One of the jewels of Santa Clara is Mission Santa Clara de Asis, located on the University of Santa Clara campus. Founded on Jan. 12, 1777, it was the eighth mission in a chain of 21 throughout California established by Father Junipero Serra. It was the only mission to be named for a woman ‑ Saint Claire of Assisi, a childhood friend of Saint Francis - and it became California’s first college in 1850.
The current location is actually the fifth home for the mission, which started out on the banks of the Guadalupe River near today’s intersection of Highway 101 and the Mineta International Airport runway. Flooding forced the Franciscan Padres to find another site, eventually settling in 1822 at today’s site on El Camino Real. That same year Mexico seceded from the Spanish Empire and the Spanish Franciscans loyal to Spain were removed from the missions. Jesuit priests later took over Mission Santa Clara and launched the college.
The Mission Today
The beautiful church is now used as a chapel for university students, and is available for weddings and baptisms. It’s open daily for self-guided tours. Along with the surrounding mission grounds and adjacent museum, the mission is well worth a visit. If you go, check in at the university guard booth for a free two-hour parking pass. You’ll park by the De Saisset Museum of Art and History. As you approach the church, check out the original mission cross dating back to 1777. It’s now encased in redwood for protection, but a cross-section is visible from a small window at the base.
Once inside, pick up a full-color self-guided tour brochure in the small alcove to the right. Wall hangings there offer a brief history of the mission and the Ohlone Indians who populated the valley when the mission was founded. The nave and sanctuary feature painted frescos on the walls and ceiling, as well as ornate statues. There are seven side chapels dedicated to different saints and important figures in Church history. One chapel displays the Catalá Crucifix, a life-sized crucifix created in Mexico and brought to the church in 1802.
Outside you can stroll through the mission gardens. On one side of the church is a 130-year-old wisteria vine that covers an arbor over a walkway. On the other side is a lovely rose garden that is the site of the mission’s original cemetery. You can also see the original adobe walls of the mission and the Adobe Lodge, the oldest structures on campus dating back to 1822. Beyond the wall are the remnants of the olive orchard that provided mission inhabitants with olives and oil.
For a complete history tour, visit the De Saisset Museum, which features artifacts from the mission’s and local area’s history. Admission is free; the museum is open 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays.
Just a few minutes from the university campus is the Mission Santa Clara Cemetery, at 490 Lincoln St. It was established in 1851 after the Padres recognized they would soon run out of room at the original cemetery on mission grounds. The cemetery features 150 years of Santa Clara Valley history. Some of the area’s most prominent historical figures are buried there, including California’s first governor, Peter Burnett. Pick up a map and then stroll through the grounds to see an amazing array of cemetery art in marble, bronze and stone.