Originally built as a hospital outpost for Mission Dolores, Mission San Rafael Arcángel grew to become a successful mission in its own right. Nearby China Camp State Park offers a complementary glimpse into California’s unique history.
- 1 A Marin County Expedition
- 2 Mission San Rafael Arcángel: “Between Two San Franciscos”
- 3 The Founding of Mission San Rafael
- 4 How did Mission San Rafael Arcángel Get its Name?
- 5 Fr. Juan Amorós Takes Over Mission San Rafael
- 6 San Rafael Becomes a Mission
- 7 The Mission Grows
- 8 A Rebellious Alcalde: Chief Marin
- 9 Secularization and Decay
- 10 The Chapel is Rebuilt
- 11 Mission San Rafael Today
- 12 A Fascinating Side Trip: China Camp State Park
- 13 China Camp: The Backstory
- 14 How China Camp Stays Open
- 15 Mission San Rafael at a Glance
- 16 China Camp Facts
- 17 For more information
A Marin County Expedition
Little boys have a way of getting into trouble. I have vivid memories of the scrapes, bruises, cuts and broken bones that my brothers and I endured as part of an active childhood. So when my own son had a playground injury that was serious enough to keep him home from school, but not enough to keep him in bed, I knew I had the opportunity to visit one of the nearby missions.
So I chose Mission San Rafael Arcángel. I had visited San Rafael in the past, but never at any length, and I was curious to spend some time there. And the fact San Rafael was close to the San Francisco Bay would give us the opportunity to do a little exploring on the coast.
It turns out that we made a great choice, not only to see the mission, but to visit another nearby historical site.
Mission San Rafael Arcángel: “Between Two San Franciscos”
Mission San Rafael Arcángel is often passed up or overlooked because it is located between two missions that tend to attract more visitors, thanks to their location.
The first is Mission San Francisco Solano, in the center of the town square of Sonoma, in one California’s premier wine regions.
The second is Mission San Francisco de Asís (Mission Dolores), nestled in the heart of the world-renowned tourist destination of San Francisco.
The Founding of Mission San Rafael
It was the San Francisco fog that actually led to the founding of Mission San Rafael. This outpost started out as an asistencia, or branch of Mission Dolores. Conditions at Mission Dolores were always very difficult, thanks in part to the cold and wet microclimate of San Francisco (remember Mark Twain’s comment about the coldest winter he ever spent being a summer in San Francisco?).
The native population there suffered greatly and diseases were very frequent. Because of this, there with an alarmingly high number of deaths and runaways from the mission.
How did Mission San Rafael Arcángel Get its Name?
In English, San Rafael Arcángel means “St. Raphael, the Archangel.” The Franciscans had the idea to establish a site where the natives who were ill could convalesce, in a place where the climate was drier and recovery more likely. The Spanish government approved the establishment of the new outpost, in part because it would provide a good vantage point to keep an eye on Russian settlements further north, in the place called Colony Ross on Bodega Bay.
The new location would serve as a sort of hospital annex to Mission San Francisco de Asís. It was dedicated to the Archangel Rafael, who in Catholicism is the patron saint of bodily healing, and one of the few angels mentioned by name in the Bible.
The asistencia was established in December of 1817. Fr. Luis Gil y Taboada became the first resident priest, along with around 250 neophytes from Mission Dolores.
The location chosen was on the north side of the San Francisco Bay, in the territory of the Coast Miwok, near a village site known as Nanaguani. A high hill overlooked the outpost, there was good land surrounding it, and the embarcadero for traveling across the bay was less than a league away.
Within a few months, the neophytes had built an adobe building. Since there were no master builders from Mexico available to work the the construction, San Rafael was the first to be entirely constructed by native builders. The new structure would have a chapel, living quarters, and storage rooms.
Fr. Juan Amorós Takes Over Mission San Rafael
San Rafael began to have success improving the health of its inhabitants, and started to incorporate more native people, including those from communities north and east of the location.
By 1822, Fr. Juan Amorós had taken the place of Fr. Gil y Taboada, and it was clear that the San Rafael experiment had been successful.
It was Fr. Amorós who left his mark on San Rafael. A hard-working friar who had a sincere concern for the Indians’ well being, Amorós was known for traveling to far-flung villages to baptize and administer other sacraments to native people who requested them. He was also responsible for a number of Wappo and Pomo people joining the mission community beginning in the 1820s.
San Rafael Becomes a Mission
In October of 1822, Fr. Mariano Payeras, Commissary Prefect of the California Missions, elevated San Rafael to the status of an independent mission, and made plans to close Mission Dolores and move it to another location.
Fr. Payeras never got the chance to carry out his plan, since he died not long afterwards.
Later, Fr. José Altimira would take it upon himself open a new mission at Sonoma, hoping to close both San Francisco de Asís and San Rafael, consolidating them all into one North Bay location. Neither mission was closed, and San Rafael continued to function independently.
The Mission Grows
With time, the number of people living at the mission rose to over 1,000, with natives from different missions sent to San Rafael for care and healing, and new converts attracted.
Cattle and sheep from the mission ranchos grazed all over the Marin Peninsula as far north as today’s Sonoma County, overseen by native vaqueros.
A number of fruit and vegetable crops were grown on mission lands, including grapes, which would eventually become the seed of Sonoma’s world famous wine industry.
The church even had a seven-member string orchestra made up of native musicians to accompany the Sunday liturgies.
A Rebellious Alcalde: Chief Marin
One of the most notable residents of Mission San Rafael was Marino (also known as Chief Marin), after whom Marin County is named. A Coast Miwok leader, his original name was Huicmuse, though he was given the name Marino on the day of his baptism as a young man at Mission Dolores in 1801.
Marino lived for a number of years at Mission Dolores, and later was an alcalde at Mission San Rafael, who had a great deal of authority overseeing ranching operations for the mission.
During the decade of the 1820s, he left the mission and led a series of raids and skirmishes against the mission and local authorities. In the 1830s he returned to Mission San Rafael, and spent his remaining years there.
Secularization and Decay
After the secularization decree was promulgated in Alta California, Mission San Rafael was most of the first missions to be closed. Much of the surrounding land wound up under the control of Gen. Mariano G. Vallejo, whose influence in the North Bay region was enormous.
You can learn more about Gen. Mariano G. Vallejo here: Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo: General of the Northern Frontier
The mission buildings soon fell into disrepair, and during the Bear Flag Revolt of 1846, American general John C. Frémont used them as his command post.
Over the years, the old church experienced neglect, and by 1870 the adobe had largely dissolved. A large gothic church was built in its place, though it eventually burned down and the current parish church was built to replace it.
The Chapel is Rebuilt
In 1949, thanks to a grant from the Hearst Foundation, a replica of the original mission chapel was built. By this time, however, there were no records of what the chapel actually looked like. So the builders made their best guess, partially guided by a turn of the century postcard and a painting by German Artist Edward Vischer, inspired by the recollections of Gen. Vallejo.
Mission San Rafael Today
Today Mission San Rafael is part of the Catholic parish of St. Rafael. The staff of the parish, along with a number of volunteers, manage the mission. You can visit both the parish church and the mission replica, as well as the small museum and gift shop adjoining the mission replica chapel. The day we visited Mission San Rafael, the parish church was closed.
Fortunately, we were able to visit the Mission Chapel and the gift shop/museum.
The docent we met was very friendly, and although my son had already completed his mission report, she was happy to spend time with us, pointing out some of the interesting items in the museum, and giving us an overview of the mission’s story.
The three bells that hang outside are from the original mission church building. The mission church had no bell tower, so they were suspended from a wooden frame.
The mission chapel, which is approximately the size of the original chapel, is normally used for liturgical services on weekdays. It offers a calm and prayerful environment, accentuated by the light that enters from the windows built into the right side wall.
Although there are very few artifacts from the original building, on the side wall you can see a large painting of the archangel Rafael that used to hang behind the altar, and a painting of the Virgin Mary (though I haven’t been able to discover the origin of that painting).
A Fascinating Side Trip: China Camp State Park
Later that day, after lunch in downtown San Rafael, my son and I decided to head towards the coast. and see China Camp State Park. I had visited China Camp in the past, but without spending much time there. If you have the time, China Camp is worth making the effort.
China Camp rests on a spectacular inlet of the San Pablo Bay, with the views across to the hills of its eastern side. There are hiking and biking trails, camping areas, and plenty of picnic areas for day use.
China Camp: The Backstory
The area, also originally part of the territory of the Coast Miwok, later was incorporated into the ranchlands of Mission San Rafael. After secularization, Mexican Governor Manuel Micheltorena granted the land to Timothy Murphy, an Irishman who had become administrator of the mission.
The name of the grant was Rancho San Pedro, Santa Margarita y las Gallinas (St. Peter, Saint Margaret and the Hens). The ranch later changed hands and was owned by the McNear brothers, who owned a lot of land in Sonoma County, and became a dairy.
As the name suggests, during the 19th and early 20th centuries, China Camp was the site of a lively Chinese community. Many Chinese laborers had found work on the McNear ranch in the 1870s and 18880s, but began to augmented their income fishing and shrimping on the bay. This community endured for decades, even through the worst years of anti-Chinese laws and sentiment. As such, it is an integral part of the rich history of the Chinese presence in California.
Today you can wander around the remains of the town that out of the life of the Chinese and take in its small but informative visitor center. Looking at the iconic old structures, you can imagine a time when China Camp was full of activity, and you can almost hear the sounds of the daily joys and sorrows of community life among the creaky old planks.
Another way to spend your time is to explore China Camp’s beautiful natural areas, which include a long stretch of beach. The park is filled with oak trees and lush grasses that taper into marshland as you approach the seashore.
There is also plenty of animal life to observe. During our brief stay there, we saw butterflies, geese, seagulls, snails, lizards, salamanders, crabs and goby fish.
How China Camp Stays Open
Like many of California’s State Parks, China Camp was threatened with closure due to budget cuts in 2010. Thankfully, a group of concerned volunteers came together to save the park, and founded Friends of China Camp. Now the park stays open thanks to their continued collaboration with the State of California.
Between Mission San Rafael Arcángel and China Camp, you can get a feel for the unique and complex history of California that seems buried beneath the distractions of modern life. If you have half a day to spend near San Francisco, make the time to visit them both. You won’t regret it.
Mission San Rafael at a Glance
- Location: San Rafael, California
- Year founded: 1817
- Patron saint: The Archangel St. Raphael.
- Goods produced: Wheat, barley, corn, beans, peas, lentils, garbanzos, pears, grapes.
- Features: Small replica chapel next to larger parish church. Three of the original bells and painting of the mission’s patron, St. Rafael are also preserved.
- Current status: Roman Catholic Parish.
- Website: www.saintraphael.com
- Nearby points of interest: Olompali State Historic Park, China Camp State Historic Park
- Historical landmark status: California Historical Landmark no. 220
China Camp Facts
- Location: San Rafael, California
- Website: China Camp State Park Official Page.
- Friends of China Camp. The group of volunteers who have been operating China Camp since July of 2012 when the park was threatened with closure due to lack of State funds. If you are interested in seeing the park flourish, consider volunteering making a donation to Friends of China Camp.
For more information
- Goerke, Betty. Chief Marin: Leader, Rebel, and Legend. This book is the definitive biography of Marino, the Coast Miwok leader who served as alcalde at Mission San Rafael and later caused so much trouble for Spanish and Mexican authorities. It provides a ton of great information about Coast Miwok life before, during and after the mission era, as well as a rich description of the history of Mission San Rafael.
- Edna Kimbro and Julia Costello. The California Missions: History, Art and Preservation. This beautifully illustrated book includes excellent information about the art and artifacts of each mission. The chapter on Mission San Rafael is very informative, and contains the names of many of the native artisans who built the mission.