see the entry to the cemetery. I find old cemeteries quite fascinating, don’t you think? Names, dates, and sometimes dedications, tell us so much about the people who lived before us. This cemetery, where only some of the tombs had plaques with the names, while others just mark the place where an ancient body is buried, also holds the grave of Old Gabriel, who was thought to have lived over one-hundred and fifty years.

What you see defining the tombs are not rocks, but unpolished abalone shells. The gardener told me that, as he and I had a little conversation in my hesitant Spanish, with a little Italian and English thrown in.




Alas, the inner courtyard was inaccessible due to construction. Any thought of asking how much longer the construction might take, just in case I could come back for another visit before the end of the month, dissipated when I saw how major the construction set up was. It looked like whatever was going on would not be finished for a few more months.

Access to the inner courtyard would have also offered a different photographic perspective to the basilica, and maybe access to rooms I have seen in photos but not in person. I will have to come back another time.




Other chapters in The Carmel Journals you might enjoy:


And just beyond Carmel:



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  • Diantha06/17/2016 - 4:23 pm

    What a beautiful spot and so expertly photographed! I feel as if I have now been there thanks to you! You certainly do have a way……Just love your posts. xoReplyCancel

    • Monica Schwartz06/17/2016 - 5:49 pm

      Thank you, Diantha. I am so glad you enjoyed it. More to come! xoxoxoReplyCancel

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