The Southern Cross



Ecumenical Prayer Service Kicks Off Mission’s 250th Jubilee Year

By Denis Grasska

SAN DIEGO — Mission San Diego de Alcalá is the oldest Catholic church in California, but it is more than that.

Because its founding in July 1769 also represents the birth of the City of San Diego, the mission is part of a rich history shared by Catholics, non-Catholics and even non-believers statewide.

With this in mind, Mission San Diego kicked off its 250th anniversary celebration with an ecumenical prayer service followed by a reception.

“We really wanted it to be something that highlighted the history of the mission, the Native American component and also the civic dimension,” Father Peter Escalante, pastor of Mission San Diego, told The Southern Cross.

The historic mission church was filled to capacity Jan. 10 for the event, which saw the participation of both Bishop Robert W. McElroy, representing the Diocese of San Diego, and Mayor Kevin Faulconer, representing the City of San Diego.

The evening began with words of welcome from Father Escalante, who noted that the event marked the beginning of a yearlong celebration of the 250th anniversary of Mission San Diego, the oldest of the 21 California missions.

He invited attendees to “sit back and relax, and join us as we reflect, pray, sing and celebrate our rich history.”

“May it inspire us to continue to preserve, protect and promote the Gospel that has echoed through these and other mission walls for two and a half centuries,” he said.

The text of a papal blessing sent from the Vatican to mark the jubilee anniversary was read to the congregation by Msgr. Mark Campbell, a former pastor of Mission San Diego. Maria O’Donnell de Olson, honorary consul of Spain in San Diego, read a proclamation from the mayor of Alcalá, Spain, which has been a  “sister city” of San Diego since 1982.

Before reading his own proclamation, Mayor Faulconer remarked, “What a special night! What a commemoration!”

“I’m so proud, as the mayor of San Diego, to join all of you here tonight as we commemorate ... what this first mission has meant and will continue to mean for all of us in San Diego,” said the mayor, who officially proclaimed Jan. 10, 2019, to be “Mission San Diego de Alcalá Day.”

Faulconer said he hoped that the many people who will visit “this very special place” during its jubilee year will “experience the peace and tranquility that you will find on these grounds.”

The evening service featured prayers, including opening and closing prayers led by Bishop McElroy, as well as general intercessions; a reading from the Bible and another from a letter written by St. Junipero Serra, the Franciscan friar who personally oversaw the founding of the first nine of the California missions; and beautiful liturgical music performed by the Mission Choir.

Deacon Andy Orosco of the Diocese of San Bernardino, a Kumeyaay from the San Pasqual Band of Mission Indians, spoke movingly of the negative feelings that many Native Americans have toward the California missions and he urged attendees to pray for them.

Before offering a traditional Native American blessing that involved the burning of white sage, which he described as “medicine from our Creator for the healing of our mind, body and soul,” Deacon Orosco shared that he had first visited Mission San Diego about a year and a half ago and had noted the absence of his fellow Native Americans there.

“This saddened my heart,” he said, “because I knew the records of this mission, that my own ancestors ... walked on the sacred grounds at the time that it was founded.”

In remarks delivered toward the conclusion of the event, Father Escalante noted the beautiful interplay of European and Native culture that can be seen on the very walls and ceilings of the California missions, but he also acknowledged the darker aspects of mission history and how the repercussions are felt still today.

“The beauty of the California missions were purchased at the price of great pain for the Native American people,” he said, “and that pain is hidden within these walls and buried in the very earth these buildings stand upon.”

Yet, the Gospel has continued to be proclaimed throughout the past 250 years, Father Escalante said, and that is a source of hope.

“The Californian missions are sacred places,” he said. “They are ... alive with God’s Spirit and God’s people, and the faithful who have and continue to inhabit and tend these missions give hope to all journeying pilgrims that, however flawed our own efforts, however imperfect the result, the Gospel will endure.”

The full calendar of events for Mission San Diego’s 250th jubilee year can be found at

The Southern Cross

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