Common Terms of the California Missions

Many words and phrases used during the California mission era are still in use . These include architectural and military terms, religious words and phrases, Native American terms and place names, and of course, the Spanish words for many aspects of everyday life. This glossary provides a handy single reference of these California Mission terms.


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An Indian settlement where dwellings are not permanent and are scattered some distance from each other.


A settlement or a ranch. During mission times ranches could be used for livestock or for agriculture and typically included vast holdings of land.


Clergy’s residence.


The dining area in a mission.


Sealed metal and glass receptacle for displaying sacred objects.


The front wall of a mission church, similar to an espadana, but without openings for bells. It may contain a niche for a statue.


Structure placed behind the altar table and against the wall, typically sub-divided into panels and nichos, and richly decorated.


The process of rebuilding a structure, using to the extent possible, original plans, material and tools.


Neophytes who escaped from a mission. A concerted effort was made to recapture all runaways, often with military excursions into the interior during the 1820s-1830s, when missions were under pressure to maintain production as the neophyte population declined.