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On Visiting Mission Dolores

April 18, 2008

I've been to Mission Dolores in San Francisco several times over the past seven years to play the oboe in orchestral concerts, but never once have I taken the time to look around and think about the building. The Franciscan base, officially known as Misión San Francisco de Asís, was founded June 29, 1776 under the direction of Father Junipero Serra (1713-1784). This makes it the oldest original intact Mission in California and the oldest building in San Francisco. Serra established a chain of 21 missions up and down the California coast from San Diego to Sonoma.

Yesterday, while researching an article about a series of Mexican Baroque era choral music to be given by the all-male vocal ensemble Chanticleer up and down the so-called Camino Real in May, the Mission's curator, Andy Galvan, took me on an interesting tour of the old church building. (I'd never been inside it before; the 19th century basilica next door is much bigger and therefore hosts most concerts and other major public events.) The modest adobe Old Mission building reveals more about the relationship between the Spanish missionaries and the native population than meets the untrained eye. For that reason, it was great to have a guide on my inaugural visit.

Galvan himself has a fascinating past: his great-great-great-great grandfather, a Bay Miwok Indian, was baptized at Mission Dolores. His great-great-great grandparents are buried in the Mission Dolores graveyard, with its life-size statue of Serra pensively looking downwards at the earth.

The inside of the church is European Baroque in style. The ornate, faux-marble revedos is original. It dates back to 1797. Pillars and statuettes of Franciscan friars decorate the walls. A stone font lurks in a shady alcove. There's a raised wooden balcony at the back.

Only by looking upwards do you get a sense of the legacy of the Indians who built the church and learned and sang about the Catholic faith in it. The ceiling provides the one concession to native Ohlone art with its bright green, red, ocher and white Chevron arrow-shaped design. It's a stunning contrast to the rest of the church's interior (see image above.)

Similarly, only when you look more closely at one of the statues in the church do you really get a sense of the essential contradiction at the heart of the missionaries' enterprise in California. Of all the beatific-looking figureheads that adorn the church walls, a Franciscan friar stands out for wearing a soldier’s armor over his religious robes and carrying a cross in one hand and a sword in the other. The statue is arresting because it so clearly tells you what founding missions in California was all about -- spreading the gospel no matter the human cost. Religion and violence are united in this effigy with simple visual immediacy.

As I walked out into the churchyard into the Spring sun, all I could think about was how history repeats itself. But just as hundreds of people walk past the statue everyday without noticing the contradictions it embodies, very few seem to pay attention to the cyclical impulses that drive world events.

Later that day, when I went to Aurora Theatre in Berkeley to see Ellen McLaughlin's savagely poetic world premiere adaptation of Euripides' The Trojan Women, the image of the statue in the church came rushing back into my mind. McLaughlin's anti-war play recycles an ancient and eternal message about the destruction of war. Yet people make the same mistakes over and over again.


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