Most of us who either grew up or are raising kids in California have some memory of doing a California Mission project in elementary school. We remember driving with our families to the closest Mission, snapping pictures and wandering around the chapels, building replicas, and, of course, the glue. So much glue.
When I realized that Santa Cruz had its own piece of state history in the form of the Mission Santa Cruz, I knew I had to check it out, and it didn’t disappoint.
Located off Mission Street (where else?), just a bit past The Abbey, Mission Santa Cruz is nestled into a peaceful little park, protected from the nearby traffic of downtown. The adobe building with traditional Spanish roof tiles sits adjacent to the Holy Cross Church and eponymous parochial school, which means visiting the site today will still give you the active feel that must have been around in the Mission’s heyday.
While almost everyone can recall the experience of visiting a Mission, what we might be fuzzy on is the actual history of the California Missions. In the 1700s, Spanish Catholic priests started building Missions as a way to extend their culture and religion to the California natives (this was, of course, before California was part of the United States).
In 1791, Father Fermin Francisco founded the Santa Cruz Mission. The site mostly served as a place to convert Ohlone Indians, a tribe native to the Santa Cruz region that still has activists in town to this day. But the spreading of the Word didn’t last long the first time around — just a year later, the San Lorenzo River flooded the original Mission building. In 1793, a grander church was built on higher ground. This is where Holy Cross Church sits today.
Fast forward a little over 200 years, and the Mission as it is today has two main attractions: a replica building with a chapel, courtyard, and gift shop; and a piece of a building that is the only remaining part of the original Mission still standing.
The replica building is a great place to start. Open after ten am Tuesday through Sunday, this little building has a beautiful chapel (you can even go to Mass there Mon-Fri at 8:30 am), a peaceful courtyard with statues depicting different important people in Mission history, and a gift shop with cards, books, and even a guide to building a California Mission project (score to parents everywhere!).
After lighting a candle for your loved ones and getting plenty of pictures of your kids with the different statues in the courtyard, mosey one block over from the Plaza to the original adobe, which once served as housing to Native American residents of the Mission. Have your kids feel the chalky, rough adobe, walk around the sprawling green lawn, and let their imaginations run wild.
It’s also a great way to educate them about the Native American experience in a way that hits close to home, as the adobe portion of the Mission is used as a way to explore history through the focus of the Ohlone people.
So the next time you’re looking for a reason to pull your kids away from the video games, keep Mission Santa Cruz in mind. A whole new experience, and a way to connect with local history, are right down the street.