Our whole family spent the weekend in Santa Clara to see Dead And Company play two shows at Shoreline Amphitheater, and we wanted to check out some of the local attractions while in town. Our plan was to visit the Computer History Museum first, but we’re early risers and it wasn’t open yet! After a quick Google search, we discovered that Mission Santa Clara — a mission we hadn’t yet visited — opened an hour before the museum and decided to check it out.
We easily found parking and walked through the stunning Santa Clara University campus. As we neared the mission, a beautiful wooden arbor stretched over the walkways that was covered in gorgeous, blooming purple wisteria. We also walked through the Mission Gardens, past rose bushes with stunning blooms of reds, oranges, yellows, pinks, and whites, and of course, I had to take photos!
Visiting Mission Santa Clara
As we then stood in front of the main church entrance, I noticed eight wooden crosses flanking the doors. The crosses memorialize the six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper, and her daughter, who were murdered in 1989 for their public support of the poor.
We also noticed marble steps in the grass that don’t lead anywhere! These steps were actually used to assist dismounting passengers arriving by stagecoach or carriage. There are two cement posts nearby by that were used as hitching posts for horses.
It was early and we weren’t sure if Mission Santa Clara was open, as there is no traditional visitor center and gift shop like other California missions we have visited. But when I opened the front doors to the church, we were in awe of its beauty and intrigued by the differences in the design between the missions.
In the vestibule, there are three dates etched in the tile floor:
- 1777, the founding date of the mission
- 1822, the date of the relocation to its current site
- 1928, the dedication date of the current mission building
The nave, the main floor of the Mission church, is flanked by seven side chapels and six confessionals. The chapels include:
- Catala Crucifix Chapel: The life-size crucifix that was carved in Mexico and brought to the mission in 1802.
- St. Ignatius Chapel: The chapel is dedicated to St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit Order.
- St. Anthony Chapel: The chapel honors St. Anthony of Padua, the first follower of St. Francis.
- Holy Family Chapel: The former baptistery displays an 1889 painting by Riva Giuseppe Bergamo of the Holy Family juxtaposed with God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. The painting was saved from the 1926 fire that tore through the mission.
- St. Francis Side Chapel: The chapel is dedicated to St. Francis, has statues of St. Collette and St. Francis of Solano, both salvaged from the 1926 fire. A mission-era statue of St. Francis adorns the center.
- St. Joseph Chapel: The chapel honors St. Joseph, stepfather of Jesus and patron saint of SCU.
- Guadalupe Chapel: The chapel is dedicated to Our Lady of Guadalupe and features a direct reproduction of the famous image imprinted on Juan Diego’s sarape. Above is an older painting also salvaged from the 1926 fire, along with two statues that represent Mary’s parents.
The Sanctuary — the main altar and pulpit — is breathtaking. Every time I stand in front of a mission sanctuary, I feel an overwhelming sense of peace and am reminded of my Catholic upbringing. The High Altar ceiling and reredos are exact replicas of the 1825 church.
History of Mission Santa Clara
Mission Santa Clara de Asis is the eighth mission in the chain of 21 Franciscan missions established by Padre Junipero Serra. First founded in 1777 on the banks of the Guadalupe River just north of Highway 101 near the Mineta International Airport runway. Flood, fire, and earthquakes forced five relocations until the mission finally settled in its current location in 1822.
As the first mission to bear the name of a woman, St. Claire of Assisi, an early companion of St. Francis, Mission Santa Clara was meant to serve as the sister mission to Mission Dolores in San Francisco. Mission Dolores and its presidio was to protect the mouth of the San Francisco Bay, while Mission Santa Clara was to anchor the South Bay for the receiving of goods and services meant for the new Pueblo of San Jose.
Located in the South Bay Area, Mission Santa Clara was considered an early success, with a baptismal registry listing more baptisms than any of the other missions.
With the secession of Mexico from the Spanish Empire in 1822, the 21 missions suffered. The new Mexican government didn’t have the resources or an interest in supporting the distant missions. With insufficient funds to manage the mission and only a single priest, it fell into decay.
Then in 1850 discussions began about transferring ownership from the Franciscans to the Jesuits, and in 1851, Mission Santa Clara and its adjacent lands became the first college of higher learning in the new state of California.
In 1861, Santa Clara College began a campaign to restore and improve the mission. Mission Santa Clara was enlarged and given a new facade. At one time, the mission boasted two bell towers, but a devastating fire in 1926 consumed the mission and the wooden bell tower.
The current mission was then rebuilt in the new idealized neocolonial style that was fashionable at the time. With references drawn from actual historical photographs, the 1825 single bell tower structure was resurrected. The bell tower you see today, built of steel reinforced concrete, is similar to the original in length, but more than twice as wide as the 1825 mission.
Today Mission Santa Clara continues to serve as a spiritual hub and the student chapel for the community at Santa Clara University.
Know Before You Go
- Mission Santa Clara is located on the Santa Clara University campus at 500 El Camino Real, Santa Clara, California 95053.
- The “visitor center” is a tiny room on the side of the church’s vestibule. Grab a self-guided tour brochure from the wall holder to learn more about the mission.
- There is an accompanying museum, the De Saisset Museum, with a California History exhibit, but it is not at the church. You’ll need to walk across the courtyard in front of the church, past the Mission Cross, and into another building.
- Mission Santa Clara is still a working church. Please be respectful when visiting by keeping your voices low and to a whisper.
- The church does close to the public during special events.