The Bell’s Toll

It heralded more than a new sense of time.

Mission Santa Clara—the church and its grounds—has experienced a half dozen different incarnations and locations, from a small wooden structure near San Francisco Bay approximately at the end of the runway of Mineta San Jose International Airport to the current site of the 1926 replica of the fourth, 1822, church located at the center of the SCU campus. Indeed, it has been the most mobile of Fr. Junipero Serra’s installations.

The name changed as well; it was originally La Misión de Santa Clara de Thamien, named for the group of Ohlone people where the Mission was located. For Fr. Serra, what never changed was the mission of bringing the true Church to Alta California and converting the local native population to Christianity. But the history of the Mission is also entangled in a tale of cultural catastrophe, played out across the Americas as the arrival of European explorers and then settlers disrupted what had been established social, migratory, and epidemiological patterns.

The childhood diseases introduced to the New World were often fast and fatal. The very act—the ringing of the Mission bell—that brought together the Ohlone as a society in a new way also created the perfect setting (crowds at Mass and in the nearby marketplace) to bring its swift demise. Measles, smallpox, mumps—infectious diseases to which Europeans over the millennia had developed a resistance—hit the Ohlone in the same way as they did most of the native people of the Western Hemisphere. They died by the hundreds, many of them buried beside the Mission. By the time the plagues passed, there weren’t enough natives left to recreate a society following the old ways.

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