A Short Drive & Two Hundred Years Away

Most of us have heard about a beautiful little mission tucked carefully into the Pala landscape, but I, for one, had not gotten into my car and taken the drive from Valley Center to Mission San Antonio de Pala until recently and I am so glad I did! The day I drove to Pala was filled with moody skies, tumbling clouds and a brisk breeze pushing leaves along the roadway. It was the end of summer and everything around me was letting me know about the pending change. In no time, I had arrived at the mission. Let me preface my comments by saying that I love history, historical sites, documentaries, anything that gives me a glimpse into the past. So, my visit to the mission was predisposed to be rewarding. Having said that, I suspect anyone who has even an inkling of interest in California history will share my enthusiasm. Mission San Antonio de Pala was built in stages, beginning with the granary in 1810, other buildings in intervening years, and the chapel in 1816. That same year the erection of the mission’s bell tower was completed and that tower has become the most distinguishing element of the mission. The bell tower, also known as the campanile, is particularly unique because of its separation from the mission quadrangle and is the only example of such architecture in the California Mission chain. The history of the mission is engaging and, of course, rooted in the conflict of Anglo expansion into Native American land and culture. Certainly it is impossible to visit any of California’s missions without acknowledging that reality. PALA'S MISSION Having said that, the “experience” of Mission San Antonio de Pala is a calming one. The grounds are well cared for but not fussy and the structure itself is modest and authentic. The mission is comprised of a squat quadrangle of buildings offset by the graceful campanile with its two bell-niches climbing some fifty feet into the sky. The small cemetery tucked unpretentiously between the chapel and the bell tower is a jewel-a true step back in time. Native Americans as well as Spanish pioneers have been laid to rest in these tiny grounds and decedents honor their departed with flowers, wreaths, photographs and mementos that, in once instance, included a bowling pin! The chapel is, at once, simple and exquisite. Long and narrow, the interior is graced with tile floors worn uneven by a century and a half of use, original Native American paintings, thick, protective whitewashed walls and an exposed beam ceiling of cedar and pine harvested from nearby Palomar Mountain. With limited artificial lighting, the semi-darkness adds to the chapel’s solace and reverence. And, while I did not get to hear the bells, it was not difficult to imagine their tones reverberating throughout the mission grounds, signaling the beginning of the day, the end of the day, and the time of day for worship. In short, it was not difficult to sense that this was a place where work was performed, where real people lived and celebrated the events of their lives, and where, at the end of life, people were laid to rest. Obviously, I found my excursion to Mission San Antonio de Pala to be time well spent. I encourage you to load up the family and let a few miles take you nearly two hundred years away. You won’t be disappointed!