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Old Mission San Luis Rey: the King of Missions

Old Mission San Luis Rey was founded in 1798 by Padre Fermin Francisco de Lasuen as one of 21 missions in the area built to serve the nearby native tribes and the Spanish settlers of the region. San Luis Rey is the largest of the group and is called the King of Missions for this reason. Today, the Spanish-Colonial church is designated a National Historic Landmark.

The original mission fell into disrepair under Mexican control of the territory until 1892 when a group of Franciscan friars once again returned to the monastery that had become part of the United States and began the rebuilding process. Today the mission has undergone an extensive renovation project to restore its original beauty as well as update it to include modern amenities.

The Center

The mission property sits on 56 acres, and most are open to retreat participants. The main section of the mission includes the red-tiled and whitewashed buildings that make up the church, the retreat center and the museum laid out in a quadrangle with gardens in the open space. Other locations of interest, such as the old colonnade or the church cemetery — the longest active cemetery in the area — are spread throughout the rest of the property.

The north wing that holds the retreat center was once a set of dormitories where unmarried women and young, newly converted Native Americans would live; married couples and families who belonged to the parish would often build their own homes outside of its walls. Later, this wing underwent extensive restorations in order to be updated and house students for a new school, San Luis Rey College, in the 1950s. The school remained open only until 1968 and, after its closing, was converted into the retreat center that occupies the space today.

While most of the property is open to retreat participants, except for the living quarters that belong to the 28 friars who live at the monastery and the classrooms in use for the Franciscan school. The section of the property that houses the retreat center, however, is limited to retreat guests. This helps promote the environment of peace and contemplation that so many guests seek during their time at the mission. One of the best ways to make use of this opportunity is with time in the St. Clare Chapel, open exclusively to retreat guests.

Fun Activities

While staying at the mission, groups can check out the on-site museum featuring mission-era art and artifacts. Guests can also spend time on the basketball and volleyball courts or lounging beside the swimming pool.

Exploring the mission’s historic features is an interesting way to spend free time. The lavanderia, or laundry, was the open-air laundry south of the mission that served as an irrigation source for the gardens and a washing area for residents. It features intricately carved stone gargoyles and an adobe brick kiln that fired the bricks used in the construction of the mission. Other highlights include the original hand-hammered baptismal font in the baptistery and the historic pepper tree in the courtyard, the seeds for which came from Peru in 1830.

The Oceanside Pier and local beach are only 15 minutes away. Visitors can grab a bite at Ruby’s Diner, stroll along the beach, relax and enjoy fishing off the pier or look for the dolphins and seals that frequent the area.


Old Mission San Luis Rey’s retreat programs are created to be Christian-based, all-inclusive activities and are open to all denominations.

“We are Franciscan and we are Catholic, but we welcome everybody here,” said Pat Julian, director of retreats and programs at San Luis Rey. “It’s one of the ways that we express our love and our care for all people.”

In all programs, the message centers on everyday life application.

“We’re very keen on anything with how that affects our lives today,” said Julian. “It’s not a distant, academic teaching. That’s what Franciscan teaching is about: using it in everyday life, not putting it aside like an educational topic.”

Groups can experience this style of teaching in a workshop led by one of the friars or professors at the Franciscan School of Theology, the only one of its kind still active in the United States.

Many groups come to the missions seeking quiet time and prayer, which is a part of every program at the mission. One popular option is the senior retreat, which includes programs on Franciscan history and theology, as well as tai chi classes and swimming at the on-site pool or trips to the nearby beach. Other retreats and workshops can be offered for certain interests, such as support for caregivers or for women’s retreats. The chef at the retreat center also offers cooking classes several times a year, providing a great team-building opportunity for groups.

The mission staff plans programs based around the liturgical calendar, such as programs for Lent in the spring or for Advent in the month leading up to Christmas. For groups wanting to bring their own speakers or programs, the mission is also available as a venue rental, and overnight accommodations can be included.

A Personal Pilgrimage

Many groups spending time at the mission take time to walk the Stations of the Cross, located near the back of the property. Each of the 14 stations depicts an event from the Passion and Crucifixion of Christ, from his arrest to his burial in a borrowed tomb.

Many visitors also come to San Luis Rey as part of a personal pilgrimage to visit all 21 California missions. It is also the only mission whose church is adorned with a wooden dome and cupola. Visiting groups will be interested to see and hear about some of the other differences and similarities between San Luis Rey and the other California missions.

Old Mission San Luis Rey

Location: Oceanside, California

Size: Flexible meeting space can accommodate 50 to 120 people; smaller rooms are available for groups of 10 to 20

Capacity: 92 people, double occupancy

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Ashley Ricks

Ashley Ricks is the circulation and marketing manager for The Group Travel Leader Inc.