Los Angeles and its Catholic Archdiocese have a long and exciting history that predates the nation’s independence of the United States: the City was founded two years and two days before the signing of the treaty that ended the American Revolution, and the first Spanish explorers reached the site as far back as 1769. On August 2 of that year, an expedition led by Gaspar de Portola reached what we now call Elysian Park. There Portola and the friars with him — Bl. Junipero Serra and Juan Crespi — first saw the Los Angeles River. Crespi named the little stream Porciuncula Creek; it was the feast of Our Lady of the Angels of Porciuncula (or “Little Portion”), the day Franciscans honor the title of the chapel their founder repaired back in 1212.
The expedition was part of the effort by Bl. Junipero Serra, under the sponsorship of King Charles III of Spain, to transform California from a wilderness to a Catholic province. Serra’s goal was to evangelize the Indians — while defending them from the inevitable predations of incoming soldiers and settlers. That year, Serra founded the first of a projected chain of 21 missions in San Diego. As the years passed, the King founded presidio (forts) and granted ranchos. But it was not until 1777 that his governor of California, Felipe de Neve, authorized the first civilian town: San Jose. Five more years would pass until de Neve felt ready to start a second one in the Southland.
Already, in 1771, Fr. Serra had founded Mission San Gabriel, in what is now the city of the same name. The Mission soon flourished, and it was decided to found El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de Los Ángeles de Porciúncula, “The Town of Our Lady the Queen of the Angels of Porciúncula,” at a site nine miles away. But if spiritual and physical aid could be obtained from the Mission for the settlers, the settlers themselves had to materialize!
De Neve went on a recruiting trip to the town of Alamos, Sonora — in 1781 already a century-old and filled with many fine structures (a number of these survive today, and are the reason why Alamos is under consideration as a UNESCO World Heritage site). Nevertheless, he was able to find eleven families (most of all or partly Black heritage, with varying amounts of Spanish and Indian descent) willing to brave the frontier to found this newest town in New Spain. Forty-four in number, these first pobladores made their way to the sea at Sinaloa, took ship to Loreto in today’s Baja California, and then began the long trek to Mission San Gabriel. There they rested and prepared for their new homes — and in hosting them, the Mission earned the nickname “Godmother of Los Angeles.” At last, on September 4, 1781, the new arrivals made the hike to the land allotted to them, and Los Angeles was born.
In the early “Days of the Dons,” the sleepy little town was a backwater in a remote province of a vast empire. Los Angeles was a market center for the surrounding ranchos, and also served as their religious center. In keeping with Spanish coloial law, the pueblo had its own elected Cabildo (town council); its alcalde (mayor) in 1790 and 1793-95 was Juan Francisco Reyes, a Back soldier who had come with Portola — hence Los Angeles may boast of having had the first African-American mayor in the United States.
In 1784, a substation (asistencia) of San Gabriel Mission was founded, partly for the local Indian villages, and partly for the new settlers; that same year it was visited by Fr. Serra, shortly before he died. It was named Nuestra Señora Reina de los Angeles (“Our Lady, Queen of the Angels”); when, thirty years later a regular parish church was begun at the site, it received the same title. Although ordered by (and built partly at the expense of) King Ferdinand VII, the little church was dedicated on December 8, 1822 — almost a year after California has passed under the rule of the new Mexican Empire, and its Emperor, Agustin I.
Neither the severance from Spain, the overthrow of Agustin and the proclamation of a republic, nor the various coups that followed one another in Mexico City much affected the religious life of Los Angeles. Although technically a part of the Diocese of Sonora, founded in 1779 by Pope Pius VI, the Franciscans continued to administer the Sacraments (including confirmation, since a trip to California was beyond the bishop’s abilities). But in 1832, the Mexican Congress secularized the California missions. Not only were the mission properties seized in most cases by unscrupulous trustees, the Franciscan order in the province was decimated. Despite these losses, the Cabildo resolved on January 17, 1837 that “the Roman Catholic apostolic religion shall prevail throughout this jurisdiction.”
In order to assist in that happening, and at the request of the Mexican Congress, Pope Gregory XVI appointed the Franciscan priest, Francisco Garcia Diego y Moreno, as Bishop of the Californias on April 27, 1840. Establishing his headquarters at Mission San Diego, the new prelate soon moved to Mission Santa Barbara. From there he attempted to shepherd a diocese that included all of Baja California, what is now California and Nevada, and bits of neighboring states — most of which was wild and empty, with only scattered settlements.
Complicating matters further was the march of events. In 1845, the United States and Mexico went to war: the following year, Bishop Diego y Moreno died, and California occupied by the Americans. The Franciscan Fr. José González Rubio was appointed apostolic administrator, and steered the diocese through the Gold rush.