One of the least famous missions, and the second to last to be built in Alta California,
celebrates a big birthday this month. BY MARK ANTHONY WILSON • PHOTOS BY JACK WOLFORD
VISITORS TO DOWNTOWN San Rafael can’t help but notice a unique pink Spanish Colonial–style bell tower rising above a plaza along Fifth Avenue, where A Street dead-ends. This is Saint Raphael Church, built in 1919. To the right of it
stands a full-scale replica of the original chapel of Mission San Rafael,
built in 1949 next to the site where the old chapel stood.
Both buildings are now part of the Mission San Rafael historic
complex. This site was first occupied by the Spanish in 1817 as a medi-
cal sub-mission, or asistencia, of the Mission San Francisco de Asís,
across the Golden Gate. This year the Mission San Rafael Arcángel,
to use its full original name, is celebrating the 200th anniversary of
its founding on December 14, 1817.
Of the 21 missions founded by the Spanish in Alta California
bet ween 1769 and 1823, the Mission San Rafael is one of the least well
known and was the second to last to be founded (followed only by
Sonoma Mission in 1823). Part of the reason for the low profile is that
none of Mission San Rafael’s original structures remain. By 1870
their remaining ruins that had survived the influx of new settlers
were cleared away to make room for the development of San Rafael’s
business district, prompting some historians to call this the most
obliterated of California’s missions. But a mission is much more than
a collection of buildings, and Mission San Rafael has both a rich
heritage stemming from its unusual history and an important mod-
ern role in providing valuable services for the local community.