A California University’s Chapel Has Deep Roots in State’s Early History

Posted By Mike Padgett

March 4, 2010

SANTA CLARA, Calif. – Out of the corner of my eye, a furry urban beggar with a long tail distracts me. I was standing on the campus of Santa Clara University, admiring its chapel, the Mission Santa Clara de Asis.

The Franciscan mission became the eighth of 21 founded in California in the 1700s by Roman Catholic missionaries.

I was studying the church’s architecture. I was intrigued by its destruction three times over nearly 150 years – first by flooding, then by earthquake and later by fire – when an approaching squirrel entered my comfort zone and interrupted my thoughts.

Mission Santa Clara de Asis, one of the 21 Franciscan missions founded in California, became home to Santa Clara College in 1851, one year after the Golden State was granted statehood. Copyright © photo by Mike Padgett

It was a Saturday morning. Except for a few visitors, the campus was quiet. I turn my head toward the inquisitive squirrel. It stops 10 feet away. In its mouth are two unshelled peanuts. It realizes I am not a statue, nor do I have food, and moves to safety behind a nearby palm tree.

The restored mission originally was founded in 1777. It was the eighth of 21 missions founded in California, and it became the only one named for a woman, St. Clare (1198-1253). Today, the mission functions as the university chapel.

Near the chapel is a memorial garden honoring St. Clare. A plaque describes her as “a religious mystic and peacemaker, spiritual friend of St. Francis, and the first woman in Western Europe to compose a rule of religious life for women, the Poor Clares.”

For a century and a half after its founding by Padre Tomas de la Pena, the church was moved or rebuilt several times because of damage from floods in 1779, an earthquake in 1818 and a fire in 1926.

In 1851, Santa Clara College, the first in California, was founded in the mission buildings by the Jesuits. In May 1928, today’s Santa Clara mission chapel – resembling the chapel of 100 years earlier – was dedicated. All that remains of the original mission is the Adobe Wall, a section of garden wall. For more information about the mission and the college, visit www.scu.edu/visitors/mission/history.cfm.


In the chapel’s tower are the original bells received from Spain in the late 1700s, according to California mission history. Copyright © photo by Mike Padgett

The church façade and the bell tower are striking against the royal blue sky and white-as-fresh-snow clouds. The clouds are the remnants of a Pacific storm that marched across the coastal region overnight. It left the air and buildings and flowers freshly washed, and the lawns sparkling.

I spend several minutes pacing around the front of the church, looking for the best angle for photos. I want to capture the contrast created by the morning light and fading shadows.

I sense that someone is watching. I look around and see a campus security officer approaching on a Segway. Maybe he’s a Santa Clara policeman. Through our dark glasses, we study each other, 50 feet apart, then exchange smiles. He rides on.

Sad, how recent events have forced us to become more vigilant. Are you friend or foe? I’m watching you. I know you know. But have a nice day.

Shielding a sidewalk along one side of the church is a wood frame canopy supporting an ancient vine. The base of the vine is as thick as a tree. Copyright © photo by Mike Padgett

A few other solitary visitors follow me onto the mission grounds. Maybe a walk through local history and physical beauty is their goal.

One visitor is a young woman in jeans and a sweatshirt. Another is a woman shouldering her backpack. Then comes a balding man in his 40s. He smiles. The women didn’t. They focused on the sidewalk, out of shyness or their burden of private thoughts. A third young woman gives me a friendly, but uncertain, up-from-under glance.

Later, a woman with a boy of about 12 – both dressed for a special event – excuses herself for walking in front of my camera.

“Sorry,” she says, taking a sudden step backward.

I lower my camera.Tagging along behind them is an older woman, taking slower steps. A grandmother, maybe?

A black-and-white cat sleeping on a bench in the shadows of the Adobe Wall ignores my approach. Until I stop. Then it slowly opens its pale blue eyes, one at a time, and only part way. We study each other. The cat has a rotund shape. It must be someone’s companion.

I walk on. When I return, the cat is gone. A few feet later, around a corner, we spot each other again. The cat starts to head my way, then reverses course. It pads into a flowerbed’s soft dirt for its morning duty.

A doorway in the Adobe Wall, a section of garden wall that is all that remains of the original mission, frames Mission Santa Clara’s tower. Copyright © photo by Mike Padgett

Between one side of the church and the sidewalk is a secluded grassy alcove perfect for special ceremonies. I see two young men and a young woman talk and make hand gestures like they were arranging future memories. A play? Graduation? A wedding?

A young woman pushing a stroller on the sidewalk shaded by the vine stops in a small circular concrete plaza bordered by flowers. We exchange smiles. She lifts a toddler out of the stroller. She holds onto the little boy’s left hand as he steps up on the curb along the flowerbed. His steps are uncertain. Then the mischievous youngster spies a pile of animal droppings on the curb.

The woman leans down to the boy and coos, “Don’t step on the poop.”

He ignores her. Bull’s-eye with his right foot. But the poop is hard. Disobedience fails today. The woman reaches for the stroller handle with her other hand. She and the boy walk on, four of his tiny rapid fire steps for every one of her slow ones.

The bright morning light is erasing shadows. I glance at my watch.  It’s time to head back to my car. The airport isn’t far.

I stop again in front of the mission to admire its architecture. In the quiet and the beauty radiating from the church and the flowers, I wonder about the countless others who, in the mission’s history of more than 200 years, walked the church’s hallowed grounds to heal inner wounds.

Maybe they walked the grounds at sunrise or sunset to watch the golden sunlight carve new shadows. Maybe they strolled at night, holding hands with a best friend, under the light pouring from a million silver stars.

I hope to visit Mission Santa Clara de Asis again.


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Mar 4th, 2010

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