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The California Missions

San Luis Obispo

San Luis Obispo de Tolosa
Founded 1 September 1772
by Father Junipero Serra
California Historical Landmark #325

Naming of Mission:

The mission was named for Saint Louis, Bishop of Toulouse, France. The Indian name was Tishlini.
San Luis Obispo is often called the "Prince of Missions."
Also known as the Mission in the Valley of Bears. The Los Osos area nearby provided bear meat to save the Mission from starvation


The mission is in the middle of downtown San Luis Obispo at the corner of Monterey and Chorro Streets. It is about halfway through the California Mission Chain.


In 1769, Governor Portola and his party moved northward to look for Monterey Bay. They found a large number of bears in the countryside and named the area, "Valley of the Bears." They killed many bears which they brought to the starving local Chumash Indians and shared the meat with them.

Father Serra came to officially found the mission on 1 September 1772, celebrating the first mass near a stream. He had to leave quickly to return to San Diego, leaving Father Jose Cavalier as the lone priest at the brand new mission. There were also five soldiers and two neophytes. The little group began to build the mission right away. The first buildings were made of adobe bricks with thatched roofs, which was the typical building material of the day.

Because of the abundance of bear in the area, the mission was able to fill their own plates, but also was able to supplied many of the other missions with the meat. The city of San Luis Obispo began to gradually build up around the mission, making the mission the center of the city which it still is today.

Though things went along well initially, the mission endured several Indian attacks before 1774. One of these times, flaming arrows were shot into the thatched roofs causing great damage to the mission. It was this incident which prompted the mission fathers to develop tile roofs which would not burn. The red tiles also began to be used on other missions until they were the standard rather than the thatched roofs. More building continued at the mission from 1794 to 1809 with baptisms increasing all the while. The Chumash helped the father to build at the mission. Other mission padres came to the mission for their annual retreats beginning in May of 1807. Many improvements were made during this time until the quadrangle was finally completed in 1819. 1820 brought the mission two mission bells made in Lima, Peru.

Father Martinez was the one in charge of the mission for most of its productive life. He served for34 years. Most of the major building occurred during his tenure. He was required to leave by the Mexican government and was sorrowful to do so, but it was probably better than seeing the mission ruined just five years later. San Luis Obispo was sold to a Captain Wilson for just $500.00. The uses for the mission were changed during this time period. The mission was used both as a school and as a jail. In fact, the mission became the first courthouse and jail in San Luis Obispo County.

During the late 1800's, a renovation was done to the church due to a large increase in the area population. It was at this time that the mission was re-done to look like a New England church, complete with a tall steeple. The rest of the town followed suit with wooden buildings in the same style of the newly remodeled mission. The mission had a fire in 1920 which showed up some of the original construction. At this time, there began to be some interest in another renovation, this time back to its original Spanish architecture. To kick off the project, Father Daniel Keenan began "La Fiesta de Los Flores" (Festival of the Flowers) in 1925 to raise money for the building program. Earnest restoration efforts did not really begin until 1933 when Father John Harnett came to the mission. Harry Downie was the man in charge of the restoration. He was the one to create the "L" shaped church to seat more parishioners. Finally, after years of hard work, the mission was fully restored. The chapel addition was completed in 1945 with help from the Hearst Foundation.

The Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa remains the center of life in San Luis Obispo. It is downtown with the city all around it. The Mission Plaza was built up around the mission and is the site for many programs and other events.

Contact the Mission:

Old Mission Parish
751 Palm Street
San Luis Obispo CA, 93401
Phone: 805-781-8220

Mission Trivia:

San Luis Obispo is the only mission with an L-shaped church

The Mission had bell ringers and they spent 2 years just learning how to use the bells. The last two bell ringers did this job for 60 years each.

During the first year the Fathers had to eat grizzly bear meat, when provisions ran low.

When an important Mexican General was visiting, Father Martinez thought of an unusual way to entertain his guests; he had a chicken parade! (Actually, he used most of the animals in the barnyard for the parade which lasted about one hour.)

Mission San Luis Obispo was once remodeled to look like a New England church

Mission Links

The Mission homepage for San Luis Obispo de Tolosa

Answers to questions about the mission

Another history page for the mission

Take a virtual tour of the mission

Good timeline type history of the mission
School project information for the mission

Mission Information for San Luis Obispo de Tolosa

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This page was last updated on 29 June 2012 at 9P:43 am

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