- People often ask who founded the Spanish missions in California. And while Fr. Junípero Serra and Fr. Fermín Francisco de Lasuén are rightly credited as the main mission founders, several other missionaries were involved in establishing missions in California.
With the exception of Fr. Luis Gil y Taboada, all of the mission founders were born in Spain. Most served at several missions during their time in Alta California, though some, like Fr. Narciso Durán, stayed at the same mission for decades. Below you can find out more about the men who founded the Alta California missions.
Mission Founders in Alta California
- 1 Fr. José Ramón Abella (1764-1842)
- 2 Fr. José Altimira (1787-1860?)
- 3 Fr. Pedro Benito Cambón (1738-?)
- 4 Fr. Narciso Durán (1776-1846)
- 5 Fr. Fermín Francisco de Lasuén (1736-1803)
- 6 Fr. Vicente Francisco de Sarría (1767-1835)
- 7 Fr. Junípero Serra (1713-1784)
- 8 Fr. Luis Gil y Taboada (1773-1833)
- 9 Fr. Estevan Tapis (ca. 1756-1825)
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Fr. José Ramón Abella (1764-1842)
Missions founded: San Rafael
Born at Monforte, near Zaragoza, Spain, he arrived in New Spain in 1795. He arrived in Santa Barbara, Alta California, in May 1798 and was sent to Mission San Francisco de Asís.
After writing a report on the causes of the high mortality rates among the Indians at Mission San Francisco de Asís, Abella was asked to found an asistencia or branch, named San Rafael in 1817. The asistencia was later converted into a full-fledged mission.
In 1811 and again in 1817, Abella was involved in two explorations of the San Francisco Bay region, entering both the Sacramento and San Joaquín rivers, of which he kept a diary. Along the way, he and the other members of the expedition came into contact with a number of native groups.
From 1819 to 1833, Fr. Abella was assigned to Mission San Carlos. He was assigned to Mission San Luis Obispo in 1834, and in 1841 to La Purísima, where he remained until the end of his life. He spent 44 years in Alta California, longer than any other missionary.
Fr. José Altimira (1787-1860?)
Missions founded: San Francisco Solano
The founder of the last Alta California mission, José Altimira was born in Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain in 1787.
He came to the Americas in 1819, to the College of San Fernando in Mexico City, and arrived in Monterey in 1820.
Altimira was first assigned to Mission San Francisco de Asís (Mission Dolores), and served there between 1820 and 1823.
He was not happy with conditions at Mission Dolores, and appealed to legislature to found a mission in Sonoma. This was unprecedented, since both Spanish and Mexican law required the founding of a new mission to be initiated by the Church, and not the government. Together with a group of soldiers, Altimira explored the areas north of the San Francisco Bay, from what is today Marin and Sonoma Counties, to Napa and Solano Counties. He eventually settled on the area of what is today the town of Sonoma, the current site of the mission.
When they found out, his Franciscan superiors criticized Altamira for going ahead with plans for a new mission without first asking their permission. Altimira refused to back down, and he appealed to the civil authorities to support his plan. Eventually a compromise was reached and the mission was allowed to proceed.
Altimira remained at the new mission, San Francisco Solano, until 1826. He was eventually accused of being too harsh in punishing Native Americans at the mission and was assigned to San Buenaventura. He served there for little less than two years. In 1826 he declined to take the oath of allegiance to the Mexican constitution, and in 1828 he secretly returned to Spain, after getting word that all Spaniards were going to be expelled from all Mexican territories.
As late as 1860 Altimira was said to be living in the Canary Islands, a Spanish territory off the coast of Africa.
Fr. Pedro Benito Cambón (1738-?)
Fr. Cambón was born Galicia, Spain in 1738. He arrived in Mexico in 1770 and came to Alta California in 1771. The same year he was assigned by Fr. Serra to seek out a place for Mission San Gabriel, which also did in September of that year.
He was chosen to establish Mission San Francisco de Asís, which he did in 1776, together with members of the Anza expedition. In 1782, he was with Fr. Serra at the founding of Mission Santa Bárbara, and then was assigned again to San Francisco, where he stayed until 1791. Due to his poor health, he returned to Mexico and later to Spain, though where and when he died is unknown.
Fr. Narciso Durán (1776-1846)
Missions founded: San Rafael
Fr. Durán was born near Castellón, Catalonia, Spain. He arrived in New Spain (Mexico) in 1803 and came to Alta California in 1806, assigned to Mission San José.
Padre musician par excellence of the mission period, he adapted European music to the missions, and composed a number of musical settings for Masses. In 1817 he helped found Mission San Rafael. According to Alfred Robinson (an American traveler in California) in 1829, Durán was “generous, kind and benevolent,” and that “the natives not only revered him, as their spiritual father and friend, but seemed almost to adore him.”
Nevertheless, while Durán was at Mission San José, he experienced the revolt of Estanislao in 1828-1829. Estanislao, one of the native leaders at the mission, led over 500 Indians from San José and nearby missions into the Central Valley. Despite military campaigns against them, Estanislao and his people were not able to be captured. However, thanks to his friendship with Durán, Estanislao eventually asked to return to Mission San José, where he spent the rest of his life.
Durán became president of the California missions in 1825 briefly, and again in 1830. In 1833 he was sent to Santa Barbara, where he remained until his death in 1846, just before the American takeover. Beloved in Santa Barbara, he wrote extensively in favor of the rights of native people, and vigorously opposed the Mexican government’s plan to dissolve the mission system.
Fr. Fermín Francisco de Lasuén (1736-1803)
Born in Vitoria, in the province of Cantabria, Spain, he likely came to Mexico in 1758.
Under Fr. Serra as president of the missions, he worked in Baja California from 1768 to 1773, when he came to San Gabriel in Alta California.
In 1775, along with Gregorio Amurrió, he was assigned to be one of the first missionaries at San Juan Capistrano by Junípero Serra. He returned to San Diego shortly thereafter, following the murder of Fr. Luis Jaime during the Indian attack on the mission. He was sent to San Luis Obispo in 1776 and stayed there until 1777, when Serra put him in charge of Mission San Diego. He remained there until 1785, when he succeeded Junípero Serra as president of the missions. In 1786 he moved to Mission San Carlos, where he remained for the rest of his life. During the eighteen years he was father president, her personally founded nine missions, as many as Serra did. Under Lasuén, most of the mission buildings as we know them today were built.
He and Serra were great friends, and Serra wrote many letters of encouragement to him when Lasuén became discouraged or despondent about his role as a missionary.
J.G. de La Pérouse, the French navigator who met him in 1786, wrote, “his benevolence and his love for the Indians are beyond expression.”
Fr. Vicente Francisco de Sarría (1767-1835)
Missions founded: San Rafael
Born at San Esteban de Echébarri, Vizcaya, Spain. He arrived in Mexico City in 1804 and came to Alta California in 1809, where he was assigned to Mission San Carlos in Carmel. He was elected as prefect of the California missions in 1812, which meant he was responsible for overseeing the friars and dealing with the government. He was an advocate for missionaries traveling among natives without the escort of soldiers.
In 1817 he celebrated Mass at the founding of Mission San Rafael. It was Fr. Sarriá who sent a letter of reprimand to José Altimira for his unauthorized founding of Mission San Francisco Solano.
After the Chumash Indian revolt of 1824, Fr. Sarriá urged Governor Argüello to grant them full pardon. He personally traveled over the mountains into the San Joaquín Valley to persuade the natives to return, which they did.
In 1828 he was sent to Mission La Soledad, where he remained until his death.
In 1830 he wrote a treatise on cesarian operations, which he sent around to all the missionaries in California.
Fr. Junípero Serra (1713-1784)
For more information, visit Serra’s biographical page here.
Fr. Luis Gil y Taboada (1773-1833)
Missions founded: San Rafael
Born at Santa Fe, Guanajuato, New Spain (Mexico). After joining the Franciscan Order in 1792, he arrived in Monterey, Alta California in 1801.
He first served at Mission San Francisco de Asís, and later at Mission Santa Inés and Santa Bárbara, and was present at the founding of San Buenaventura and laid the cornerstone of the new plaza church in the Pueblo of Los Ángeles.
He helped found the San Rafael mission and was the first resident missionary there, and the first missionary to be assigned north of the San Francisco Bay.
It is said that he learned the Chumash language very well and was skilled at performing cesarian operations.
He died while visiting the Rancho Santa Margarita asistencia to offer the sacraments.
Fr. Estevan Tapis (ca. 1756-1825)
Missions founded: Santa Inés
Born at Coloma de Farnes, Catalonia, Spain. He arrived in New Spain (Mexico) in 1786, and came to Monterey, Alta California, in 1790. He was first assigned to Mission San Carlos, then later San Luis Obispo, and spent ten years in Santa Barbara. During his time at Santa Barbara, the number of Christian Indians grew from 775 to over 3,000, over 1,000 of whom lived at the mission. He also was involved in painting and decorating the interior of the mission church before it was partially destroyed in the great earthquake of 1812. He also helped create a Christian native village of over 250 homes west of the mission in 1807.
In 1804 he founded the Santa Inés mission.
After Fermín Francisco de Lasuén died, he became president of the California missions and moved to Carmel, staying there until 1812. While president, he sponsored a number of expeditions into the interior country in order to explore sites for possible new missions.
Between 1815 and 1825, he was stationed at San Juan Bautista, where he spent his final days.
To find out more: Much of the information about the mission founders listed here is taken from the classic book Franciscan Missionaries in Hispanic California: 1769-1848 by Maynard Geiger, OFM.