By David Kier
Co-author of ‘The Old Missions of Baja & Alta California, 1697-1834’
The chain of Spanish missions in California began at Loreto, on the Gulf of California (Sea of Cortez). Previous to the founding of Loreto, there were many attempts to colonize the peninsula. The peninsula known today as Baja California.
In 1535, soon after the Spanish discovered California, Hernán Cortés attempted to build a colony at La Paz. It lasted less than two years because the land and its people were harsh and most of the colonists perished. 150 years later, after many other attempts, Jesuits priests led by Padre Kino with soldiers commanded by Admiral Isidro de Atondo y Antillón had to abandon another two-year mission colony. It was first built at La Paz, and then restarted at San Bruno, 15 miles north of Loreto. A dozen years would pass before the Jesuits could try again.
On October 25, 1697, Padre Juan María de Salvatierra founded the mission of Loreto at the native village of Conchó. The mission began as a simple structure inside the presidio (fort) until the natives accepted the Spanish on their land. In 1699, construction on a larger, adobe church was started outside the presidio and was completed on September 8, 1704.
Loreto would be the capital and religious center of California for many years. New missions would be built out from Loreto on a road network that would become known as El Camino Real, securing the land for the king of Spain.
In 1740, Padre Jaime Bravo began construction on a larger church built of stone and mortar whose walls survive to this day. The mission was so damaged by floods from a hurricane in 1829, it was closed and the capital of California was moved to La Paz. A modern bell tower was added in 1955, which is not of the same style or scale of the original one that was destroyed in the earthquake of 1877.
The mission and museum on site are a highlight of any visit to Loreto, and its importance is inscribed over the doorway which (in English) reads: Head and Mother of the Missions of Lower and Upper California.
For more on the founding of all the California missions, read ‘The Old Missions of Baja & Alta California, 1697-1834’ by Max Kurillo, Erline Tuttle and David Kier.