The Festival of the Bells is a weekend-long event celebrates the anniversary of Mission San Diego de Alcalá, the Mother of California’s 21 Missions, which was founded by Blessed Father Junipero Serra on July 16, 1769. This year’s celebration will be held on July 18-19.
Each year in mid July, parishioners, volunteers, and visitors all gather for one weekend to celebrate the beginning of Christianity in the western United States with food, entertainment, dancing and traditional activities like the Blessing of the Bells and the Blessing of the Animals. All five Mission bells are rung during the weekend festivities, including an original bell dating back to 1802. The Festival of the Bells is a great family event and is a wonderful opportunity for everyone in the San Diego area to visit and learn more about this historical landmark.
San Diego de Alcalá, the first of the twenty-one great California Missions, marks the birthplace of Christianity in the west coast of the United States. It is California’s first Mission Church. This remarkable and significant historical shrine provides an understanding and appreciation of the beginning of Catholicism in this corner of the world, so remote from the Mother Country of Spain and yet so similar. Today the Mission, which was founded in 1769, serves as an active parish church and cultural center for people of all faiths who are welcome to visit and relive the grandeur and excitement of more than two centuries of California history and tradition.
On July 16, 1769, Father Serra established Mission San Diego and the California mission system was begun on a site overlooking the bay. Father Serra, a native Majorcan, was nearly 56 years of age. He was a small man, 5′ 2″ and 120 pounds ,and was afflicted with a chronic leg infection that caused him to limp. Despite these afflictions, Father Serra guided the growth of the mission through many difficult years.
In 1848, after the Mexican American War, the United States Army occupied the mission grounds until 1858. The Army made numerous modifications on the mission grounds, including the conversion of the church into a two-story building, and the establishment of a military cemetery. On May 23, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed a proclamation returning to the Catholic Church approximately 22 acres of land, formerly utilized by Mission San Diego de Alcalá and the Dieguenos. Following the Army occupation, the mission fell into ruin, and remained abandoned until 1891 when Father Antonio Dominic Ubach and the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Carondelet moved the Saint Anthony’s Industrial School for Indian children from Old Town San Diego to the mission grounds. The school at the mission closed in 1907 and was moved to Banning, California. Two dormitories were built for the students of Saint Anthony’s, one of which exists today as the Religious Education Center of Mission San Diego de Alcalá.
After detailed historical research, in 1931 the Mission was rebuilt to what architects J. E. Loveless and J. Marshall Miller determined was what the 1813 church must have looked. Today it is an active Catholic parish of the Roman Catholic Diocese of San Diego, and every year is visited by thousands of fourth graders from throughout the state studying California history.