Man on a Mission

Editor’s note: Today, we continue our special series with Kirk Whitney – “Man on a Mission” will take all of us along on Kirk and Debbie Whitney’s pilgrimages to view and pray at the California Missions. I thank Kirk personally for this amazing opportunity to share these treasures with our readers! LMH

"I am a voice crying in the wilderness".  You can imagine these words, proclaimed by Isaiah and echoed by John the Baptist could have resonated with the padres who first surveyed the sight that would become Mission San Juan Bautista.  The location seems remote, but stands at the crossroads of Old California.

Mission San Juan Bautista lies at the point where El Camino Real and El Camino Viejo intersect at the western end of the Pacheco Pass. It also sits on the San Andreas Fault. Part of the scenic beauty of the Mission grounds comes from the fact that it sits on the elevated side of the fault line, allowing visitors to look down across the valley floor.

For me, San Juan Bautista is the ultimate mission experience. The name (Spanish for John the Baptist) applies to the Mission, the State Park that adjoins it and the town itself. Visitors can get a sense of how the missions influenced their surrounding communities over time.

I can think of no city that is more who's history and current life are more closely connected to a mission than the City of San Juan Bautista. Isolated from other population areas, much of the town's economy is based on mission tourism. The city of about 2000 people feels a bit like a modern day pueblo, a secular community closely tied to its mission.

Then you have San Juan Bautista State Park. Blending seamlessly with the Mission grounds, the park recreates what town life would have been like at the Mission in the late 19th century. The plaza lawn in front of the Mission has a variety of restored buildings that serve as the park's museums. Among these are the stables and jail.

Finally, the heart of San Juan Bautista is the Mission itself. In addition to being a historical landmark and museum, the Mission is home to an active and lively parish. The courtyard is beautifully landscaped. A large portion of it is set aside for picnics and barbecues. The Mission is host to a number of large gatherings throughout the year.

Mass was in progress when we arrived, so we spent the first forty minutes or so touring the museum, exploring the garden inside the courtyard and the cemetery outside. We had a chance to view the beautiful Guadalupe Chapel at the back end of the church. We also took a few minutes to revisit the eight foot bronze sculpture in front of the church.

SanJuanBautista 167 Guadalupe Chapel

It was while viewing this sculpture on a previous visit that the idea to visit all 21 missions came to me. In the opening entry to this series, I describe that moment. I also describe the sculpture as simply a person reaching out to the sun. Returning to the Mission a few months later, I learned that the sculpture, completed in 2000 by Thomas Marsh, is in fact a depiction of John the Baptist as an Ohlone Indian.

John the Baptist sculpture, Thomas Marsh John the Baptist sculpture, Thomas Marsh

Once Mass was out, we had a chance to tour the church itself. Largest of the California Mission churches, the interior feels both humble and grand at the same time. As the current church was being built in the early 1800's the design was revised to include two sets of arched walls to the church interior for greater strength against earthquake damage. This makes for a long, narrow worship space, but has created open devotional space on each side.

Church Interior Church Interior

There is much to do and see in San Juan Bautista, making it a great day trip destination. The city is host to a number of activities and festivals. It is also home to several well-regarded restaurants, galleries and the famed Teatro Campesino.

San Juan Bautista is an example of a church that is still fulfilling its mission well into the 21st Century.

View additional information on this and other California Missions at

Copyright 2013 Kirk Whitney