SAN DIEGO (CNS) — Mission San Diego de Alcala marks the 250th year of its founding this year, and as part of a yearlong commemoration, the grounds of California’s oldest church will be the site of a Scholars’ Symposium in March.

The March 22-24 event will feature an assortment of professors, archaeologists, researchers and other experts who will provide an expansive look at the colorful history of the first of the 21 California missions.

Father Peter Escalante, pastor of Mission San Diego, said one of the parish’s goals for its jubilee year was to offer a “menu of activities” that would appeal to a broad cross section of the community and of all the events, the symposium “ranks up there near the top” in terms of its significance.


Acknowledging that many people know only “sketches” of mission history, he said he hopes the symposium will provide an opportunity for attendees to deepen their understanding while also setting an example for the other California missions as they commemorate their own 250th anniversaries, beginning with Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo next year.

Janet Bartel, a longtime parishioner who started Mission San Diego’s docent program in 1984 and served for more than a decade on two statewide boards of California mission historians, has been involved in the planning of the Scholars’ Symposium for almost two years.

“I wanted people to become more aware of the wonderful history of the California missions — the good and the bad,” she said, explaining that the symposium aspires to provide an accurate representation of mission history from multiple perspectives.

Presentations will examine Spanish colonial life and Kumeyaay tribal leadership and cover such wide-ranging topics as “the maritime aspects” of the mission’s founding in 1769, a geological study of Old Mission Dam, the historic mission bells, architectural history and the conservation of mission art.

There also will be an opportunity to view original documents signed by St. Junipero Serra, who personally founded the first nine of California’s missions, and his colleague and successor, Father Fermin de Francisco Lasuen de Arasqueta.

Ahead of his canonization of St. Junipero Serra in 2015, Pope Francis acknowledged the criticisms of the mission system begun by the Franciscan missionary, but also said that “Fra Junipero,” as he was known, “defended the indigenous peoples against abuses by the colonizers,” as did other Catholic missionaries in the Americas.


The symposium consists of two full days of presentations. On the third day, attendees can choose between docent-led tours of Presidio Hill, the site at which Mission San Diego was originally founded before moving to its present-day location in 1774, and Mission San Luis Rey, which was established in Oceanside as the 18th mission.

Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles has received Mission San Diego’s permission to allow students in its continuing education unit to earn credit for attending the symposium.

Bartel, who admits that she didn’t enjoy history class as a student, said some people might assume that “history is history” and that “what you learned 20 years ago is the same.”

But because new research continually challenges previous assumptions and yields new insights, the symposium will have much to offer even those who have studied the mission era, she told The Southern Cross, newspaper of the Diocese of San Diego.

“The first decades of San Diego’s history witnessed many confrontations and challenges,” said archaeologist Jack Williams, who will deliver a keynote presentation at the symposium. “These events have been, at various times, celebrated and denounced. Despite the controversies, scholars have made considerable progress in improving our understanding of what took place.”