Santa Clara Valley Lives: Fire at Notre-Dame recalls blaze at Mission Santa Clara

Courtesy of Department of Archives & Special Collections, Santa Clara University
A fire at Mission Santa Clara in October 1926 destroyed most of the 19th-century structure. It was rebuilt on its present site, a project completed in 1929. Mission Santa Clara was moved three times and rebuilt at least five times during its years as a colonial outpost. 


There aren’t a lot of really old buildings in California. This can make it a challenge for local residents to take in the impact of the fire that came close to burning down the iconic Notre-Dame de Paris cathedral, which has been part of French life for nearly 900 years.

The county we live in is named after another historical church, Santa Clara de Asís, established in our valley by Spanish-speaking immigrants in 1777. The building we know today as Mission Santa Clara does not, however, go back that far. It was rebuilt on its present site after its own devastating fire.

During its years as a colonial outpost, Mission Santa Clara was moved three times and rebuilt at least five times. It moved to its present spot early in the 19th century and its last Franciscan church was dedicated there in 1825. Its role as a mission to California’s indigenous people makes it controversial today, though for the majority of its life since – nearly two centuries – Santa Clara has been a parish church and a college chapel.

The condition of the property was “wretched,” according to the local bishop, when he turned it over to the Jesuits in 1851. During the moves from Spanish to Mexican to American rule, the mission and its land had been neglected and plundered. It was used as a stable and a hotel, and one of its buildings (the former fourth mission church) had become a fandango parlor, operated by the mistress of its last Franciscan priest. The Jesuits cleaned up the mess and opened Santa Clara College, filling an important need when there were almost no schools in California. By 1926, the fifth mission church was 101 years old and at the center of a successful university.

On the morning of Oct. 25, 1926, fire broke out in a wooden bell tower of the old building and quickly burned out of control. Historian Gerald McKevitt said many artifacts were saved that day, but many more were lost. By day’s end, he added, the building was “a heap of ruins and ashes.”

Thus, the present church is Mission Santa Clara’s sixth iteration, built in 20th-century concrete in muted colors, though descriptions tell us earlier versions featured pigments of crimson and yellow, with the exterior covered in paintings by Mexican artist Augustin Dávila. The rebuilt church was completed in 1929, so it is 90 years old this year and finally beginning to acquire a proper patina.

Just eight more centuries and it will be right up there with Notre-Dame.

Robin Chapman is a journalist, historian and the author of “Historic Bay Area Visionaries,” published in 2018.

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