Glossary of Terms Associated With California Missions

Experts on California's Spanish missions throw around a lot of architectural terms and names that can be confusing to the rest of us. This illustrated glossary may help you figure out what they're talking about.

01 of 17


Adobe Bricks at San Gabriel Mission
Betsy Malloy Photography

Adobe are bricks made of compressed mud and straw, dried in the sun.

Adobe bricks are one of the world's oldest building materials. Even though they are made of dirt and not fired in a kiln, they are very long-lasting in dry climates. However, they aren't very strong and buildings made from them may fall down during an earthquake.

Many of the early California mission buildings were made of adobe and most of them were damaged by earthquakes.

Adobe bricks are usually made by pressing the mud-and-straw mixture into wooden molds so they come out square.

02 of 17


Buttresses at Santa Ynez Mission
Betsy Malloy Photography

A buttress is a structure made of stone or wood, built against a wall to strengthen it.

Only a few California missions used buttresses to strengthen their buildings. One of them was Mission Santa Ynez, which is shown in the photo. San Gabriel Mission also has buttresses, but they are smaller.

03 of 17


Campanario at La Purisima Mission
Betsy Malloy Photography

A campanario is a wall which holds bells.

Many of the missions had structures like this campanario at La Purisima Mission. Mission San Diego's bell tower holds five bells and so does the one a Mission San Miguel.

04 of 17


Cloister at Mission San Juan Bautista
Betsy Malloy Photography

A cloister is a covered walkway that runs beside a building. The word is used most often when the covered walkway is located at a religious building.

Many of the ​missions had cloisters like this one at Mission San Juan Bautista

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05 of 17


Exterior View, La Purisima Mission
Betsy Malloy Photography

A convento group of monks or nuns, or the place where they gather. Convento is a Spanish word for their residence.

In the California missions, the priests lived in the convento. It was usually part of the mission quadrangle, next to the church on the front of the structure. 

06 of 17

El Camino Real

Highway Marker for the El Camino Real in California
Betsy Malloy Photography

"El Camino Real" is Spanish for "The King's Highway" or the "Royal Road," the name of the road that connected the California mission chain.

The El Camino Real was 600 miles long and connected all 21 missions, along with several sub-missions, four presidios and three towns. 

Today's US Highway 101 follows much of the route of the old El Camino Real. Historical markers like the one in the photo mark its route.

07 of 17


Facade of Mission Santa Barbara
Betsy Malloy Photography

A facade is the face or front of a building.

Most of the California missions have a simple facade, but the one at Mission Santa Barbara is more elaborate. 

08 of 17


Baptismal Font at Mission Santa Barbara
Betsy Malloy Photography

A font is a large, decorated bowl holding Holy Water. Used for baptizing babies and new converts.

The font is used for baptisms, which are done by sprinkling or pouring water on the head. 

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09 of 17


Franciscans at Father Serra's Tomb, Mission Carmel
Betsy Malloy Photography

A Franciscan is a member of a Catholic Church religious order, named for St. Francis of Assisi.

Franciscans follow the teaching of St. Francis of Assisi. Franciscans swear to live a life of prayer, preaching and penance (voluntary self-punishment). They are also active as missionaries.

Most of the Franciscans who worked in California's early missions came from Spain or Mexico. 

10 of 17


Frescoes at Mission San Miguel
Betsy Malloy Photography

A fresco is a painting made directly onto wet plaster.

A few of the early California missions had beautiful fresco murals. Few of them survive.

A fresco decorates the altar. The frescoes at Mission San Miguel are some of the best-preserved ones in California.

11 of 17


Neophytes Working in a Diorama at Mission San Francisco
Betsy Malloy Photography

Anyone who is new to learning something - or a new convert to a religion - is called a neophyte. 

The neophyte learned a Bible verse. The diorama of Mission San Francisco shows neophytes at work and play

12 of 17


Father Serra's Room at Mission Carmel
Betsy Malloy Photography

"Padre" is Spanish for "father," the word is the title of a Roman Catholic priest or pastor.

Padres can also baptize and marry people, hear confessions and do other tasks in the church.

The Spanish missionaries who worked in California were priests or Fathers.

The word Friar is sometimes mistakenly used or them, but that word is from the word for "brother," or a member of a religious order.

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13 of 17


Presidio at Santa Barbara
AI R/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

A presidio is a fortified military settlement.

The Spanish government sent soldiers to California along with the priests. The soldiers built their forts close to the missions. The largest of them were in San Diego, Monterey and San Francisco.

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Model of a Mission Quadrangle at Mission San Francisco
Betsy Malloy Photography

A quadrangle is an enclosed courtyard or patio, having four sides.

Many of the missions were built in a rectangular shape around a courtyard. Some of them had two quadrangles that were connected to each other.

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Reredos at Mission San Francisco
Betsy Malloy Photography

A reredos is a screen or partition wall behind the main altar in a church, usually ornamental.

Many reredos include religious icons and statues of saints, like this one at Mission San Francisco.

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Sanctuary at Mission Buenaventura
Betsy Malloy Photography

The sanctuary is an area inside a church where the main altar is found.

The word sanctuary originally meant a holy place, but today it means a place of safety. 

In church architecture, the sanctuary is the most sacred part of the building. It is the area around the altar.

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Restoration is to repair something to its original condition.

Many of the Spanish missions were unused for many years, and some of the were badly damaged. In a few cases, the tile roof was removed and the adobe walls were left open the weather. Because of years of neglect, they had to be restored to the conditions you see now.

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