Mission Santa Clara

Santa Clara de Asis: Facade

ART on FILE / Getty Images 

Mission Santa Clara was the eighth one built in California. It was founded on January 12, 1777, by Father Thomas de la Pena.

Interesting Facts about Mission Santa Clara

Mission Santa Clara is the only Spanish mission that is now located on a university campus. It has rung its bells every evening at 8:30 p.m. for more than 200 years. Mission Santa Clara was named after St. Francis of Assisi's childhood friend. It was the first one in California that honored a woman.

Where Is Mission Santa Clara Located?

Mission Santa Clara is at 500 El Camino Real (on the Santa Clara University campus. You can get the hours and directions at the Mission Santa Clara Website.

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History of Mission Santa Clara: 1769 to Present Day

Commemorative Bell at Mission Santa Clara
Simon Ladesma/Flickr/CC BY-NC 2.0

Europeans first visited the Santa Clara Valley in 1769. They found a grassy plain covered with oaks and with lots of marshy land, creeks, and rivers. The called area Llano de los Robles, or Plain of the Oaks.

In 1774, an expedition went looking for places in the area to build future missions. They picked a location on the Guadalupe River. 

In late 1776, a group of soldiers and priests arrived. Father Thomas de la Pena founded Mission Santa Clara de Asis, the eighth Spanish mission in California, on January 12, 1777.

Early Years of Mission Santa Clara de Asis

A few days after the founding, Father Marguia arrived from Monterey with supplies and religious articles donated by churches in Mexico. Fathers de la Pena and Marguia stayed at Mission Santa Clara de Asis to begin converting the Indians, who lived in more than 40 small settlements in the area.

By the end of the first year, Mission Santa Clara de Asis had a church and a father's residence, and they were building a house. They had corrals for their horses and cattle, a bridge across the river, and they had planted some grain.

In mid-1777, Lieutenant Moraga and a large group of colonists arrived from Mexico. The fathers knew that civilians had a bad effect on their neophytes, and they wanted them to stay away from the mission.

It took until 1801 before the boundary between the civilian settlement of San Jose and Mission Santa Clara de Asis was fixed.

In January 1779, the Guadalupe River flooded. The fathers decided to move to a safer location. They set up a temporary church on higher ground in November 1779. In 1781, they chose a new site that was safe from floods but could be irrigated by digging a canal from the river.

Father Junipero Serra came to bless the new church and lay the cornerstone. The church was finished in 1784. Father Marguia designed it, but he died before it was dedicated. The grand celebration for the new church was attended by Fathers Serra and Palao, and by Governor Pedro Fages.

Mission Santa Clara de Asis 1800-1820

Mission Santa Clara de Asis was very successful at converting the Indians to Christianity, and the Fathers performed many baptisms. They taught their new converts the standard mission skills: cooking, sewing, and farming. By 1827, Mission Santa Clara de Asis had 14,500 head of cattle and 15,500 sheep.

In May 1805, the fathers heard that some of the unconverted Indians were planning a massacre. They called for help from San Francisco and Monterey. Then they found out that it was a rumor started by some Indians who wanted to frighten the fathers.

In 1818, an earthquake damaged the buildings. Fathers Viader and Catala built a temporary adobe church that was used until 1825.

Mission Santa Clara de Asis in the 1820s-1830s

Mission Santa Clara de Asis moved to a fifth and final site in 1822. They started to build a new church. The complex was laid out in a large quadrangle. The church building was finished in 1825, and it stood until 1925.

Secularization and Mission Santa Clara de Asis

Mexico won independence from Spain in 1821, but it could not afford to keep the missions running. In 1836, Mission Santa Clara de Asis was secularized. It continued as a parish church into the 1840s.

The bishop of California decided to offer the buildings to Father John Nobili, who wanted to start a school. In 1851, the property was transferred to the Jesuit priests, who founded Santa Clara University.

Mission Santa Clara de Asis in the 20th Century

The university still occupies the site of Mission Santa Clara de Asis. No original buildings are left. 

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Mission Santa Clara Layout, Floor Plan, Buildings and Grounds


Betsy Malloy

Mission Santa Clara has had five church buildings in its history. The first two were temporary structures, abandoned because of floods.

The first permanent church, designed by Father Martuia, was started in 1781 and completed in 1784. King Carlos III of Spain sent a gift of bells, one of which still survives. He requested that the bells be rung every evening at 8:30 PM in memory of the dead, a tradition that continued even when the church was destroyed by fire.

In 1818, an earthquake damaged the church beyond repair. Fathers Viader and Catala built a temporary church near the present site of Santa Clara University's Kenna Hall. It was used until 1867.

Construction of the new mission started in 1822, at a new site. The mission was laid out in a traditional rectangular style. The church was completed in 1825, and it stood until 1926. The church was an adobe structure 100 feet long, 22 feet wide and 20 feet high. Its walls were four feet thick at the bottom, tapering to two feet thick at the top, and they were whitewashed with a decorative border painted inside. A Mexican artist, Augustin Davila, painted a scene of heaven above the altar.

In the 1860s, the church was remodeled. A wooden facade was built over the old adobe one, and a second bell tower was built.

The fifth church was destroyed by fire in 1926. The university rebuilt the church, trying to restore it to the way it looked in 1825. The restored church was completed in 1928.

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Mission Santa Clara Exterior

Exterior of Mission Santa Clara de Asis
Eddie Caulfield/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

Three of the bells date from the mission period. They were cast in 1798, 1799 and 1805. Another bell was donated to Santa Clara University by King Alfonso XIII of Spain in 1929.

The roof of the church has the original tiles from the 1822 church, which were removed and stored when the roof started sagging and leaking.

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Mission Santa Clara Interior

Mission Santa Clara de Asis
Richard Cummins / Getty Images

In October 1926, a fire destroyed the church. Some of the statues and paintings were rescued, as was one of the bells. 

When the university rebuilt the church, they made it wider than the original so that it could be used as the university's chapel. The front was restored to the original design with one tower. The reredos and painted ceiling are copies of the originals.

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Mission Santa Clara Ceiling Decoration

interior of church of Mission Santa Clara near San Jose, California
nik wheeler / Getty Images

This painting of angels peering down into the church is a reproduction of the original, which was painted by Augustine Davila in 1825.

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Mission Santa Clara Cattle Brand

Cattle Brand of Mission Santa Clara

Betsy Malloy Photography

The Mission Santa Clara picture above shows its cattle brand. It was drawn from samples on display at Mission San Francisco Solano and Mission San Antonio. It's one of several mission brands that include the letter "A" in various forms, but we have not been able to find out its origin.