A Spanish Colonial Icon Turns 200: The History of San Rafael Mission

VISITORS TO DOWNTOWN San Rafael can’t help but notice a unique pink Spanish Colonial–style bell tower rising above a plaza along Fifth Avenue, where A Street dead-ends. This is Saint Raphael Church, built in 1919. To the right of it stands a full-scale replica of the original chapel of Mission San Rafael, built in 1949 next to the site where the old chapel stood.

Both buildings are now part of the Mission San Rafael historic complex. This site was first occupied by the Spanish in 1817 as a medical sub-mission, or asistencia, of the Mission San Francisco de Asís, across the Golden Gate. This year the Mission San Rafael Arcángel, to use its full original name, is celebrating the 200th anniversary of its founding on December 14, 1817.

San Rafael Mission
Saint Rafael Church: the two Italian bronze doors, installed in 1960, can be clearly seen.

Of the 21 missions founded by the Spanish in Alta California between 1769 and 1823, the Mission San Rafael is one of the least well known and was the second to last to be founded (followed only by Sonoma Mission in 1823). Part of the reason for the low profile is that none of Mission San Rafael’s original structures remain. By 1870 their remaining ruins that had survived the influx of new settlers were cleared away to make room for the development of San Rafael’s business district, prompting some historians to call this the most obliterated of California’s missions. But a mission is much more than a collection of buildings, and Mission San Rafael has both a rich heritage stemming from its unusual history and an important modern role in providing valuable services for the local community.

In the early 1800s, the Indian converts at Mission San Francisco de Asís (aka Mission Dolores) were dying at an alarming rate from European diseases. The fathers there thought the infected natives might be better able to heal in a warmer location. So on December 14, 1817, four priests traveled across the Golden Gate to the area where the city of San Rafael is now to found a “healing station,” or hospital for native converts. This asistencia was named for the Catholic angel of healing, San Rafael Archangel (Arcángel in Spanish).

San Rafael Mission
Provided by Anne T. Kent California Room, Marin County Free Library.

The new sub-mission was officially founded by Father Vicente Francisco de Sarría, while the hospital was put under the direction of Father Luis Gil y Taboada, who spoke many native languages and had medical training. The first small chapel on this site was built in 1818 and within the first year, Father Gil and his staff had achieved a dramatic drop in the death rate of their Indian patients, and the population of healthy native converts began to grow. Their sub-mission soon added other functions besides a hospital, and it was granted full mission status on October 19, 1822. By 1828, Mission San Rafael had a total native population of 1,120.

That good fortune changed in 1829. A native Miwok convert named Chief Marin and his Indian friend Quentin decided to leave the mission, only to return later to attack it with a group of Indian raiders. The converts living there protected the head of the mission, Father Amoros, from harm, but buildings were damaged in the attack. The structures were quickly rebuilt, and Chief Marin and Quentin eventually returned to live at the mission and stayed for the remainder of their lives. Their unmarked graves may still be in the Mission San Rafael’s former cemetery, which was paved over decades ago, but their names live on in the names of the county and the state prison nearby.

In 1834, Mission San Rafael was secularized by the Mexican government, which issued land grants allowing Mexican citizens to take over much of the mission-owned land. By 1840 only 150 Indians were living on the grounds, and by 1844 the mission was abandoned. The empty buildings were sold for $8,000 early in 1846, but this sale was voided after the United States took over California during the Mexican-American War. Later that year, Captain John C. Fremont used the mission buildings as his headquarters during the conquest and occupation of California by the United States Army.

After California became a state in 1850, the abandoned mission buildings deteriorated rapidly. The original chapel was long gone by the time a wooden Gothic Revival church went up in 1861 on the same site (by the early 1900s this building was also gone). In 1870 a larger parish church building was erected on the adjacent site, where the current Saint Raphael Church stands today. Also in 1870 many of the original mission grave sites were removed and the cemetery was closed. In 1889 the Dominican Sisters reopened a former grammar school on the property; the school still operates today.

In 1919, a fire destroyed the 1870 parish church, and that same year Sausalito architect Arnold Constable designed the current church, with its distinctive Spanish Colonial tower. The building’s walls are stucco-covered reinforced concrete, an earthquake-resistant material that came into use after the 1906 San Francisco quake. The marble in the church altar is from Carrara, Italy, and an 18th-century painting of Archangel Rafael, by the Mexican painter Juan García Esquivel, hangs on the north wall. The two bronze front doors, made in Italy, were installed in 1960 when Constable’s son Francis designed a large addition at the rear of the church. In 1947 the father and son co-designed the church offices, which remain in use today.

Famed media mogul William Randolph Hearst also figured significantly in the history of Mission San Rafael. A devout Catholic, he decided in 1946 to give the Catholic Church $500,000, to be split evenly between the archdioceses of Northern and Southern California. This was a huge sum at that time, equivalent to $10 million today. Out of that fund, $85,000 was used to build a replica of the old chapel on its original site, where it stands now. Historians aren’t sure if the replica is entirely accurate since only a few sketches and no clear photos of the old building have been found. The replica was built out of hollow concrete blocks plastered over to look like adobe, and it faces in a different direction than did the original chapel, which stood at a right angle to the current structure.

San Rafael Mission
Full-scale replica of the original chapel of Mission San Rafael.


In addition to its colorful history, Mission San Rafael now provides several valuable programs and services in southern Marin.

Current pastor Monsignor Romulo Vergara, better known to parishioners as Father Loi, assumed parish leadership in July 2013 and has been actively seeking to make his church a resource for “the integration of the different cultures in this area into the local society,” he says, “in order to create a more cohesive community.”

For example, Saint Raphael Church and Mission San Rafael Arcángel work with the Marin Housing Authority to assist the county’s less fortunate, temporarily helping some families with rent, utilities, groceries or obtaining of food stamps. The parish offers immigration counseling and helps recent arrivals get driver’s licenses, and the church hosts regular dinners for homeless people and has volunteers who speak Spanish, Portuguese and Vietnamese providing translation for non-English-speaking residents.

The parish has also been sponsoring a number of public events to commemorate the mission’s 200th anniversary, including, since July, a monthly lecture series on the mission’s history (the series concludes this month), as well as a walking tour of historic San Rafael that began at the mission itself. In September and October, the parish presented a historical exhibit about the mission at the Bartolini Gallery in San Rafael, displaying original vestments, artifacts, artwork, and photographs. A contest for third-, fourth- and fifth-graders solicited poems, essays and artwork about the mission’s history. And on December 16, at 5 p.m. in the main church building, Archbishop Cordileone of the San Francisco Archdiocese will lead a multicultural mass and reception to cap off these commemorative events.

Even though the original structures are gone, the Mission San Rafael Arcángel retains its historic legacy in Marin. “We work on the healing of both the body and soul of our parishioners,” says Father Loi, summing up what he sees as the mission’s most valuable local role. “And we are dedicated to the task of building a stronger community. Even after the old mission buildings were abandoned, that task continued through the generations — as it does today.” saintraphael.com

Some information in this article was provided by Theresa Brunner, curator of the Mission San Rafael museum.

This article originally appeared in Marin Magazine’s print edition with the headline: “Turning 200”.