Man on a Mission: Mission Santa Clara de Asís


Man on a Mission

Editor’s note: Today, we continue our special series with Kirk Whitney – “Man on a Mission” will take all of us along on Kirk and Debbie Whitney’s pilgrimages to view and pray at the California Missions. I thank Kirk personally for this amazing opportunity to share these treasures with our readers! LMH

What happens when you give the Jesuits a Mission? They turn it into a college. That’s what happened in Santa Clara.

Mission Santa Clara Exterior

Mission Santa Clara Exterior

Like the other twenty California missions, Santa Clara was founded and run by the Franciscans. Their mission, in addition to converting native populations to Christianity, was to serve as part of a three pronged strategy for Spain to maintain a foothold on the west coast of North America. They complimented the military bases (Presidios) and secular civilian settlements (Pueblos).

The day to day functions of the missions were religious and agricultural. Educational efforts at the missions were more likely to be religious, musical or vocational.

Like the other California Missions, Santa Clara was secularized by the Spanish government in the 1830’s.  When mission lands were returned to the Church in the 1850’s, rather than being returned to the Franciscan order or assigned to a diocese, the mission property in Santa Clara was turned over to the Jesuit order with a new mission to establish a university.

Mission Santa Clara Interior

Mission Santa Clara Interior

Unlike most missions, you don’t just pull up to the parking lot and walk in. Like most universities, Santa Clara has a variety of parking lots with varied restrictions. After some trial and error, I found the main entrance to the Santa Clara campus, stopped at the security gate and said, “We are here to visit the Mission, Where is the best place to park?”. We were given directions on how to find the Mission once we were on foot and given a special permit that allowed us to park in a designated lot for a couple of hours. (Our initial visit was on a weekday, on a return Sunday visit, parking was much easier)

Because the mission grounds were transformed into a college campus over the years, a visit to Mission Santa Clara is really a campus visit. The church courtyard and gardens hint at the Mission’s history but does not attempt to preserve it. The church itself is more 19th than 18th century in its design.

Mission Santa Clara moved a number of times in its history due to flooding and earthquakes. The current church is the fifth in the Mission’s history. It was constructed in the 1930’s. The previous church had been destroyed by fire in 1929. Although the construction is modern, great care has been taken to retain the character of the earlier structures.

Mission Santa Clara Altar

Mission Santa Clara Altar

For example, the high altar of the church is a re-creation of the one originally installed in 1825. According to the Mission’s website, the altar restoration is detailed to the point of including portraits of St. Francis and St. Dominic as equals appearing on either side of Archangel Michael. The portraits illustrate a myth, jointly concocted by leaders of the Dominican and Franciscan orders, that the two Saints had been close friends. (They, in fact, had met only once.)  This had been part of an effort to combat the rivalry and conflict between the two orders.

Prominently displayed in a side chapel toward the back of the church is the painting “Holy Family” by Riva Giuseppe Bergamo. The Painting was commissioned in 1889 for the Mission and rescued from the 1926 fire.

Santa Clara Holy Child

Today, Mission Santa Clara serves primarily as a chapel for the University. We had a chance attend Mass on our second visit and enjoyed the experience. (We returned a few weeks after our initial visit because my camera malfunctioned and I lost all the photos from our first trip).

The Mass was an interesting experience. Clearly not a traditional parish, the congregation was a mix of college age youth and older parishioners. The music ministry was a function of the former group, altar servers from the latter. There were a fair number of middle age folks at mass, but I don’t recall seeing a single school aged child.

Although the Mission is not managed as a tourist destination, it is more than welcoming to who want to see it and is well worth a visit. As a bonus, you get to take in the beautiful Santa Clara campus as well.

View additional information on this and other California Missions at

Copyright 2013 Kirk Whitney


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1 Comment

  1. Fr. Giovanni Gusmini on

    Dear Mr. Whitney, thank you very much for you interesting article. I’m a diocesan priest form Bergamo and teacher at the Diocesan Seminary of the same town. I’d like to let you know that in the Diocesan Seminary of Bergamo we have Giuseppe Riva’s bozzetto for the painting of the “Holy Family” you describe above. I myself wasn’t quite sure about who was its author until I found (somewhere on the internet) a link to some images of the Chapel in Mission Santa Clara. From you article I’ve come to know also the date of the painting and about the fire in which it risked to get lost. I’d be very happy if you might give me some more information about the story of this painting (like who commissioned it and why to an italian painter…). Thak you very much. Don Giovanni Gusmini

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