Attendees enter the mission before the prayer service commemorating the 250th anniversary of the church.
Attendees enter California’s first mission before prayer service commemorating the start of its 250th anniversary year. Photo by Chris Stone

The 22nd successor of Saint Junipero Serra as pastor of Mission San Diego de Alcalá, California’s first church, opened what he called a memorable year in its history Thursday by seeking to heal wounds of its early years.

Launching a year of 250th anniversary events, the Rev. Peter Escalante told an overflow audience that the California missions brought “great pain to the Native American people. And that pain is hidden within these walls.”

He noted the jubilee year in which two interwoven traditions blend at Mission San Diego — the Spanish Franciscan way and the American Indian spirituality, “which practices respect for the Earth and the divine spirit that fills it.”

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Citing the chain of 21 Alta California outposts founded between 1769 and 1833, the pastor of 3 1/2 years said: “Our fervent hope and prayer is that as each of these missions reach this milestone, we will be able to build bridges that heal wounds, that achieve harmony and understanding, forgiveness, reconciliation and peace.”

San Diego diocese Bishop Robert McElroy led an opening prayer, followed by blessings from Pope Francis and the mayor of Alcalá, Spain. San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer read from a city proclamation.

John Mayo read from messages by mission founder Serra, followed by a talk by Native American Deacon Andy Orosco of San Bernardino.

Said Orosco: “My own ancestors — my grandparents, my relatives — walked on this sacred grounds at the time it was founded.”

He acknowledged the bitterness of his fellow Kumeyaay, who were forced off their ancestral lands starting with Serra and the Franciscans.

“I understood the reason,” he said. “I am here as the lone person, speaking only on my behalf. Please know that there are many Kumeyaay elders and tribal representatives and families who should be here welcoming you. But at this time there is only me.”

He called upon the spirits of Kumeyaay ancestors to “help us in this time of bitterness and separation, to help us on the road to healing and reconciliation.” (In November 1775, a Native American insurrection gave California its first Catholic martyr: Father Luis Jayme.)

Orosco noted that Pope Francis met with representatives of native peoples and asked for forgiveness of church actions during the mission era.

The Mission Choir and members of St. Michael’s Church in Poway performed in the church rebuilt in 1931 — the fifth in its location east of the Mission Valley stadium.

The actual anniversary of the mission – first established on a bay overlook above Old Town now called Presidio Hill — is July 16. That’s when Serra celebrated the first Mass.

The celebration year has been two years in the making, Escalante said.

“As we commemorate the confluence of the two cultures,” said the event program, “we honor the Kumeyaay people and their sacred ground and we respect the Franciscan priests and the Spanish explorers who came to introduce Christianity and to settle the area for Spain.”

Events marking the 250th anniversary will be held every month except August, with the next being a Heritage Weekend Feb. 16-17 in partnership with Balboa Park’s House of Spain and sister city Alcalá featuring children’s activities, food, dance and exhibits.