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

We are on our second to last mission trip. This time It's a day trip to Marin and Sonoma counties to visit the last two missions established in California. Mission San Rafael and Mission Solano.

The day started with lunch at Joe's in downtown San Rafael with our Sister and Brother in-law. It's not just a great Italian restaurant, it's a part of San Rafael history dating back to 1947. That means it was there two years before the current San Rafael Mission Church, a replica of the original mission built in 1949.

San Rafael was established in 1817 as an infirmary for Mission Delores in San Francisco, which had suffered a high mortality rate among its neophytes. For its first six years, San Rafael was an "asistencia" or branch of the Mission in San Francisco. The settlement in San Rafael was so prosperous that in 1823 it was granted full mission status.

Although initially prosperous, within twenty years, the Mission had been abandoned. By 1870, all traces of Mission San Rafael were gone and the site was used to establish a parish church.

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Today Saint Raphael Church occupies this high ground in Downtown San Rafael and a charming replica of the Mission San Rafael Archangel serves as a tourist destination, museum and parish chapel.

Thirty or so miles to the northeast is the city of Sonoma and the last Mission to be established in the chain, Mission San Francisco Solano.

Established in 1824, under Mexican rule, the mission plan was done in conjunction with the pueblo of Sonoma. As a result, the Downtown Sonoma of today is much the same as it was in the mid 1800's. The original plaza is now a city park with the Mission, military barracks and several other buildings of that era still surrounding the plaza.

Since they are just a forty-minute drive apart and are two of the smaller missions, these were ideal missions to take in as a pair.

When visiting San Rafael, the Mission experience is limited to the chapel and a small gift shop and museum. Our visit took place on a Saturday when the shop and exhibits were closed so our visit took only about thirty minutes.  The trappings of a modern parish; Church, school, playground and offices now occupy what were once the San Rafael mission grounds.

There is a bit more to see in Sonoma. Mission Solano is a California State Park and museum that preserves the Mission Church, courtyard as well as components of the Sonoma Pueblo.

As with the Mission La Purisima Concepcion, the restoration emphasis was on historical detail. Because the Church does not need to accommodate the needs of a modern parish, the chapel and courtyard are sparsely decorated. For example, the church has no pews or chairs as was typical in the 1800's when parishioners heard Mass on blankets or mats that they brought with them. The courtyard is mostly bare soil with minimal plantings. After all, most mission courtyards were places of work, not parks.

I will admit that I prefer those missions that have retained their religious function, but I appreciate what the California State Park System has done with the two missions they operate. It is interesting to see them presented from a secular perspective. It is also worth noting that there are State parks that adjoin and complement at least two other missions in San Juan Bautista and Santa Cruz.

Mission Solano provides visitors with a good sense of the California mission period in its twilight. It's a great compliment to the fun visitors will also have in the quaint and historic town of Sonoma.

View additional information on this and other California Missions at

Copyright 2013 Kirk Whitney