The Missions: Number 5

Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa was founded September 1, 1772, chiefly because supplies were dwindling in the four already established missions—and this region contained an abundance of bears that could provide fresh meat for priests and soldiers who were otherwise facing starvation.  After 25 mule loads of dried bear meat reached the other mission settlements, Father Junipero Serra decided that the area, which also contained abundant water, would be an ideal place for a fifth mission. Father Serra celebrated the first Mass with a cross erected near San Luis Creek.  Then he departed the next day for San Diego, leaving Father Jose Cavaller in charge, and faced with the difficult task of actually building the mission—which was accomplished with the aid of the local Chumash Natives. Simple, temporary quarters were fashioned with poles and tree boughs, until destructive fires in the first few years compelled the use of adobe and tiles for permanent structures. The church and priest’s residence were erected by 1794; storerooms, other housing, and mills were added to the overall complex. The mission was named for Saint Louis of Anjou, bishop of Toulouse, France, a young priest who received instruction from the Franciscan friars before his early death. After 1818 the mission’s prosperity declined, and 20 years later the buildings were crumbling for lack of sufficient funds to rebuild. Meanwhile the Mexican government had secularized all the missions. In 1845 Governor Pio Pico sold all the mission buildings of San Luis Obispo, except the church, to Captain John Wilson for $510. In the 1930s, the buildings underwent extensive renovation to restore them back to their early-mission style. The design of the mission church’s combined belfry and vestibule, as well as the “L” shape in the nave, are unusual and not found elsewhere among the 21 California missions.

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