52 Churches: San Antonio de Pala Astencia

It’s been a long time since I stuck my nose inside of a church, mosque or temple to continue my chronicle of church tourism started on this blog a decade ago.  A recent visit to an old California mission (the first I’ve visited) with my good friend and guide, Jim Forbes, inspired this entry.

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the Spanish mission and estancia system stretched along the Californian coast as far north as Sonoma north of San Francisco. Spaced about a day’s journey apart, they were the first western/European centers of power along that wild coast, connected by a road known as El Camino Real. The first of the Alta California missions was founded in 1769 in San Diego.  The mission I visited, San Antonio de Pala Astencia, or “the Pala Mission” was founded by Franciscan friars in 1816 as an astencia or sub-mission of the Mission San Luis Rey de Francia closer to the coast downstream on the San Luis Rey River. The Pala Indian Reservation is home to the Pala  Band of Mission Indians, descendants of the Cupeno and Luiseno tribe native to the area.

One gets to Pala off of Route 15 after passing the Lawrence Welk Trailer Park and hillside avocado orchards and citrus groves. The landscape is rugged, rocky, and arid with lots of boulders and volatile brush that makes the Pala/Escondido area a very dangerous place to live when the brush fires light up the skies and 200 foot tall walls of flame appear over the ridges. Pala is a reservation for the descendants of the Indian tribes who were displaced by Spanish and American colonists from their traditional dwellings closer to the Pacific Ocean. As one arrives in Pala the first sight is a large, modern casino with an immense sign touting the upcoming visit of some musical act. But off the main road, in a neighborhood of modest homes, is the Mission of San Antonio de Pala.


We got out of the car and walked through the Mission cemetery, our arrival noted by a pair of little boys who were surprised two gringos would walk through the hallowed burial ground checking out the tombstones. They clambered over the stairs leading up to the freestanding belfry, marked with a sign asking visitors to please not ring the bell as that was reserved for the call to worship and to mark the passing of a parishioner.

Since it was a Sunday a service was underway in the long, single story chapel, and with an overflow crowd standing in the doorway, we didn’t enter, but listened for a minute as the priest read a series of community announcements.

We lingered in the shade in front of the church for a bit, then moved on in search of a farmstand where I bought some dried chilis.




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