Posted by: acooksca | 10/02/2009

Mission Charms

Mission Dolores, San Francisco

Mission Dolores, San Francisco

In the late 1960’s my mother, my sister Sue and I packed the old Dodge and headed south to San Diego. This was to be an educational vacation for us girls. For my Mom it was a slip back into the romance of early California. Our goal was to drive the mission trail and visit the twenty-one California Missions.

We discovered missions in the heart of cities… San Diego, San Fernando, Santa Barbara. Some lie in less congested settings on the edge of small farming towns such as San Juan Bautista. Several, like Nuestra Senora de la Soledad, lay mostly in ruins in fields, forgotten by all but a handful caretakers. In a few cases no original buildings were left. San Jose de Guadalupe had been destroyed by earthquake in 1868 and not until the 1980’s was a small chapel rebuilt on the site.

From the first mission I was fascinated by these historic and elegant symbols of early California. At each mission my mother encouraged us to buy a small metal charm with the image of the patron saint on one side and the mission buildings on the other. They were souvenirs, but I didn’t need them to remember each stop. The charms were 25 cents. I kept mine for years in a small ornate box until they were destroyed in a fire. My mother set hers on a charm bracelet.

Several years ago I inherited my mother’s bracelet. When my niece, (one of Mom’s two grand daughters), announced her wedding I thought I would wear the bracelet as a token of my mother’s presence. I pulled it from the box and counted the medals…15. Seven were missing. We had, I remembered, run out of vacation days after the Carmel mission.

During the years to come Mom visited a few more and the representing medals were there. Fortunately, most of the missing medals were of the missions closest to our home in the Bay Area. So I went on my own mission to finish the trail and the bracelet.

Built between 1769 and 1823, these twenty-one outposts of the distant Spanish crown were founded to establish a colonizing presence in Alta California. Russian, English and Dutch ships were roving off the California coast. The Missions would help claim California for Spain. The plan was to civilize the native peoples and supply food for presidios (forts) along the coast which were hastily built at San Diego, Santa Barbara, Monterey and San Francisco.

The plan didn’t go well from the beginning. The first Spanish expeditions into unexplored California found thousands of acres of barren un-cultivated dry lands. They were pestered by coyotes, hounded by wolves and the livestock attacked by bears. The natives were simple hunter-gatherers and had no knowledge of farming. They also had nothing worth trading for.

Everything…tools, food, clothing, livestock would initially have to be brought up the rocky coast on supply ships from Mexico or overland through Arizona. No one wanted to leave civilized Mexico to colonize this wild place. But Franciscan fathers found it an opportunity to do God’s work and agreed to start the missions.

The earliest missions endured starvation and sickness during their first years. Yet in a remarkably short time the mission fathers trained the Indians to make adobe bricks and to cut trees into timber for buildings. They planted fruit, olive and citrus trees, farmed plots of grains and squash and introduced the “mission” grape for sacramental wine. Cattle were raised for their tallow and meat, sheep for wool to be spun into cloth. By the early 1800’s most missions were able to care for their daily needs and build unique churches and compounds.

By the time California was ceded by Mexico to The United States in 1848 the missions had passed their colonial prime and headed into decline. The large native workforce needed to maintain buildings of adobe and tile evaporated along with a purpose for the missions. Some missions remained in the hands of various religious groups and many became private property of Rancheros and were allowed to deteriorate.

In the 1920’s interest in saving the missions began as a movement by a few individuals who donated vast sums of

Mission charms

Mission charms

capital and energy and influenced the general Californian consciousness. The romance of Old California blossomed in popular books and movies. By the time we took our road trip to visit the missions in the 1960’s we found most of them sympathetically restored, each a unique gem.

With seven medals missing from the bracelet I considered the likelihood of finding them. The medals were apparently made by an Italian company and we had purchased them forty years ago. I secretly doubted that they would still be available.

We had purchased the medals from gift shops at missions that had working churches. Mission La Purisima Concepcion, near San Luis Obispo, was in the 1960’s and still is a state park. It is secular and wanting to distance the state from any religious (read: abusive to native Americans) past, they didn’t offer the medals.
The same was true with the final mission on the trail, Mission St. Francis de Solano in Sonoma, also a state park. I thought I would contact the mission office just in case. I e-mailed Sonoma Mission and received an auto-generated “I am the only one here and I don’t return emails” note back. I called and got the recording “due to state budget cuts, vacations and mandatory furloughs, there is only one person in the office and I return calls on Wednesday…if I can return them at all. Sorry for the inconvenience.” The medal project was looking grim.

I sent a few emails and received one back from Helen Bernardoni in the gift shop at Mission San Raphael. Astoundingly, she had the medal for that mission. We visited the mission and bought the medal of San Raphael Archangel for one dollar. I complained that the two state parks had no medals for the bracelet. I mentioned that Sonoma Mission was named for St. Francis de Solano, an obscure Father working in Peru during the 1500s. “You won’t find a medal for him, but I suspect that he was ordained St. Francis after St. Francis of Assisi. Why don’t you use a general St. Francis medal to represent St. Francis de Solano?” Helen had a St. Francis medal by the same manufacturer as the others and this was a compromise I could live with.

Heartened by finding two of the missing medals, we drove to Mission Santa Clara. If the diminutive Mission San Raphael has a gift shop than Mission Santa Clara, at the center of the thriving private university, would certainly have one. Unfortunately, there was only the campus bookstore which is run by Barnes and Noble. “Rosaries just seemed to walk out of the store on their own and the religious stuff was never re-ordered” the assistant manager told me.

The mission office at Mission Santa Clara referred us to Our Lady of Peace Church, also in Santa Clara. My phone call was answered by Henriqueta. They had a medal by the same producer with an image of  Santa Clara. They also had a medal of Our Lady of Peace. I rationalized that every renaissance painting I had seen of the Immaculate Conception showed a peaceful Mary and Mission La Purisima Concepcion (the state park) would be well represented by the Lady of Peace medal.

Another missing medal was that of Mission Santa Cruz. This one is called the “bad luck mission”. During its short life it was washed away by a flood, rebuilt and flattened by an earthquake and sacked by pirates. The first Pueblo (town) of Santa Cruz was colonized by convicts sent from the prison of Guadalajara and they repeatedly plundered the mission. Historically it had the lowest native conversion rate and population of all the missions.

The Roman Catholic Parish of Holy Cross in Santa Cruz is the modern home of the mission and a small chapel sits on the edge of Mission Park. When the e-mails kicked back, I picked up the phone. Sister Betty Pedrazzi answered. She heads the Mission Galeria, a store which the website says has religious books, gifts and cards. I went into my now familiar spiel about the medal. Yes, she had the right medal for 75 cents and yes, she would be happy to mail one to me.

I was on a roll! Next I phoned the nearly forgotten Mission Nuestra Senora de la Soledad (Our lady of Solitude). A small chapel stands in lonely fields, the original buildings in ruins, off Highway 101 in Soledad. My sister Sue and I had re-visited Soledad Mission a few years ago. I remembered a tiny gift shop. Ginger answered the call and said yes, she was happy to mail the medal. I sent a small donation and when the envelope came, I found she had enclosed two medals.

Six down and the last one would be a snap at the thriving Mission St. Francis of Assisi in San Francisco. I paid my entrance fee of five dollars, toured the beautiful church and historic grounds and finished off in the ample gift shop. After scouring the shelves of books and icons, souvenir key chains and scarves I explained the medal I had come for. “I know the one and we are out of them. The manager is having a feud with the supplier in New York. It’s been going on for a while and I don’t think we are going to carry them again”.

My sister Sue lives near the mission and I called her. “I can’t believe it! The last medal for Mom’s bracelet and San Francisco doesn’t have it. I got all the obscure ones…” she offered to meet me for tea. I walked to Samovar Tea Lounge in Hayes Valley. As Sue sat down she took from her purse a tiny, familiar oval of metal. It was embossed with Saint Francis of Assisi on one side and the San Francisco Mission on the other.

Thanks, Sue, for completeing the bracelet. And thank you Mom, for introducing us to the charms of The Mission Trail.



  1. I came across your story while searching for charms that we are missing. We, husband and kiddos, have been to all but one as a family. I am hoping to complete my set also. I am also hoping to get a Santa Clara charm by calling the church you mentioned in your story. Thank you for sharing your wonderful story.

    • Good luck, Julie!

  2. I just did the same thing, i have 16 mission charm two mission didn’t have any. Santa Clara was just a church and the ones in the bay was closed by the time we arrived .. Traffic was crazy..

    • I wear the mission charm bracelet every now and then and always get comments on it. Gives me a chance to introduce some folks to the missions if they haven’t visited one. Don’t you find them each unique and compelling in their own way? Do you think you might try to collect more of the charms?

  3. I enjoyed this story very much! I happened to be looking up la purisima conception because I found
    an antique charm with this on it and was curious of the history. Mine is plain on the back but very pretty as well. What a lovely keepsake for future generations you have!

    • Rhonda: Thanks for telling me about the La Purisima Concepcion charm you have. That California mission has been a state park for many years and when I first visited it with my family in the 1960’s I wasn’t able to get a medal there. You might have a medal that is older than that. Or maybe, because it is such a well preserved mission, were sold out when we went. There must be thousands of mission charms out there tucked into drawers and keepsake boxes…all lovely remembrances.

  4. Hey K-
    Particularly enjoyed this sweet tale of your scavenger hunt to complete a special memento…
    Your mother would have been delighted to know that you two finished her work and brought it forward to her grandchildren. Bravissima!

    • Thanks, Heidi, glad you enjoyed it. See you guys soon! K

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