San Luis, Rey de Francia, was founded June 13, 1798. This was the greatest, richest, and grandest of the old Missions, located in a most picturesque section, upon a beautiful site, not far from the ocean, at Oceanside, now a little gem of a modern city. In the day of its glory and wealth it was the pride of all the Missions. Father Peyri during his long service of more than thirty years made it his home. The Mission possessed more than two hundred thousand acres, and as much more became subject to its control as its energies expanded. It owned and pastured upon its lands an annual average of twenty thousand head of cattle, and nearly as many sheep, with three thousand Indians to perform the various kinds of work needful to a self-supporting colony. All Missions once well started were expected to produce from their lands and industries all the comforts and as many of the luxuries as such primitive conditions of life made possible. In these respects all were successful. No Mission lived upon the charity of another, though their hospitality was proverbial. The annual crops of wheat, oats, barley and corn, potatoes, beans, and other products of the soil, were very many thousand bushels. In the year 1834, the Mission had thirty-five hundred Indians to support, and, as an old record shows, more than twenty-five thousand head of cattle, ten thousand horses, and ninety thousand sheep. It raised and harvested from its arable lands annually, in the zenith of its prosperity, more than sixty thousand bushels of grain, and two hundred and fifty barrels of wine from its vineyards.
The grand and imposing structure was the church, one hundred and sixty feet long, fifty feet wide, and sixty feet in height, with walls four to five feet thick. The great tower in front had three stories, the upper two each containing four bells in a square room formed by the walls of the tower, where archways were cut in all sides; and a bell, hung back of these openings and vibrating in the air, could be heard for many miles. These bells performed all kinds of service in Mission work and worship, and were indispensable to the padres. The ornaments of the church in gold and silver were many and beautiful. In the chancel and behind the altar stood the cross, and upon it the image of Christ, of life size, modeled in wood, exquisitely painted and fashioned, to make the resemblance to life nearly perfect. The altar was approached by steps made to resemble red granite. An old pulpit of wood, curiously made, said to have been used in a church in Constantinople during the Middle Ages, and occupied at different times by several of the most learned and pious of the priesthood that have since been canonized by the popes, hung upon the wall to the right of the altar, facing the Indians. It was entered by a stairway from the space at the end of the altar. It was revered as a most precious relic, and richly trimmed in gold. The walls and ceiling of the structure were adorned with many and various images, mottoes, and precepts illustrating the creed, ceremonies, and history of the Church.
On one side of the structure extended a corridor of two hundred and fifty arches. This alone certainly indicates the vast space covered by the buildings. In the rear of the church was a great square containing several acres, enclosed by a row of buildings on each side. The front and rear lines were constructed in the form of corridors with superb arches. The ground enclosed was used as one of the gardens of the Mission, and entered from the corridors, a favorite resort of the padres. The air therein was moistened by the waters of an immense stone fountain in the center, water brought through a conduit from the mountains.
San Luis Rey was known as “the kingly Mission.” Its boundless possessions of land, great number of converts, vast riches in almost every kind of personal property, great influence in the councils of the Church, and perhaps its wonderful success in the management of its resources, spiritually and otherwise, gave it a celebrity surpassing that of all other Missions. When the order of secularization was about to be carried into effect, and notice was sent to Padre Peyri, he determined at once to leave his home of thirty years, with all its loved and bitter memories. Dreading the parting with his Indians, who had become to him as dear as children, he started away in the night for San Diego, forty-five miles distant, unknown to them, and hoped thus to escape the agony of separation. The secret of his flight was soon known, and several hundred of them rushed to their horses and hastened in pursuit. They reached the Bay of San Diego in time to see Father Peyri on board the ship, then weighing anchor for Spain. From the deck he blessed them, and bade them farewell in tears and lamentations. Some of them swam to the ship, and were taken on board; they went to Rome, never to return again. None but Serra in all this noble band endeared himself to the poor Indian like Peyri.
The process of restoration of the Mission began in 1892. Father O’Keefe, the popular priest who long presided over the reviving fortunes of Santa Barbara Mission, and was so kindly known to tourists, became the manager at San Luis Rey in the period of reconstruction. The work advanced so rapidly that on the twelfth of May, 1894, the Mission was again dedicated, and title thereto delivered to the Franciscan Order. It is stated that some old Indian women were there who had been present at the dedication ceremonies. nearly one hundred years before. The old Moorish dome over the chancel in the church has been restored, and such other buildings added as would serve the new purpose of the Mission, all resembling as nearly as possible the original designs in the arrangement of grounds and erections. The brown mountains, the lovely valley, and the pure snow waters of the river flowing around the elevation upon which the white-domed and tile-roofed homes of the old padres in far-off days rested, will remain in their beauty and grandeur until the end of time, but will not outlive the pious memories and pathetic fate of San Luis, which was destroyed while nourishing a civilization that promised so much to pagan races.