THE HISTORY OF THE CHURCH OF THE IMMACULATE CONCEPTION
It was here on September 28, 1542 that the first European, the noble Captain Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo and his heroic crew landed from two ships, San Salvador and Victoria. Here too, the daring Spanish navigator, Captain Sebastian Vizcaino entered the harbor on November 10, 1602 with three ships and anchored opposite the site of Old Town. Two days later, on the Feast of Saint Didacus, O.F.M., or San Diego, Vizcaino with three Carmelite Fathers, and some officers accompanied by their men stepped ashore here. In a tent, quickly prepared for that purpose, the three Carmelites on that day, for the first time in the history of California, celebrated Holy Mass in thanksgiving for their safe arrival.
For the next one hundred and sixty seven years the waters of San Diego Bay were untroubled. The events began to crowd one another at the site of Old Town. Spain claimed the entire west coast by right of discovery. In 1768 she began to make preparations to occupy the area, lest another nation take possession. Two expeditions by land and two by sea were sent northward to establish a military fort at San Diego Bay and another at Monterey Bay. For the purpose of winning the natives and inducing them to accept Christianity and civilization, the King of Spain selected Spanish Franciscans and directed them to establish Mission Centers among the Native Americans under the protection of the military forts.
The first sea expedition, consisting of the transport San Antonio, reach San Diego on April 11, 1769 and anchored in sight of what is called Old Town San Diego. The second vessel entered the harbor on Saturday, April 29, 1769. The next day, Holy Mass was celebrated aboard. On May 1, Don Pedro Fages , subsequently second Governor of California, with some officers and men, and accompanied by Fathers Vizcaino and Gomez, went ashore at Old Town in search of fresh water. These two Friars were, therefore, the first Franciscans to land in Upper California, but they still celebrated Holy Mass aboard ship.
The second land expedition was welcomed at the camp on Saturday, July 1, 1769. With the main body came the now famous Father Junipero Serra, the Superior of the Missionaries. From the camp of Old Town, on July 14, 1769 Captain Gaspar Portola, accompanied by Fathers Crespi and Gomez, led a land expedition northward in search of Monterey Bay. Two days later on July 16 the Feast of Our lady of Mount Carmel, Father Serra, assisted by Fathers Parron and Vizcaino, planted the Cross on the bluff overlooking the harbor and what is now Mission Valley. This Cross was to mark the site of the Mission and the Presidio. Thus was established the first Indian Mission, and the Mother of all Missions in California, under the patronage of San Diego.
In 1825, toward the end of October and after the Declaration of Mexican Independence, Jose M. Escheandia, the first Mexican Governor, arrived in Old Town and made it his permanent residence. In 1828, the people of the Presidio received their first Mexican resident pastor in the person of Dominican Father Antonio Mendez.
Pope Gregory XVI bestowed a great honor on San Diego, as Old Town was called, when he made it the seat of the first Bishop of California. In December 1841, the Right Reverend Francisco Garcia Diego, O. F. M., arrived with his retinue and was assigned apartments in the home of Juan Bandini (now known as Casa Bandini.) With him came Father Francisco Sanchez, the Father Salvadiera in Helen Hunt Jackson’s novel, Ramona.
The next notable event occurred on July 29, 1846 when the U. S. warship Cyane arrived in the harbor and dropped anchor in sight of Old Town. From the Cyane, Lieutenant Maddox, accompanied by Marines, came ashore, proceeded to the Plaza and raised the Stars and Stripes to take possession for the United States of America. Close by, a fort and military camp were established.
In July 1848, the little town received a resident pastor in the person of Father John C. Holbein, C. SS.CC., who remained until 1854. Rev. Holbein laid the cornerstone for the Old Adobe Church in 1851. He was succeeded by Father Pedro Bagaria, followed by Father John Molinier who served from 1857 to1863. It was Father Molinier who on November 21, 1858, dedicated the now completed Old Adobe Church under the title of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary. It is under this title which the Mother of God was the patron of the Franciscan Order from its beginning.
A few years later, the walls of the Old Adobe Church were weather boarded. The Father Molinier was followed by the energetic Father Antonio Ubach who began his long administration as pastor of Old Town. One of Father Ubach’s first projects was to build a brick church. The cornerstone for this church was laid by the Right Reverend Thaddeus Amat, C. M., Bishop of Monterey, on July 10, 1868; ninety-nine years after Father Serra planted the Cross on Presidio hill.
Until 1867 most development had centered on Old Town but growth began to swing to the south into “new town” San Diego. This shift in growth compelled Fr. Ubach to halt construction on the brick church where walls were already rising 15 to 20 feet. Fr. Ubach continued as pastor of Old Town until 1885 when he took up residence at St. Joseph’s in new San Diego.
By 1906 Father Joseph Mesny was in charge, but lived in La Jolla. Fr. Ubach died in 1907 without seeing the completion of the brick church he began. But growth had returned to Old Town and by 1914 Father Mesny began work to carry out Fr. Ubach’s plan. The brick walls raised by Father Ubach had stood exposed to the elements for 67 years. Father Mesny had the walls torn down, the bricks reclaimed and cleaned for reuse in building the present Church.
Since Father Mesny would not go into debt to complete the interior and the altar for the new Church, he continued to say Holy Mass at the Old Adobe Church for three years. Then, Miss Ellen Scripps, a non-catholic living in La Jolla donated $1000 for completion of the interior of the new Church. With this generous donation and other contributions the interior and the altar were completed and furnishings needed for divine worship were procured.
On July 22, 1917 Immaculate Conception Church was opened for divine worship. The Solemn Dedication took place on July 16, 1919 at the hands of Right Reverend John C. Cantwell, D.D., Bishop of Los Angeles and San Diego. The Church has been in continuous operation since that time and the ties to the Founding Fathers remain strong. In fact, two of the original bells of the San Diego Mission still summon the faithful to worship: one in the Mission San Diego de Alcala in Mission Valley, the other one, here in the bell tower of Immaculate Conception Church in Old Town. And here, upon completion of the Church renovation in July 1997, the Mission Bell began ringing again in Old Town.