There is a long passage through space and time, with one end anchored at Dolores and 17th St in San Francisco in the present, and the other end in Assisi, Italy, in 1182. The length is more than eight hundred years and six thousand miles.
This is the oldest building in San Francisco (built 1776), the mission of Francis of Assisi (born 1182). He was born into a merchant family, purveyors of clothing, money, religion, and ideas. He began his life in a well-off style, but through illness and various experiences with people in poverty, he began a slow spiritual conversion.
The Franciscan Order takes its name from Francis and follows habits of austerity and poverty. One of the Franciscan’s early accomplishments was reconciliation with the Islamic world, for which the Catholic Church granted them status of custodians of Catholic interests in the Middle East.
The Mission Dolores site was a Franciscan mission created in California as part of 21 missions spread up the coast. Moving south from San Francisco, there are mission sites at San Jose, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, and further down all the way to San Diego. Often there were military bases, or presidios, accompanying the mission, as was the case in San Francisco. The mission served not just as the religious center, but, just as in 12th century Assisi, commerce and the church moved in concert.
It’s very easy to miss this connection to the 12th century, especially considering the good shape of the building and the proximity to new condominiums and mixed-use developments. The west coast has many fewer connections to the past than eastern cities like Boston, and the ones we do have more follow the model of frontier expansion and remote outposts than the compact New England villages and ports. However, it seems that the prioritization of asceticism pushed both the Franciscans and the Puritans to the edges of their civilization.