San Carlos Borromeo de Monterey stands today as a witness of faith, representing the sacrifices of the Franciscan priests led by Padre Junipero Serra. Miguel Serra was born at Petra, on the island of Mallorca, Spain, on the 24th of November, 1713. Before he was eighteen, he joined the Franciscan Friars and on September 15, 1731 he made his profession in the Franciscan Order, taking the name of Junipero, after the happy-tempered disciple of St. Francis. His thirst for missionary work in the New World would be satisfied in 1749 when he set sail towards New Spain, reaching the port of Vera Cruz, Mexico on December 8, 1749, the feast of the Immaculate Conception.

On February 20, 1769, in Mexico City, Galvez gave specific instructions to Serra and Don Gaspar de Portola, the military commander of the new expedition to Upper California. They were supposed to establish a port and a mission in San Diego. Afterwards, they were to move their expedition towards Monterey. After establishing San Diego in the same year, Portola and Serra turned their eyes towards Monterey. They planned two expeditions, one by land and one by sea, which would depart separately and meet in the Bay of Monterey. Here they were to establish a port, a mission, and a presidio (fort).

Significant Dates

  • 1770:  the founding of the Presidio of Monterey and Mission (June 3rd)
  • 1771:   Junipero Serra moved the mission to a site on the Carmel River
  • 1791:   work began on the 4th chapel
  • 1792:   plans sent to the Academy of San Carlos for review and modification
  • 1794 – 1795:   the completion of the present Royal Presidio Chapel
  • 1849 – 1858:   the Royal Presidio Chapel becomes a Cathedral
  • 1858 – the construction of the transepts and the apse
  • 1860:   the first photograph of the chapel
  • 1868:   Father A.D. Casanova begins his tenure at the chapel
  • 1893:   Father Mestres begins his tenure after the death of Father Casanova and remains until his death in 1930
  • 1894:   the espadaña was extended as a complete second tier to the tower with a pyramidal tile roof
  • 1921:   the Lourdes grotto was constructed
  • 1942:   renovations to recall prior Spanish period completed
  • 1961:   the chapel is entered as a National Historic Landmark
  • 1966:   property listed on The National Register of Historic Places

One place, three birthdays

April 15, 1770 was a windy Easter Sunday. Early that morning, the vessel San Antonio left San Diego for Monterey, leading the sea expedition. The crew, together with Father Serra, said farewell to San Diego, but a few hours later they were back on land. Strong winds had brought the ship and her crew back to the shores of the newly established port on the Pacific Ocean. Father Serra, as Padre Presidente of the expedition, saw it as an act of God. Gratefully he gave thanks to the Sister Wind, seeing the currents as heavenly signs and as an indication to remain on the ground and celebrate Easter Sunday, before they started such a long journey toward Monterey. Like Father Serra, the captain, Juan Perez, was born in Mallorca, Spain. While, he and Portola did not share the enthusiasm of Serra in regards to their Easter Sunday, no one, not even his beloved ship, could stand the strong winds.

Miraculously, the next day, the weather was favorable and the winds died down. Slowly the San Antonio left San Diego for the second time, carrying with her Father Serra, and Captain Perez with his crew.

A day later, the land expedition led by Portola and Father Crespi, left San Diego. This expedition arrived at the Bay of Monterey on Ascension Day, May 24, but the San Antonio could not be seen yet. On May 31, one of the soldatos spotted the vessel on the horizon. According to their customs, they lit a fire as a signal that the land expedition had already arrived to its destination. The San Antonio responded with its cannons. There was great joy on both sides of the expedition.

On June 1, the vessel arrived in Monterey Bay. During a shipboard meeting, Father Serra, Portola, and other officials conferred on the founding of Mission San Carlos Borromeo. All of them agreed that Pentecost Sunday, June 3, 1770, was a good pick for the dedication day. They chose the spot to celebrate a Thanksgiving Mass to be under the same oak tree where the Carmelites celebrated Mass with the Vizcaino expedition of 1602.

On Pentecost Sunday, Portola declared that the primary intention of the King of Spain was to extend the faith, therefore he allowed the cross to precede the flag of Spain. Thus, Father Serra led the procession; reverently, placed the cross in the ground, said a prayer of blessing. and founded the Mission of San Carlos Borromeo. This is the date when San Carlos Borromeo de Monterey (and later San Carlos Borromeo de Rio Carmelo or Carmel Mission) was born. The community and port of Monterey, also, was to begin here.

A few days later, a site for the fort (presidio) was chosen. It was a great location, close to the ocean, with an estuary (el estero) to the east. Father Serra called it “a pleasing stretch of land.” The first Presidio Chapel was dedicated to St. Joseph, according to the custom of Father Serra. (All the missions established by Serra were dedicated to the same patron saint) Initially this chapel was built of poles which stood upright in the bare ground, then plastered with mud, and roofed with thatch. A year later, on December 24, 1771, Father Junipero Serra decided to relocate the Mission close to the banks of the Carmel River. It then became Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Rio Carmelo. Today that beautiful Mission is simply known as Carmel Mission. However, the Presidio Chapel remained and continued to be ministered by the Franciscans. Thus, the governor of California, with the small population of Monterey, continued to worship here and this place was never abandoned. In fact, when Carmel Mission was abandoned in ruins, the clergy moved here, to the Presidio Chapel.

California ’s Capital

Monterey can truly be called the Plymouth Rock of the Pacific Coast. Since its foundation, Monterey had served as the residence for the commandant of all Spanish Colonial facilities in Upper California. For its first fifty years (1770-1820), the Presidio was Monterey. The soldiers, their families and, later, the retired soldiers formed its population and the Presidio walls surrounded its only buildings.

In 1775, the Spanish government relocated the residence of the governor from Loreto to Monterey, making it the capital of all of California, both Upper and Lower. This is the time when the "Presidio Chapel" became the Royal Presidio Chapel. In 1779, Spain and France made an alliance against England to support the revolution of England’s thirteen American colonies. When Spain taxed its troops to support the War of 1779, the Monterey Presidio contributed the largest sum of any in California.

Fire destroyed the adobe Chapel in 1789, allowing construction of the present Chapel built of local sandstone. Using plans drafted in Mexico City, mason Manuel Ruiz from San Blas directed the construction that was completed in 1794. When Mexico gained independence from Spain, Monterey formally recognized Mexico’s jurisdiction on April 9, 1822. From that time forward, the focus of the town began to move away from the original Presidio and toward the Custom House Plaza. In 1835, the former Presidio Chapel was transferred from military to civil jurisdiction.

Monterey ’s first parish and pro-cathedral

By 1840 the Presidio buildings were no longer occupied. The seat of government had moved to the newly constructed Casa de Gobierno (or El Cuartel). Local people took the tiles and adobes of the former Presidio buildings to make their own houses, but the old Chapel remained in use as the parish church of Monterey. When Fr. Jose de Real arrived in 1840 as its first pastor, the patronage of the Chapel was changed officially from St. Joseph to St. Charles (San Carlos Borromeo). Eventually, only the stone chapel remained to mark the site of the old Presidio, the original site of Monterey. The Holy See created the Diocese of Monterey in 1849. The new bishop, Joseph Alemany, designated the Royal Chapel as his pro-cathedral. In 1856, Fascinini fashioned a new reredos (wooden altar piece) from redwood covered with plaster.

In 1858, Francisco Pacheco contributed funds to enlarge the Chapel. Transepts were added, giving it the cross-shaped appearance it has now. A new sanctuary and a new sacristy were added along with the Pacheco vault under the Chapel. Cathedral status ended in 1859 when the bishop moved his residence to Los Angeles, henceforth called Diocese of Monterey- Los Angeles.

Father Casanova and Father Mestres

These two major priests bring the Chapel into the 20th century. During his pastorate (1870-1893), Father Angelo Casanova installed whalebone paving in front of the Chapel and, in 1893, the pyramidal roof on the bell tower.

Father Ramon Mestres (1893-1930) added the stone wall along Fremont Street sometime before 1920. In 1921 he constructed the Lourdes Grotto replica. Father Mestres is remembered, as well, for the lore he added to the Chapel. For example, on February 10th, 1899 Fr. Mestres officiated the wedding of Herbert Hoover and Miss Lou Henry. Neither were Catholics but the bride was a Monterey resident. Her father asked Fr. Mestres to witness their marriage in the capacity of a civil magistrate. With the bishop’s permission, this is what Mestres did. Thus, when Herbert Hoover won election in 1928, he became the first President of the United States to have been married before a Catholic priest.

It was Fr. Mestres who rescued the Vizcaino/Serra Oak in 1905 when it died. He stood it behind the Chapel as a memorial. Today, a remnant of the oak hangs behind glass in the vestibule (entrance) of the church. Soon, this historical piece will take its proper place in the newly established museum. Some people say that Fr. Mestres has not completely left his old haunts. They claim he still walks through the Royal Chapel on quiet nights.

When Father Mestres died in 1930, he left unrealized plans for a new church. The new pastor, Msgr. John Durkin, continued these plans for a time but the Great Depression and World War II forced abandonement of the idea of building a new church in favor of restoring the existing Chapel. Harry Downey supervised the restoration that began in 1942. He removed the Fascinini reredos, reusing parts of it at Carmel Mission. The whalebone pavement was removed because uneven wear had made it a hazard.

In 1942, Downie replaced the Gothic stained glass windows (added in 1858) with rectangular openings more characteristic of the Spanish Colonial era. These new windows - with multiple small panes and wood muntins - are consistent with the 1856 Miller sketch.
Downie also rediscovered niches for statues in the nave that had been covered during the forgotten past. He guided the repainting of the interior using traces of the original colors that he found under old finishes. Finally, he opened the Pacheco crypt to discover that it filled with water during rains causing foul odors in the Chapel. He sealed it permanently with concrete and then retiled the Chapel floor.

The front doors, designed and made by Harry Downie, were modeled upon those of a Mission in Diego. They utilize decorative clavos as bosses. The Victorian interior decorative elements of the 1858 remodeling were replaced in 1942 to reflect a Spanish Colonial interpretive period. Downie also removed the Fascinini reredos and he used parts of it to build the reredos at Carmel Mission.
In 1961, the National Parks Service, US Department of the Interior, designated the Chapel as a National Historic Landmark. In 1962 Frederick J. Blersh painted the decorations and crests found today in the sanctuary.

Cathedral of Monterey

The division of the Diocese of Monterey-Fresno in 1967 found the bishop once again residing in Monterey, making the Royal Chapel a cathedral (though the smallest in the continental United States). In 1969, a remodeling of some church furnishings occurred, as a consequence of a new revised liturgy.In 1985, Pope John Paul II declared Junipero Serra venerable and in 1988 he was beatified in recognition of his heroic virtues. His case for canonization is almost complete. He is buried at the foot of the altar in Carmel Mission.

For clarification, the terms Mission, Cathedral, Basilica, Chapel, are not just different ways of saying the same thing. While they are all places of worship, they do not have the same status. A mission is established to reach out to a special category of people in need. The old missions of California were dedicated to the conversion and education of the Indian population. A cathedral does not mean a big church. Size does not make a cathedral – it is the presence of a bishop. There is only one cathedral in a diocese and it is the bishop’s church. A basilica is a church the pope adopted. The original basilicas were in Rome. When the pope visits a locale, he uses the basilica if there is one. A chapel is a place of worship, usually small, set aside for some special use. While the Royal Chapel is now a cathedral, for historical reasons the old title continues in use. It is called both the Royal Presidio Chapel and San Carlos Cathedral.

The Royal Presidio Chapel is a small building but has a great significance. It is the oldest continuously functioning church of worship on one site in the State of California since 1770. Also, it is the earliest building designed by an architect and built of stone in California. The present stone church was completed in 1794. At present, San Carlos is the only surviving building of the original Royal Presidio of Monterey. The beautiful stone facade is substantially unchanged for 200 years. The Royal Presidio Chapel is the only building remaining from the original Monterey that has never been a ruin. The building stands as a tall, silent witness, to its great history.

Monterey is important to the national consciousness of the United States because it was here that American continental extension attained its historic completion. The Royal Presidio Chapel is a Monterey landmark because it is the one place that has received every generation since the time of the Spanish arrival; the one place that has persevered basically unchanged through all the turnings of history since; the one place in Monterey that saw all the events for which Monterey is remembered.

California's first Catholic Cathedral [1849-59] and the smallest Catholic Cathedral in lower 48:: Here's a link to a short documentary about the cathedral which was produced by the City of Monterey in conjunction with 2013 Monterey History Fest. 

Click here to view a marvelous video that documents the conservation effort.

Thank you for visiting our website dedicated to this gem of faith and civilization, Royal Presidio Chapel & San Carlos Cathedral.