Deep in the north of Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley lies the region’s namesake. There, a fairly unassuming complex of adobe-style buildings sits immediately alongside major streets, and if not for a small sign, most passers by wouldn’t know that from this area, one of the most populous areas in California was born. Mission San Fernando Rey de Espana, the seventeenth of California’s twenty-one Catholic missions founded by Spain, has a storied – and complicated – past, and still plays a role in California’s present.

California’s missions were founded between 1769 and 1833, ranging from San Diego in the south to Marin County in the north, with the goal of first providing Catholic services to Spanish settlers, and shortly thereafter, to convert local native tribes under a Papal edict to “civilize” them. This was done peaceably in some areas and during some times, and by threat of force in others, leading to the complicated past of mission life as seen through present-day morality. (In a future article, I’ll delve much more into Father Junipero Serra, the original founder of many of the missions, and his legacy, but for now, I want to focus solely on this particular mission, founded after Serra’s 1784 death.)

The front of the mission

Mission San Fernando Rey de Espana was founded in 1797 as a midpoint between the earlier founded Missions San Gabriel and San Buenaventura. Father Fermin Lasuen was the founding priest, naming the mission after the former Spanish monarch, Ferdinand (Fernando in Spanish). Immediately, the mission began churning out baptisms. Ten were carried out on the very first day, though it is unknown whether they were done voluntarily or by force. Overall, nearly 3,000 baptisms were conducted at Mission San Fernando Rey de Espana by the time the site was secularized in 1834.

While today San Fernando is part of a huge suburban center, at the end of the 18th century the mission would have existed on its own, needing to be basically fully self-sufficient. As a result, acolytes at the mission were taught skills like farming and animal husbandry in addition to their primary roles in religious life. Remnants of some of these industries can still be seen today. Across the street from the mission proper, Brand Park contains two lines of olive trees planted during mission times, as well as the remains of what were probably ovens, though the plaque has since been removed.

Olive trees are pretty

From 1834 to 1861, attempts were made to sell the mission, some or all of its land, and its assets, finally winding up in the Catholic Church retaking control of a smaller land area at that juncture, but it wasn’t until the 1940s that a large donation by the Hearst Foundation allowed for its restoration. Still a working church, Mission San Fernando Rey de Espana contains not only a chapel, but also the former convent, the arches of which run directly along the sidewalk in front of the mission, although due to seismic instability it is fenced off.

The arches of the convent

Today, due to the coronavirus – and in spite of claims both on the website and signage in front that only tours have been discontinued – the mission is closed… except for the gift shop, which inexplicably is open. However, the attached cemetery can be accessed from around the corner, and between the front parking lot and the cemetery gate in back, a few glimpses of the mission itself can be seen.

Part of the mission grounds as seen through a gate

The cemetery is worth a visit in itself. Though largely devoid of interesting crypts and mausoleums, it contains the burial site of famed rock and roll artist Ritchie Valens, who died along with Buddy Holly and The Big Bopper in 1959, at the age of seventeen. Bob Hope and his wife are also interred at Mission San Fernando Rey de Espana, but their burial sites are on the mission grounds, and only a bust of the entertainer is visible from the cemetery side.

Ritchie Valens’ gravesite

California history, as taught in schools, largely begins with mission times, when the Spanish conquistadors and priests met native tribes, and, while the history is complicated – again, subject of a later article – it is nice to know that it is preserved in places like Mission San Fernando Rey de Espana, namesake of Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley.

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