Discover the Oldest Church in California

California boasts numerous historic landmarks, but none quite match the significance and allure of the state’s oldest church: the Cathedral of San Carlos Borromeo, also known as the Royal Presidio Chapel. Nestled in Monterey, this architectural gem has stood witness to California’s evolving landscape, spanning from the Spanish colonial era to the present. In this piece, we’ll delve into the rich history, captivating architecture, and enduring legacy of this extraordinary structure, highlighting why it’s a must-visit for those intrigued by California’s heritage.

The Church’s Origins

Founded by the revered Franciscan saint Junípero Serra, the Cathedral of San Carlos Borromeo traces its roots back to the establishment of Monterey’s first mission on June 3, 1770. Named after Saint Charles Borromeo, Serra’s patron saint and the Archbishop of Milan, the original chapel, crafted from wood and adobe, served as a focal point for both Spanish settlers and indigenous communities.

However, in 1771, Serra relocated the mission to a more fitting site near the Carmel River, giving rise to the Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo. The erstwhile chapel in Monterey evolved into the San Jose Chapel for the Presidio of Monterey, the military stronghold safeguarding Spanish interests. Renamed the Royal Presidio Chapel in 1777, as Monterey ascended to become the capital of the Province of Californias.

Destroyed by fire in 1789, the wooden chapel yielded to the current sandstone marvel, erected between 1791 and 1794 by indigenous laborers under Franciscan oversight. Designed in the Spanish Colonial style, the church boasts a modest rectangular layout, a vaulted ceiling, a bell tower, and an adorned facade featuring pilasters and niches. Consecrated by Bishop Francisco Palou, a confidant and chronicler of Serra, the church stood as a testament to both faith and architectural ingenuity.

The Church’s Historical Significance

The Cathedral of San Carlos Borromeo played a pivotal role in California’s narrative, bearing witness to the transition from Spanish to Mexican and, eventually, American rule. It served as the backdrop for numerous historic milestones:

  • The inaugural confirmation in California, conducted by Bishop Palou in 1795.
  • The baptism of the first American citizen in California, performed by Father Pedro de la Cueva in 1818.
  • The convening of California’s first constitutional convention in 1849, where delegates convened to draft the state’s inaugural constitution.
  • The establishment of California’s first diocese in 1850, with the church serving as its pro-cathedral until the completion of a permanent cathedral in Santa Barbara in 1853.
  • The inauguration of Monterey’s first public school in 1859, situated adjacent to the church.
  • The debut of Monterey’s inaugural public library in 1874, housed within the same premises as the school.

The church also served as a sanctuary and a wellspring of inspiration for notable figures in California’s annals, including:

  • Renowned author Robert Louis Stevenson, who chronicled his visit to the church in his work “The Silverado Squatters” in 1879.
  • Nobel laureate John Steinbeck, whose formative years were imbued with the church’s ambiance and historical resonance.
  • Former Secretary of Defense and CIA Director Leon Panetta, who received sacraments, celebrated milestones, and served as an altar boy within the church’s confines.

The Church’s Contemporary Legacy

Today, the Cathedral of San Carlos Borromeo remains an active parish and a thriving community hub, hosting regular masses, sacraments, and cultural events. It also stands as a premier tourist attraction, nestled within the Monterey State Historic Park and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Offering guided tours, exhibitions, and educational initiatives, the church welcomes visitors of all ages and backgrounds.

Moreover, the church proudly safeguards a trove of priceless artifacts and relics, including the Serra Sarcophagus, the Serra Memorial Cenotaph, the Serra Reliquary, the Royal Presidio Chapel Bell, and the Royal Presidio Chapel Organ, each embodying a chapter of California’s rich heritage.


The Cathedral of San Carlos Borromeo stands as a testament to California’s past, present, and future, beckoning visitors to immerse themselves in its storied legacy. It’s not merely a structure but a living embodiment of faith, culture, and resilience. A pilgrimage to this hallowed site offers an opportunity to connect with California’s essence, learn from its history, and be inspired by its enduring spirit. As Saint Junípero Serra implored, “Always forward, never back.” A visit to this sacred sanctuary is a journey worth undertaking.

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