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The missions—built between 1769 and 1823 and extending in a chain of 600 miles from Sonoma to San Diego—stand as symbols of California's Spanish colonial past. Pictured is San Miguel's bell tower. (Todd Bigelow)

A Tour of California's Spanish Missions

A poignant reminder of the region's fraught history, missions such as San Miguel are treasured for their stark beauty

Since the church’s reopening in October 2009, increasing attention has focused on preserving its murals and woodwork. “Walking into the church, you really are transported back,” says wall painting conservator Leslie Rainer, who’s assisting on the project. “It’s the experience you would want to have of the early California missions, which I find lacking in some of the others.” Rainer also appreciates the countryside and the nearby town of Paso Robles, a mecca for food and wine enthusiasts. “There’s an old plaza, a historic hotel and fancy little restaurants,” she says. “Then you go up to San Miguel and you have the mission. It’s all spectacular scenery, valleys and then hills, and it’s green and beautiful at the right time of year,” late autumn into spring.

It has taken more than expert teams to revive Mission San Miguel’s fortunes. Shirley Macagni has brought in Salinan families and friends to help out, too. One day she organized volunteers to make hundreds of new adobe bricks using soil from the mission grounds. “That was a great experience for all of us,” she says. “The children really, really appreciated it, knowing that our ancestors were the ones that built the mission.” She pauses to savor the thought. “Hey, we built this. We made these bricks and we built it. And now look at it. Even the earthquake didn’t knock it down.”

Jamie Katz reports frequently on history, culture and the arts. Photographer Todd Bigelow lives in Los Angeles.

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