This sturdy stone church bears many names and a substantial weight of history. Royal Presidio Chapel, San Carlos Church, Cathedral of San Carlos Borromeo… From its founding on June 3, 1770, this chapel has accompanied Monterey on its path through history.
Father Serra and Don Gaspar de Portola, leader of the Spanish military expedition, were charged with founding a new settlement to secure New Spain’s possession of Alta California. Soldiers constructed the first fortifications and dwellings of the Royal Presidio (long gone, the site occupied an area approximately bounded by Webster and Fremont streets between Camino El Estero and Abrego Street). The first chapel took the form of a pole-and-brush structure.
Three versions of the chapel were built and lost to fire or reconstruction before work began on the stone building visitors see today. It was designed in Mexico City at the Academy of San Carlos and constructed between 1791 and 1794, using local labor, including Indians under the direction of master stonemason Manuel Ruiz.
The main façade of the chapel is California’s first architect designed building. It is embellished with pilasters, decorative niches, and sculpture.
As the only church in the capital of the province, it was attended by provincial and foreign dignitaries and was the setting for public ceremonies. It was designated ‘Royal’ because Alta California’s Spanish Governor worshipped there in his role as representative of the King of Spain.
When the Presidio was abandoned around 1835, all the buildings except for the chapel fell into ruin. Converted to a parish in 1840, the chapel became San Carlos Church. It served as the catherdral of the Bishop of Monterey from 1850 to 1857. In 1968 it was again designated a cathedral, the smallest in the continental United States.
San Carlos Cathedral is the oldest building on the Monterey Peninsula and the oldest church in continuous use in California, and the only remaining chapel associated with a presidio in California. Not surprisingly, it is also a National Historic Landmark.