Royal Presidio Chapel of Monterey aka San Carlos Cathedral

(by Gary Carlsen, from a column written for the MoCoGenSo Newsletter from 1997-1999)

The following was Reprinted with permission of Brother John F. O’Brien Archivist Diocese of Monterey:

On the solemn feast of Pentecost, June 3, 1770, a mission and church were established by Fr. Junipero Serra under the title of La Mission de San Carlos Borromeo de Monterey. On this same day Captain Gaspar de Portola took possession of the Port of Monterey in the name of King Carlos III of Spain.

The sword and cross then joined in establishing the Presidio de Monterey on a site beside El Estero, selected by the expedition’s engineer, Miguel Constanso, duly taking possession of Monterey for the Holy Church and Crown of Spain. The church was named La Capilla Real del Presidio de Monterey.

When the Presidio was established a few humble huts were at once erected on the site. These buildings, constituting both the Mission and the Presidio, were arranged to form a square. Eight years later the soldiers built a wall of stone around the Presidio square. It was 12 feet high and four feet thick. Inside were 10 adobe houses each 24 feet long and 21 feet wide. There was also a building 136 feet long and 18 feet wide divided into rooms for soldiers.

The old Presidio and the structures have completely vanished, but the Royal Presidio Chapel still stands. It has been used continuously since its inception as a place of worship, a setting for religious services, baptisms, marriages, and funerals.

Every city has a symbol by which we know it at first glance. For Monterey it is the Royal Presidio Chapel known also as San Carlos Cathedral. This elegant and historical structure is not only a landmark of Monterey, but it is where the history of the City of Monterey began its foundation. Everything that was later constructed was around this site.

The present chapel was built after a fire had damaged the previous one which was a wood and adobe structure. As we see it today it was completed in 1794 and dedicated by Fr. Ferman de Lasuen on January 25, 1775.

It is the oldest architecturally designed building in the state of California. The project was given to Manuel Estevan Ruiz, a master stonemason from Mexico City. The church was constructed, (later plastered over with an adobe mixture), and roofed with tile.

The fachada is the most elaborate and ornate among the California churches of early design. The niche at the very top of the curved, pedimented gable contains a statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe, which has been described as “the oldest indigenous sculpture in California.” Not only is the church known for its architectonic value but also for its cultural and spiritual history as it has been used continuously for religious services since 1795, a record equaled by few, if any, other churches in the United States.

Originally the church measured 30 by 120 feet ending just ending just before the cross section of today’s structure. In 1858 the church was enlarged when the transepts and the main alter were added, giving it its present cruciform shape. Up to the 1940’s there was a whalebone pavement leading the way into the church. Monterey was once a great whaling port and it was not unusual to use whale vertebrae as paving blocks. After years of wear the whalebone surface became rough and had to be removed. Fr. Anfelo Casanova, beginning in 1868, made numerous improvements. The last one, the pyramidal roof upon the bell tower, was in 1893.

In 1961 the Royal Presidio Chapel, being the oldest building in Monterey, became a National Historic Landmark. A bronze plaque proclaims: This site possesses exceptional value in commemorating and illustrating the History of the United States.

In 1967, when the diocese of Monterey was established as a separate entity with the city of Monterey as its See, the Royal Presidio Chapel received cathedral status and became known as San Carlos Cathedral, a church that has witnessed all of the history of Monterey.

First Baptism at San Carlos

In the name of the Father, the Son and the Spirit Sto. Amen. In 26 December 1770 in the Church of this Mission of San Carlos from Monterrey- Bautize solemn. to a child of age of about five anos, son of P.P. Gentiles who gladly offered it to the Catholica Church, and I named him, BERNARDINO DE JESUS. It was his godfather Don Pedro Fages, Official Thene of the Compa. of Volunteers of Cathaluna, Comande. of R1. Presidio of this Port to qn. according to the spiritual kinship and obligation that contraxo and pa. for the record to be firm.
Junipero Serra (r)

First Marriage at San Carlos

Nov 10, 1772- FERNANDO MALARETE, Native Indian. of San Carlos dela Rancheria de Tucutnut, alias Sta. Theresa, and CATHALINA MARIA ISLAS, India natl. dela Misn. Rancheria’s Socorlona, alias San Miguel; Witnesses: Mr. Guillermo Carrillo, soldier of cuera, and Cabo dela escort de sta
Misn. and the soldier Miguel Miguel Islas, from the Compania de Californias
Fr. Miguel Pieras

First Burial at San Carlos

June 3, 1770 – In this New Mission of Sn. Carlos of Monte Rey, at the foot of a large cross, that in dho. day fu blessed, and planted in front of the Chapel and Altar, qe. erected pa. the first Mass, near the East Beach Port, dc ecclesiastica burial to the body of ALEJO, child brown, free and single, natural Acapulco, who the day before he had arrived at the Paquebot was S.M. calle “San Antonio” alias “El Principe”, in which he came with the square of Cadet. He died having received the Stos. Sacramcough. of Penance and Extreme Unction and for the record signed.
Fr. Junipero Serra (r)


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s