The plan for each of the California missions was for two padres (or priests) to be assigned to each mission. Usually one of the padres was more experienced, and one was younger. One padre was responsible for the religious affairs of the mission. The other padre took care of business matters, often directing the care of the livestock and crops.
The padres at the California missions were part of a group known as the Franciscans, an Order of Friars Minor. This group was named for its founder, St. Francis of Assisi (in Italy).
In 1206, when Francis of Assisi was 25 years old, he had a vision telling him that he should live as Jesus had lived. He gave away all of this belongings and began traveling from place to place, helping people and repairing churches. He got his food and shelter by begging for it. Soon other young men joined Francis in his vows of poverty and service. More than 500 years later, the Franciscan padres at the California missions followed these vows.
While the church was the richest, most decorated part of the mission, the padres’ quarters were the plainest and most simple. The rooms where the padres slept were in the section of the mission quadrangle called the convento. The convento was usually the building attached to the church, forming the front of the compound. The doors of the rooms of the convento opened toward the courtyard, with a long covered porch running the entire length of the building.
Each padre had a small room called a cell where he slept. The floor of the padre’s cell was bare beaten earth or adobe tile. There were small windows but instead of having glass in them, the windows were covered with cowhides. The hides had been scraped thin and then greased, so some daylight came through them into the room.
Furnishings in the padres’ quarters were simple and sparse. There was usually a bed, a table and one chair, a stand with a pitcher and bowl for water, and a chest for storing things. The furniture was made at the mission. The small bed, or cot, was a simple wooden frame over which hides were stretched as a mattress. On the table the padre had a candlestick and candle to provide light for reading and writing. His clothes were hung on pegs on the wall. Also on the wall was hung a small wooden cross.
Father Serra, who founded the first mission at San Diego and who was in charge of the mission system for many years, died at Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo. His cell there has been reconstructed as an example of what the mission padres’ quarters were like. Another padre, Father Palou, wrote a detailed description of Serra’s cell so researchers now know exactly how it was furnished.
Mission padres wore the traditional clothing of the Franciscan friars. The padre wore a loose robe that covered him from his neck to his ankles. The robe had a full skirt, loose sleeves, and a hood called a cowl that the padre could pull up to cover his head. The robe was grey in color, and was made from a rough cloth called sackcloth. A piece of rope was doubled around the waist like a belt and tied in a knot on the right hip. The ends of the rope, with three knots tied in them, hung down from the waist to the bottom of the robe. A string of beads called a rosary hung from the rope at the waist.
When he was outside, the padre wore a large hat that had a broad, stiff brim. Sometimes the padre went barefoot. At other times he wore sandals made of leather.
Written journals that the padres left behind when the missions were abandoned give details about their life at the missions, and about the prosperity of the missions. The padres kept track of all the livestock and crops, and all the supplies. They recorded the names of the Native Californians who came to the mission, and the marriages, births, and deaths.
From their written records, it appears that the padres felt they were improving the way of life of the Indians in whose territory they built their missions. They felt that it was important for the people to be converted to Christianity, and to accept the padres’ ways of living. It seems that the padres did not value the existing culture of the California Indians enough to try to preserve it.
Some of the padres were kind to the Indians. There are records of several padres who were much respected by the people. One story tells of Father Peyri at Mission San Luis Rey, and of how greatly he was loved by the people there. When he decided to leave his work at the mission, his many friends followed him to the ship, pleading with him to stay with them.
Many other times, however, the padres punished the people harshly for not following the rules the padres had set. The padres often treated the men and women like children, not allowing them to make decisions as adults. This made it more difficult for the Native Californians to take part in the community once the missions were abandoned.