The Complete Guide to Carmel Mission

San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo Mission

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The Carmel Mission was the second Spanish mission built in California, founded June 30, 1770, by Father Junipero Serra. Its full name, Mission San Carlos de Borromeo de Carmelo is for Saint Charles Borromeo, the Bishop of Milan who died in 1538.

Father Junipero Serra is its founder. It also has unique architecture, with stone walls and an arched ceiling.

Carmel Mission Timeline

The mission was founded in 1770 and moved to the Carmel River in 1771. It was secularized in 1834 and returned to the Catholic Church in 1859.​

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1770 to the Present Day

Interior of Mission Carmel

Ernest McGray, Jr. / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

When the Spanish decided to build a second California mission near the Monterey Bay, Father Junipero Serra left San Diego to go there by ship.

At the same time, Governor Portola traveled by land. It took them each more than a month to travel about 400 miles, and Father Serra arrived about a week after Portola.

Two days after he arrived, on June 3, 1770, Father Serra founded the Carmel Mission, which was originally located at the Monterey Presidio.

Early Years

Portola left soon after the missions' founding. He left Lieutenant Fages in charge. Fages started to interfere with Carmel Mission. Within a year, Father Serra decided to move the mission to a spot on the Carmel River that had better soil and water and was further away from the soldiers.

In the summer of 1771, the first buildings were started, using 40 Indians from the south, 3 soldiers and 5 sailors for labor. The first winter was very hard. They arrived too late to plant crops. No ships could get there because of ocean storms. Finally, some soldiers went south toward present-day San Luis Obispo and killed some bears. They also harvested wild seeds along the way. In all, they carried enough food back to keep the people from starving.

Father Serra went along with the bear hunters. On the trip, he persuaded a sea captain to carry supplies back to the mission, but he did not return. Instead, he went to Mexico and was gone for a year and a half. While he was away, Father Palou took over.


In 1783, records show the mission had 165 converts, and there were 700 people living at Carmel Mission and on its ranch. They built an irrigation canal from the river to a pool nearby, where they kept fish. The Fathers trained the Indians to do farm and ranch work, blacksmithing and carpentry, and how to make adobe bricks, roof tiles, and tools.

Supplies ran low again in early 177. Many people almost died. That fall, things got better when they harvested 207 bushels of wheat, 250 bushels of corn and 45 bushels of beans. By 1774, the harvest was four times larger. About the same time, Don Juan Bautista de Anza established an inland route and started bringing supplies by land, so the settlers did not have to depend on ships.

Father Serra came back to Carmel in 1774. He moved into a small building next to Carmel Mission and administered mission affairs from there until he died on August 28, 1784, at age 70. He was buried next to Father Crespi, who died in 1782.

Fathers Palou and Lasuen succeeded Serra as Presidente of the Missions, and both of them made Carmel their headquarters.

By 1794, the Indian neophyte population reached 927. A new stone church was started in 1793 and finished in 1797.


Father Lasuen died in 1803 and was buried in the church next to Fathers Crespi and Serra.

During its 66 year history, Carmel Mission made 4,000 converts, By 1823, the population had begun to decline, and only 381 were left. In 1833, Father Jose Real took charge.


The next year, 1834, Mexico secularized the missions because it could not afford to support them after Mexico gained independence from Spain. The Mexican government sold the land around the church, right up to its walls. Father Real moved to Monterey and only held services at Carmel Mission occasionally.

The United States government gave the land back to the church in 1859. By then, the roof had collapsed, and it stayed in ruins for 30 years.

In the 20th Century

The church restoration was started in the 1930s by Harry Downie. Downie came to repair some of the statues but got interested in renovating the whole building. With support from Father Michael O'Connell, the pastor after 1933, he restored the church and surrounding buildings.

Carmel Mission became a parish church in 1933 and was designated a minor basilica by Pope John XXIII in 1961. It is still an active parish church with regular services and a school. 

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Mission Carmel Layout, Floor Plan, Buildings, and Grounds

Layout of the Carmel Mission

TripSavvy / Betsy Malloy

Construction at current mission site began in 1771 after Father Serra moved the mission away from the Presidio in Monterey. He took charge of the building himself.

There were a lot of trees around Carmel Mission. The first buildings (except the church) were made of logs stuck in the ground and standing vertically, with more logs across the top, covered with sticks and grass to make a roof. The first church was a brush hut. All the buildings were surrounded by a pole fence.

Father Palou built the next church at Carmel Mission. It was made of logs and tule reeds and was finished by 1776, along with fathers' quarters made of adobe and a separate kitchen.

After Father Serra died in 1784, Father Lasuen decided to build a new stone church in 1793. Because Fathers Serra and Crespi were buried in the old church, they didn't want to move them, so they built the new church in the same spot.

A master brick-layer from Mexico named Manuel Ruiz supervised construction. The church was finished in 1797. The design is unique: The walls curve inward, and the ceiling follows the curve to form an arch. Mission Carmel is one of only three California missions built of stone, made from native sandstone quarried in the nearby Santa Lucia Mountains.

A burial chapel was added to the church in 1821.

After secularization, the mission roof collapsed in 1851, and the building stood roofless for thirty years. In 1884, Father Angelo Casanova, the pastor at Monterey, raised money to repair the church for the one-hundredth anniversary of Father Serra's death. They built a wood-and-shingle roof on the church, with a high peak that made the building look odd. 

Harry Downie came to the mission to repair broken statues. He got so interested in the old building that he started to research and began restoring the whole mission in 1931. In 1936 a roof that looked like the original was built.

In 1939, Downie found the remains of the original cross buried in the patio. He created a replica and placed it in that same spot. He was supported by father Michael O'Connell, who became pastor of Carmel Mission after 1933, and it took him fifty years to complete the job.

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Mission Carmel Cattle Brand

Cattle Brand of Mission San Carlos de Borromeo (Carmel)

TripSavvy / Betsy Malloy

Every California mission raised cattle, and each one had its own brand. The picture above shows the Carmel Mission cattle brand. It was drawn from samples on display at Mission San Francisco Solano and Mission San Antonio.

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Mission Carmel Bells

Ave Maria Bell at Carmel Mission

TripSavvy /  Betsy Malloy

Because it was also the headquarters of Father Serra, the building's design was more elaborate than other missions, and it actually had two bell towers, one that contained two bells and a larger one with nine bells.

This bell was named Ave Maria. It was cast in Mexico City in 1807 and installed at the mission in 1820. After the mission was secularized, local Indians took the bell down and hid it in the cathedral at Watsonville.

For many years, people forgot about it, but it was re-discovered and brought back to the mission in 1925. This bell is cracked and doesn't ring properly, but a copy was made and hung back in the tower in 2010.

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Ceiling Decoration

Ceiling Decoration at Mission Carmel

TripSavvy / Betsy Malloy

Many of the Spanish missions have decorations like this on their ceilings, but the crystal chandelier is unusual.

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Cemetery at Mission Carmel

TripSavvy / Betsy Malloy

The Catholic priests and fathers were buried inside the church, but the Indians who died there were buried outside. It was common for graves of the Christian Indians to have just a simple wooden cross above it, like these.

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Exterior Buttresses and Windows

Exterior Buttresses and Windows, Mission Carmel

TripSavvy / Betsy Malloy

From outside, it's easy to see how thick the adobe walls are. They were strengthened with sections that were even thicker, like these - which are called buttresses.

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California's First Library

California's First Library, at Mission Carmel

TripSavvy / Betsy Malloy

According to a sign posted outside the door, California's first library was created at Mission Carmel, using books brought north from Mexico City's San Fernando Apostolic College. In 1778, the library had about 30 books, but by 1784 it grew to more than 300. Today, it holds about 600 volumes.

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Priest's Bedroom

Priest's Bedroom, Around 1810

TripSavvy / Betsy Malloy

This room is set up to look like it might have around 1810. By that time, furniture from Europe was reaching the U.S., and local cabinetmakers also were making some items, like the bed. The chest of drawers came from Boston, on a boat that had to go around South America to get here.

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Reception Room

Reception Room, Carmel Mission

TripSavvy / Betsy Malloy

This room, which was called the Grand Sala, was a formal reception room where important visitors were entertained. The room shows today is not its original location, but it's furnished with many original pieces. The flooring is original.

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Father Serra's Room

Father Serra's Room, Mission Carmel

TripSavvy / Betsy Malloy

Father Junipero Serra, often called the Father of the California Missions lived in this small room and died here in 1784.

According to a sign posted by the door, it was rebuilt from original materials gathered around the old mission. The bed is recreated from a description written by Francisco Palou: "His bed consisted of some roughhewn board, covered by a blanket serving more as a covering than an aid for rest for he never used even a sheepskin cover, as was customary."