By Sandra Shrader
It’s not just people who make up a community. Buildings too can be just as much an emotional part of any place where people gather to spend the times of their lives, and, in that regard, the Pala Mission is so much more like a beloved elderly family member than an upright silent assortment of bricks and mortar and red roof tiles.
It has certainly earned some reverence and respect just from longevity alone.
Located on the Pala Indian Reservation and about twenty miles southeast of Temecula, the Pala Mission, or more formally, the San Antonio de Pala Asistencia, has been around since 1816 when it was established by Padre Antonio Peyri to be an extension of the larger Mission San Luis Rey de Francia, located in twenty miles west in Oceanside. Today, the asistencia, or sub-mission, is the only surviving one of its kind in the mission system. Active today, it is the only mission-related structure still ministering to a native American population.
“The Pala Mission is very much a part of the community here,” said Donna Reusch, an administrative staff member at the mission. “For generations, since the time that mission was built, it’s been the place where the people who live here go for services, christenings, weddings, and funerals. It’s a real part of their family histories.”
Mission Pala is also unique, according to Reusch, because it has the only freestanding bell tower, or campanile, in all the California missions and asistencias. Fifty feet tall, the campanile is believed to have been inspired by a tower in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, and the bells are the same bells that have been used since 1916.
Gordon Johnson, a local author and Pala resident, agrees that the mission’s bell tower has always had an undeniable presence in the lives of tribal members.
In a early column piece, Better Not Ask for Whom the Bell Tolls, which he shared for this article, Johnson wrote, “Over the years, the bells [at the Pala Mission] have punctuated my life. They rang at my wedding, at the baptisms of my children, and at the funerals of my grandparents. And on weekdays, at6:30 a.m. the priest would ring the bells to get people up in time for Mass at 7 a.m.”
The bells too serve as a kind of message bearer too, said Johnson.
“When someone dies on the reservation, the bells ring out in the traditional death knell. Everyone knows the slow cadence. ‘Uh, oh, I wonder who died,’ the people will say. Within minutes the news spreads across backyards until the whole community knows it has been diminished by one.”
In addition to the bell tower, there is a beautiful chapel, decorated with Native American art, a quadrangle, peaceful gardens and fountain. Also near the campanile is the original cemetery for the Asistencia where hundreds of native American converts and early California settlers are buried.
Not as well known as the larger California missions, the Mission San Antonio de Pala is a tranquil and lovely gem of a secret place to spend an hour or two. It’s a special gift which shared by the community that surrounds it.
Located at 3015 Pala Mission Road, the mission is open Wednesdays through Sundays for self-guided tours. There is also a gift shop. For more information, visit www.missionsanantonio.org or call 760-742-3317.
Originally published in Lifestyle magazine, November 2013.