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Discover the Oldest Church in California



While there are many historic landmarks in California, none nearly have the same significance and attraction as the Cathedral of San Carlos Borromeo, commonly referred to as the Royal Presidio Chapel, which is the state’s oldest church. Located in the heart of Monterey, this architectural marvel has witnessed the changing face of California from the time of Spanish colonization to the present. This article will explore the fascinating architecture, lengthy history, and lasting impact of this remarkable building, emphasizing why it’s a must-see for everyone interested in California’s past.

The Church s Origins

The famous Franciscan saint Junipero Serra is credited with founding the Cathedral of San Carlos Borromeo, which has its origins in the June 3, 1770, founding of Monterey’s first mission. The first chapel, made of wood and adobe, was named after Saint Charles Borromeo, the Archbishop of Milan and patron saint of Serra. It functioned as a meeting place for both indigenous tribes and Spanish settlers.

The Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo was established in 1771, however, after Serra moved the mission to a more suitable location next to the Carmel River. Formerly a chapel, it became the San Jose Chapel for the Presidio of Monterey, the military outpost that protected Spanish interests in the area. The Royal Presidio Chapel was renamed in 1777 when Monterey grew to become the Province of Californias’ capital.

After a fire in 1789 destroyed the wooden chapel, the present masterpiece of sandstone was built between 1791 and 1794 by native workers overseen by Franciscans. The church’s modest rectangular plan, vaulted ceiling, bell tower, and ornate exterior with niches and pilasters are all features of its Spanish Colonial design. The church was dedicated by Serra’s close friend and chronicler, Bishop Francisco Palou, and it served as a symbol of both creativity and faith in architecture.

The Church s Historical Significance

An important part of California’s history was played by the Cathedral of San Carlos Borromeo, which witnessed the state’s transition from Spanish to Mexican and finally American rule. It provided the background for a number of significant historical events:

  • The inaugural confirmation in California, conducted by Bishop Palou in 1795.
  • The baptism of the first American citizen in California, performed by Father Pedro de la Cueva in 1818.
  • The convening of California s first constitutional convention in 1849, where delegates convened to draft the state s inaugural constitution.
  • The establishment of California s first diocese in 1850, with the church serving as its pro-cathedral until the completion of a permanent cathedral in Santa Barbara in 1853.
  • The inauguration of Monterey s first public school in 1859, situated adjacent to the church.
  • The debut of Monterey s inaugural public library in 1874, housed within the same premises as the school.

Notable personalities in California history have also found solace and inspiration in the church, including:

  • Renowned author Robert Louis Stevenson, who chronicled his visit to the church in his work The Silverado Squatters in 1879.
  • Nobel laureate John Steinbeck, whose formative years were imbued with the church s ambiance and historical resonance.
  • Former Secretary of Defense and CIA Director Leon Panetta, who received sacraments, celebrated milestones, and served as an altar boy within the church s confines.

The Church s Contemporary Legacy

The San Carlos Borromeo Cathedral is still a bustling parish and a center of the community today, holding frequent masses, sacraments, and cultural activities. Situated inside the Monterey State Historic Park and included on the National Register of Historic Places, it is also a well-known tourist destination. The church welcomes guests of all ages and backgrounds with guided tours, exhibitions, and educational programs.

The Serra Sarcophagus, the Serra Memorial Cenotaph, the Serra Reliquary, the Royal Presidio Chapel Organ, and the Royal Presidio Chapel Bell, each represent a different facet of California’s rich history, and the church also proudly guards a treasure trove of precious antiquities and relics.


The Cathedral of San Carlos Borromeo invites visitors to immerse themselves in its illustrious tradition as a tribute to California’s past, present, and future. It is a living example of faith, culture, and resiliency rather than just a building. Making the trek to this sacred location is a chance to experience the spirit of California, learn about its past, and become inspired by its eternal character. Saint Jun pero Serra pleaded, “Never look back; always move forward.” Visiting this hallowed place is an adventure well worth taking.

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