Man on a Mission: Mission San Francisco de Asis


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

Mission and Basilica

Mission and Basilica

A Rabbi, a Buddhist Monk and two Catholics walk up to a mission. No, it’s not the opening line of a bad joke. It’s the opening moment of our return visit to Mission San Francisco, known to locals as Mission Delores.

Debbie and I were the two Catholics; my oldest brother was the Monk.  We dropped my brother off in front of the Mission while we looked for a parking space. We arrived on foot a few minutes later, he and the Rabbi, who leads the nearby Synagogue, were comparing notes on their respective practices and acquaintances they had in common in the San Francisco interfaith community.

It could have only happened at Mission San Francisco.  The most urban of all the California Missions, located in the area that borders the city’s Mission and Castro Districts, Mission Delores both stands out and blends in.  Although the Mission church and neighboring Mission Delores Basilica are architecturally striking, in the busy city environment, it’s easy to drive by and barely notice them. (Believe me, I did it twice!).

Mission San Francisco Interior

Debbie and I had made the trip a few weeks earlier with our youngest son. A camera malfunction ruined most of the sixty or so photos I had taken. I had been looking for an excuse to return and get the photos I wanted. That opportunity came with my oldest brother, visiting from Washington, mentioned that he was trying to figure out how he was going to get to San Francisco for the next leg of his journey. It was one of those rare opportunities for an act of mercy and an act of self-interest to coincide, so I offered him a ride.

Mission San Francisco de Asis is California’s oldest intact mission church. Father Junipero Serra established the Mission itself five days before the Declaration of Independence was signed. The church has been preserved over the centuries and managed to survive the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake undamaged. Oddly enough, the parish church next door was destroyed in that quake. The Mission Delores Basilica was built on that spot in 1918.

Basilica and Mission Walls

I have often wondered why Mission San Francisco is referred to as Mission Delores. I asked my brother that question on the drive over since he had lived in San Francisco for a number of years. “Because it’s so close to Delores Park” he joked. We later discovered that his jest was not so far from the truth. It turns out that the location for the Mission was chosen for its proximity to a spring fed creek that the early Spanish explorers named Arroyo Delores for Our Lady of Sorrows.

The Mission Church itself is tiny; its interior space is only 22 feet wide. Its narrow design and four-foot thick adobe walls are thought to be responsible for the church enduring the 1906 and 1989 earthquakes.  Both inside and out, the Mission’s appearance is close to what it was when the building was completed in 1791. A couple of striking features of the Mission Chapel are the hand painted wood ceiling and spiral stair case leading up to the organ loft.

Mission San Francisco Organ Loft

Visitors to Mission San Francisco are encouraged to tour Basilica Mission Delores next door as well. Why build a church right next door? California’s gold rush caused the city’s population to explode, so a large parish church was built to accommodate the influx.

The Basilica is as grand as the Mission Chapel is humble. A key feature of the interior is a set of stained glass windows that depict the 21 California missions and their founders.

Basilica Stained Glass Detail

The final portion of the mission tour is the beautifully restored cemetery. As it exists today, the cemetery is only a small portion of the original. What remains are graves with well-restored monuments and lush landscaping giving the grounds a serene but gothic atmosphere. It is also notable that, excluding the Presidio, it is the only cemetery in San Francisco. Burials were banned in San Francisco at the turn of the twentieth century. The graves in all other cemeteries were exhumed and moved to Colma a few miles south.

Mission San Francisco Cemetery

Fighting the weekday traffic and finding a place to park can make visiting a minor challenge. (Visitor parking spaces are available on weekends) The charms of Mission San Francisco de Asis and the Mission Delores Basilica make it well worth your effort.

View additional information on this and other California Missions at

Copyright 2013 Kirk Whitney


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