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What was mission life like for the missionaries and why were the missions so important?

First of all, why did they have missions and why were they important?

As we have said in an earlier Q&A, the missions were built by the Spanish starting in 1769 in order to “colonize” the territory of Alta California. So the missions were important because they were the means of settling California. Without the missions, California - which was a real wilderness in 1769 - would have been settled much more slowly and possibly with a lot more conflict. The missions are also important because they are some of the oldest buildings left in the state and they help us get in touch with the early history of California.

What life was like for the missionaries?

The missionaries typically entered the Franciscan order at a very young age (usually about 16). They then studied to become priests. They only became missionaries if they volunteered. If they were accepted for missionary service they had to leave their homeland (almost all of them came from Spain) with a good chance they would never see their parents or their country again. In actual fact 58 of the 142 missionaires died in California and never did return home.

Their daily life was very busy and combined religious activities (saying mass, baptizing the natives etc.) and running a large community – building the mission (which often included more than 20 buildings), making sure that there was enough for everyone to eat (the missions had large farms and ranches) and overseeing all the goods the missions needed (each mission had blacksmiths and candle makers; they made their own shoes and clothing etc.).

There was a wonderful priest named Fr. Felipe Arroyo de la Cuesta. I wrote a whole chapter about him in my book Soldiers, Scoundrels, Poets & Priests. Fr. Cuesta was age 27 when he arrived in California by ship in 1808. He died the age of 60 in 1840, afflicted with rheumatism, hardly able to walk. Even though he had fulfilled his service in 1818 he stayed at his post all those years because there was no one to replace him. I found a copy of a letter he wrote to a friend which will give you a good idea of the “temporal” duties of the missionaries, which many of them found an almost intolerable burden. He writes:

There are difficulties all around and I am overburdened with cares which render life wearisome. There is hardly anything of the religious in me, and I scarcely know what to do in these troubling times. I made the vows of a Friar Minor; instead, I must manage the Indians, sow grain, raise sheep, horses and cows. I must preach, baptize, bury the dead, visit the sick, direct the carts, haul stones, lime etc. These are things incompatible, thorny, bitter, hard and unbearable. They rob me of time, tranquility and my health. I desire with lively anxiety to devote myself to my sacred ministry and to serve the Lord. Fr. Felipe Arroya de la Cuesta in a letter to a friend, written in 1826

Joseph wrote to thanks us. “That memo was very helpful for my project. Fr. Felipe Arroyo de la Cuesta does sound like a wonderful guy.”