‘It Is Here Where the Community Grew up': Marin County's Mission San Rafael to Celebrate 200th Anniversary

Marin County’s Mission San Rafael Arcangel on Thursday will mark the 200th year since its founding — by recalling a long mixed legacy that includes the mistreatment of Native Americans, wild west-type shootouts and even a financial intervention by William Randolph Hearst.

"It is here where the community grew up," said Father Romulo Vergara who runs the mission, which was founded on Dec. 14, 1817 and became California’s 20th mission.

The congregation of Mission San Rafael Arcangel will plant a pear tree on Thursday at noon to remember the pear trees that were planted by Native Americans. It will hold a procession and a mass at 3:30 on Saturday to mark the anniversary. 

The mission site, nestled amid downtown San Rafael, predates pretty much everything in Marin County, save for Native American villages that once dotted the region.

The area’s Coast Miwok Indians were initially sent to Mission Dolores for salvation, but were so ravaged by European diseases that Mission San Rafael was founded as a hospital to care for them. It was given full mission status in 1822.

Joe Rosato Jr./NBC Bay Area
Father Romulo Vergara sits in a pew inside Mission San Rafael. (Dec. 13, 2017)

The original adobe mission building was knocked down not long before President Abraham Lincoln signed an order calling for California’s missions to be preserved. The small white stucco chapel currently on the site is a replica built in 1949 with an $85,000 gift from newspaper baron William Randolph Hearst.

"It was used as an outpost during the time of the Bear Flag Revolt in 1846 by kit Carson and General Fremont," said Theresa Brunner, who has worked at the mission for many years. 

Brunner also noted that the mission’s temporary occupiers mistakenly gunned down one of the area’s prominent families who showed up for an unannounced visit.

Author Betty Goerke, who has written extensively about the local Native American tribes, said while canings and beatings were common at Mission Dolores, the padres in charge of Mission San Rafael were more compassionate — even putting the Native Americans in charge of the mission.

"It was a much more relaxed environment here," Goerke said. "The priests were compassionate."

Joe Rosato Jr./NBC Bay Area
A replica of one of Mission San Rafael’s original bells hangs outside the chapel. (Dec. 13, 2017)

The missionaries chose a rebellious Native American — who they called Chief Marin — to lead to the mission’s Native American population. He became such a force that the county was named for him.

It was during another anniversary celebration 10 years ago that the mission became the site of one of the most unusual instances in recent Catholic-Native American relations.

Visiting Bishop Francis Quinn used the occasion to deliver a surprise apology to Native Americans for their treatment by the Catholic missionaries.

"When he did that, the church was absolutely stunned, we couldn’t believe it because it hadn’t happened before," Goerke said. "He said we apologize for taking the Indian out of Indian — in other words taking their culture away, taking their spirituality."

Joe Rosato Jr./NBC Bay Area
A sign in front of Mission San Rafael lists the date of its founding: Dec. 14, 1817. (Dec. 13, 2017)

For this week’s anniversary, Coast Miwok Indians will participate in the festivities, marking a thawing in relations and an acknowledgment of intertwined histories.

Vergara said the mission now reflects the area’s changing cultures with masses held in Spanish, Brazilian and even Vietnamese. At its core, the celebration is about beginnings.

"First is the legacy that we have inherited for 200 years, where practically Marin County started," Vergara said.

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