Churches are among the most beautiful sights you see when you travel, especially in Europe, and this is no less true in California’s wine country. One thinks of Yountville Community Church (“The Little Church in the Vale”) and St. Helena Catholic Church as two lovely churches worth seeing, each with a distinct architecture and story.
Another is at Mission San Francisco Solano, better known as the Sonoma Mission, perched on a corner across from Sonoma’s central plaza. The mission is part of Sonoma State Historic Park and tourists and schoolchildren have been going there almost since it was built, in 1823.
The mission consists of a fountain and courtyard in back—the day I stopped by, schoolkids were indeed on a field trip there, doing projects with a teacher and parents—and two other rooms with historical and other exhibits. It was the only mission built during Mexican rule (Spain founded the other 20), and it was the last to be built before California joined the United States. Those old-time Franciscans also planted grapes and made wine, pioneering an industry that has turned out pretty well for the area.
The Sonoma Mission’s most splendid room, inside and out, is the chapel. It is as beautiful as it is simple. The exterior is made of white adobe (the building has been rebuilt and restored multiple times over the centuries) and at the apex of its orange-tiled roof is a plain wooden cross. Catholic services are no longer held there, but no passerby could ever mistake the message it conveys.
That message comes through even stronger when you go inside. The chapel is narrow—eight paces across, by my measure—and about 30 paces long. The sanctuary at the far end is where your eye immediately goes to when you enter the room, although there is much to see and consider before you get there.
The room is mostly empty. Save for a wooden bench near the altar, there are no chairs. Choir music, sung in Latin, plays softly. The floor is made of old bricks that look like they were fitted together a long time ago by hand, which they probably were. The white adobe walls, similar to the exterior, are painted with a simple pattern designed to convey what the chapel might have looked like when General Mariano Vallejo worshipped there.
It was Vallejo, the prominent Mexican military man and landowner, who commissioned the chapel to be built in the 1840s after he gained control of the mission and its holdings. Thankfully, though, there are no historical plaques to distract a visitor from the site’s solemnity and sacred nature. The only marker is in an unobtrusive spot in the rear of the room. It honors the memory of Maria Carrillo, the mother of Gen. Vallejo’s wife who was buried there the year of the gold rush.
Oil paintings on the walls depict the Stations of the Cross, representing Christ’s struggles on the way to crucifixion. There is a holy water font, empty of water. An elevated wooden pulpit, colorfully painted in blue, yellow and green, stands at the front of the room. This is where a padre would rise to address the worshippers from on high. Windows have been cut into the adobe to admit natural light. There are also chandeliers that offer a virtue of modern life those worshippers never experienced, electric light.
Full of color and raw visual appeal, the sanctuary is, to use a clearly inappropriate term, “the wow moment.” Two statues frame it on opposite sides—Joseph on the right and Mary on the left, with a mantilla or shawl on her head that extends down almost the length of her red Spanish-style dress. The Spanish influence is everywhere present, including the altar with its gold leaf carvings and white lace. At the center is a statuette of Christ on the cross and on the wall above is a painting of St. Francis Solano, the Peruvian missionary who is the namesake of the mission.
A stop at the chapel and mission won’t take long. But before you go off to explore the many other treasures and pleasures of Sonoma Plaza, there is one more place here you should not miss. Outside on First Street, on the north side of the chapel, there are sidewalk plaques erected in memory of the local Miwok, Patwin, Wappo and Pomo Indians who helped build the mission in the 1800s and were later buried on the site. Scores of names are listed, including those of children.
Sonoma Mission, 20 East Spain St., Sonoma. Open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. seven days a week except major holidays. $3 adults/$2 children. Fee includes same day admission to nearby General Vallejo’s home (West Third) and the Sonoma Barracks (Spain and East First), as well as Petaluma’s Adobe State Historic Park. 707-938-9560.