San Antonio de Pala, founded in 1816 as an asistencia (branch) of San Luis Rey, is a living Native American community and an important destination on your next visit to San Diego.
Nestled in the fertile Pala Valley east of San Diego, San Antonio de Pala is unique because it didn’t start as a mission at all. Instead, it began as an asistencia or outpost of Mission San Luis Rey, and it still serves the Native American population that built it.
- 1 The Pala Band of Mission Indians
- 2 Getting to Mission San Antonio de Pala
- 3 History of Mission San Antonio de Pala: The Founding
- 4 History of San Antonio de Pala: Tough Times
- 5 Pala Today
- 6 Things to See at San Antonio de Pala
- 7 Learn more about Mission San Antonio de Pala
- 8 Mission San Antonio de Pala Gallery
The Pala Band of Mission Indians
The Pala Band of Mission Indians is a federally recognized tribe made up of people whose ancestors were affiliated with Mission San Luis Rey (Luiseños). At the early part of the 20th century they were joined by Cupeño people, who were expelled from their ancestral home (Cupa) about 40 miles southeast of Pala. For many decades the two groups have been united and have largely merged into one community with a love for their heritage and history.
Getting to Mission San Antonio de Pala
San Antonio de Pala is an easy one hour drive north and east of San Diego. From I-5 take Hwy 76 east until you come to Pala Mission Road. The mission and museum are open Monday-Friday, 10am-4pm. There is a small charge to visit the museum, which is well worth it.
History of Mission San Antonio de Pala: The Founding
The Pala Valley, with its fertile soil, abundant game and good supply of water — Pala derives from the native word for water –had been the home to native peoples for thousands of years. In 1795 Father Juan Mariner of Mission San Diego proposed the site as the location of Mission San Luis Rey. Franciscan authorities eventually decided it was better to establish San Luis Rey closer to the coast, and Pala remained without a mission for several years.
In 1816 Fr. Antonio Peyri consecrated a chapel in the Pala Valley in order to serve the indigenous people there, and the Pala asistencia was born. Asistencias had no resident priest, but would receive visits from a missionary. Father Peyri would visit Pala once a week to offer the Mass and other sacraments for the Christian Indians living there. According to many reports, the people of the region had a great affection for him. When he returned to Spain, Peyri was accompanied by two native youths from San Luis Rey, Agapito Amamix and Pablo Tac, to be trained as priests. Pablo Tac would eventually write one of the most important descriptions of Indian life at the California missions.
The idea of establishing an asistencia in Pala was part of a plan to create a second chain of missions amidst the inland of native communities. A number of asistencias were eventually founded, but the idea of a second chain of missions never received much traction with Spanish or Mexican civil authorities.
During the early years, Pala’s agricultural production grew. According to Julio César, an Indian born on Mission San Luis Rey in the early part of the 19th century, Pala was known for growing good quantities of beans (frijoles) and corn (maíz) and had a sizable Indian population (crecida indiada).
History of San Antonio de Pala: Tough Times
When the Mexican government de-commissioned or “secularized” the missions they turned their properties over to civil administrators. This was the beginning of an especially difficult period for San Antonio de Pala and its Indian residents. In 1835 Pala’s lands were placed under the administration of Pío Pico, an important landowner who would eventually become Mexican California’s last governor.
Pico was not very popular with the Indians, according to Julio César. “Señor Pico demanded that if we so much as passed within his view we were to take off our hats.” Pico was eventually relieved of his charge as administrator, but still continued to use the Pala lands for his livestock, which caused great anger among the indigenous people. This might be why, according to Apolinaria Lorenzana, a long-time resident of San Luis Rey and San Diego during the 19th century, the Indians of Pala were thought to have supported the Americans during the U.S.-Mexico War.
Life under American rule turned out to be extremely harsh for all natives, and Pala was no exception. The arrival of the Cupeño people in 1903, evicted from their ancestral home of Cupa (today known as Warner Springs), helped consolidate the community. Despite the difficulties, the Indians of Pala persevered, and by the late 19th and early 20th centuries efforts were being made to restore some of the buildings which had fallen into disrepair.
Today San Antonio de Pala stands as a testament to that perseverance and to the people who live there. According to Father Reynaldo Manahan, pastor of the mission, San Antonio de Pala continues to address the spiritual needs of Native Americans and non-reservation people alike. In material terms the Pala Band’s economic conditions have changed significantly in recent years, thanks to the opening of the Pala Casino and Resort less than a mile from the mission. If you visit the Casino you can see displays dedicated to the history and traditions of the Pala people.
Things to See at San Antonio de Pala
The Bell Tower
When you arrive at San Antonio de Pala the first thing you will notice is the bell tower. Unlike many other mission-era bell towers, it is detached from the church and stands alone. The bell tower has seen its share of adventures. Although it stood for over a century, after massive floods in 1916 it collapsed and had to be re-built.
The two bells that adorn the bell tower are original and date to the founding of the asistencia in 1816. The lower bell, the larger one, bears inscriptions in two languages. The first two bands of the inscription are in abbreviated Latin, while the inner band is in Spanish. Translated into English, the first two bands read “Jesus, Redeemer of Mankind – Holy God, Holy Mighty One, Holy Immortal One, Have Mercy on us. Year of our Lord 1816.” At the center of the bell there is a cross, depicted as the tree of life, with the Latin words Cervantes nos fecit (“Cervantes made us”). The lower band, translated into English, says “Our Seraphic Father, Francis of Assisi, Saint Louis King, Saint Claire, Saint Eulalia, Our Light.”
Another thing about the bell tower that is easy to miss — I know because I did the first time I visited Pala — is the cactus that sits atop it. Two legends are associated with it.
The first says that Father Peyri planted the cactus at the top of the bell tower next to the cross in order to demonstrate that the cross would bring life to the desert — not only the desert of the Southwest, but the desert of the human heart. The other legend is that as soon as the cross had been planted in the moist adobe of the bell tower, that a little bird came and perched on one of the arms of the cross. As it began to sing a sweet melody, a cactus seed fell from the bird’s mouth, and later germinated. Whatever the truth, a cactus continues to crown the bell tower of Pala, barely visible from the ground, but there nevertheless.
San Antonio de Pala Church
The centerpiece of San Antonio de Pala is its church. Like most of the California mission chapels, it has undergone restoration, first in 1903, and later in the 1950s, though many of its original elements remain. This is a sign that the chapel is not a museum piece, but an important and continuing part of a living community. As you walk in, you will notice that is relatively small and narrow, but with a symmetry that makes it very welcoming and intimate. Look to your right and left and you will see the walls decorated with symbols and motifs from the culture of the Pala people. These were painted by native artisans when the chapel was first built. After the chapel was refurbished in 1903 they were whitewashed, but were restored decades later by Indian artist Antonio Lugo.
When I visited during the Christmas holidays, the altar was adorned with a nativity set depicting the birth of Jesus, made up of Native American figurines. To the left of the altar, near the baptismal font, there is also a statue of St. Kateri Tekakwitha, the first American Indian to be made a saint in the U.S., a sign of the proud heritage of the parishioners.
The old cemetery is adjacent to the church and contains the remains of both early Indian members of the Pala community as well as early Hispanic settlers. Some local family members are still buried in the cemetery to this day, though there is an newer cemetery east of the mission where the majority of community members are buried.
The original west wing of the mission facility now houses the museum. It is well worth visiting to better understand the history of San Antonio de Pala.
The museum contains artwork and religious objects from the Spanish and Mexican periods as well as historical objects and artifacts related to the life of the Pala and Cupa people. As you wander the museum, pay particular attention to two statues, one of the mission’s patron, Saint Anthony, and the other of Saint Dominic, the founder of the Dominican order. Both were carved by indigenous Pala artists almost two centuries ago. You can also find a painting of Father Antonio Peyrí, who founded San Antonio as an asistencia of San Luis Rey, as well as items such as a transcription of the Our Father in the Cupeño language.
Inner Patio and Quadrangle
After visiting the museum, the best way to round out your visit is to wander the palm-lined inner patio and quadrangle. You can stroll beneath the shade of the massive old willow that shelters the dovecote or the various fruit trees that are in the gardens. A number of shrines are nestled amongst the cactus and agave plants. There is also a mission-style fountain that was added in the 1950s.
After visiting the quadrangle you will have the chance to walk through the shaded arcades, typical of early California mission buildings, which will lead you back through the museum gift shop to the parking lot and the end of your visit.
As you leave Pala you will know that you have had the chance to visit a special place that still serves and is cared for by the native community that built it. You have had a window into an important and fascinating slice of the California frontier.
Mission San Antonio de Pala — 3015 Pala Mission Rd, Pala, California 92059
Learn more about Mission San Antonio de Pala
Much of the information in this article is drawn from the following sources:
- Beebe and Senkewicz, Lands of Promise and Despair: Chronicles of Early California, 1535-1846
- Carillo, The story of Mission San Antonio de Pala
- Eargle, Native California: An Introductory Guide to the Original Peoples from Earliest to Modern Times
- www.palatribe.com: Home page of the Pala Tribe
- www.missionsanantonio.org: Home page of San Antonio de Pala