Historic Features

Not to be missed are: the Historic Mission Church, standing since 1815, with its unique Spanish and Native decorative designs; the Lavanderia, an intricate water system where Indian neophytes washed their clothes; the brick kiln where the adobe bricks were fired; ruins of the Soldiers' Barracks rising from the original stone foundation; the Indian monument featured in the oldest Cemetery in North County; and Mission Quadrangle where the oldest Pepper Tree in California is planted in 1830 and still survives today. 

Historic Mission Church

Construction of the present Mission Church began in 1811, and was completed in 1815. The design is cruciform with the dimensions measuring 30' high, 165' long and 27' wide. The solitary bell tower, which is the cornerstone to the entire mission quadrangle, is 75' high. Adobe, lime plaster, wooden timbers, fired clay bricks, and roof tiles comprise the primary building materials. The architecture is Spanish Colonial combining Baroque and Classical styles with Moorish influences.

PRESENT - The church, a National Historic Landmark, is open daily to visitors. The museum oversees its restoration and the care of its collections. Although painted over through the years, the decorative designs, taken from textiles and patterns in books, are original. The church at San Luis Rey is recognized as the most unique and one of the most beautiful in the mission chain. It is the largest of the 21 California missions and the only one adorned with a wooden dome and cupola. Unique also to San Luis Rey are the side altars and the Madonna Chapel which originally served as a mortuary chapel.


To the South of the Mission is the Lavanderia, or open-air laundry. This shallow valley beyond the Mission plaza proved ideal as both a bathing site and a place to wash clothes. Additionally, the structure provided a means of channeling the water into the Mission's gardens and fields for irrigation. Water from the San Luis Rey River was diverted to the site. Flowing down from both sides of the tiled stairway, water spouted from the mouths of carved gargoyles. An extensive water conservation system, even by modern standards, the Lavanderia was surrounded by an adobe wall and entered by going through an arched and pillared gateway. A turnstile kept wildlife out.

PRESENT - In 1955, the first organized archaeological work was begun by seminary students under the direction of the staff at San Luis Rey College as well as visiting historians and archaeologists. The site was registered at the archaeological survey office at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) and given the permanent trinomial designation SDi241. Highway construction projects and housing developments have since leveled hills and the valley has undergone many changes including the diversion of the San Luis Rey River. Visitors can still explore the Lavanderia by going down the main staircase to the tile and stone pools, and the magnificent gargoyles. The original brick and lime kiln used in Mission construction can be seen to the east.

Soldiers' Barracks

Each mission was established with three cooperating entities: civil, religious, and military. Although not a fort or presidio, the barracks housed the military arm of the mission system. Between five and eleven Spanish soldiers were assigned to protect this mission and resided in these barracks. The building had several apartments and a tower. The barracks were located in front of the Mission.

PRESENT - When the mission was abandoned, the barracks fell into ruins. Today a fence surrounds the area where the barracks once stood, guarding the remnants of the centuries-old structure.


The Cemetery has been in continuous use since the founding of the Mission in 1798. An Indian Memorial was erected in 1830, by Father Antonio Peyri to honor the many LuiseƱos who helped build and maintain the Mission, including those who lived in outlying areas such as Pala, the asistencia or sub-station to Mission San Luis Rey. Also buried here are many of the area's leading Catholic pioneers and priests.

PRESENT - The Cemetery continues to be the oldest burial ground in North San Diego County still in operation. The Franciscan Crypts house the remains of many of the Friars who have served this mission, while recent expansion makes it possible for area residents of all faiths to be buried here. The skull and crossbones above the cemetery entrance is commonly found at Franciscan cemeteries. In the 1950s, Walt Disney Studio replaced the cemetery gates for the filming of several television episodes of "Zorro" at San Luis Rey.

Pepper Tree

The Mission quadrangle, a four-sided patio approximately 500' square, is home to the oldest living Pepper Tree in California. The first pepper trees in Alta California were planted by Fr. Antonio Peyri using seeds brought to San Luis Rey in 1830 by a sailor from Peru. The buildings that surrounded the quadrangle included workshops, living quarters, a kitchen, infirmary, winery and storage areas.

PRESENT - The first Pepper Tree can be seen through the original carriage arch. The quadrangle looks different today due to the building of a smaller, inner quadrangle and convento after 1892 when the Franciscans returned to San Luis Rey. Called the O'Keefe building and Sacred Garden, the smaller quadrangle is the center of the current Friary. The larger area, now a Retreat Center, was built as a seminary college in 1950 on the foundations of the original quadrangle.


A Convento is the Friars' living quarters usually attached to the church. At Mission San Luis Rey, this wing was fronted by 32 arches and had rooms intended for the missionaries and official visitors and guests. The dining room and kitchen were also in this front part of the Mission.

PRESENT - Today only twelve of the original arches remain and what was once the Convento now houses the Museum and Gift Shop, as well as administration offices; the Franciscan Friars live on the second floor. The arched corridors stop short of extending to the western edge of the property.


The beautiful arched columns of the Colonnade were part of the Spanish Colonial era that incorporated several styles of architecture. During the Mission Period these graceful structures extended into the interior grounds of the quadrangle.

PRESENT - When the Mission was abandoned many of the materials were stripped to supply neighboring ranchos. The arches fell into ruin and today there is little trace of these once grand columns. The original carriage arch can be seen from the Retreat Center.


In 1830, all unmarried women lived in dormitories off the north wing of the Mission quadrangle. Many families preferred to live outside the Mission walls in their own homes, but the younger neophytes (newly-converted Indians) also lived dormitory-style within the quadrangle at Mission San Luis Rey.

PRESENT - The dormitory wings were part of the Mission that awaited the extensive restoration efforts of the Franciscan Friars. When San Luis Rey College was created in 1950 the wings were intended to be living quarters for Franciscan students preparing for Ordination. The College closed in 1968 and the newly-rebuilt structure was converted into the present-day Retreat Center, a place for contemplation and spiritual reflection.


Mission life centered around prayer and work. As such, Mission San Luis Rey was an important center of industry. The padres taught skills which would best benefit the needs of the mission community, including: adobe brick making, blacksmithing, carpentry, leatherwork and tanning, shoemaking, soap making, weaving, spinning, and candle making.

The daily life of those who lived here was full of activity as the Mission supported and sustained an expanding population. The workshops and classrooms were located around the quadrangle.

PRESENT - Today the original workshops are maintained for the upkeep of the Mission property and the welfare of the Friars who live here. Some of the trades of the past are still vital, such as carpentry, gardening, and water reclamation. Other trades have been developed for the modern Mission and the myriad of tasks required to oversee the departments and ministries within Mission San Luis Rey.