History and Highlights
From its inception as the Californias’ original capital in 1697, bustling Loreto was the epicenter of all things cultural, religious and administrative. Thus it should come as no surprise that it was at Loreto that the Jesuits founded “The Head and Mother of the Spanish Missions in Upper and Lower California” – a title so important these words are still inscribed above the main doors of the church today.
Thanks to its central location and its status as both the first and most superior of Baja’s missions, Misión Nuestra Señora de Loreto de Conchó is also one of its most visited. And with its proximity to the Transpeninsular Highway and the services offered in Loreto, there’s hardly an excuse not to visit, even if only for a few minutes.
Many visitors enter central Loreto via its main drag, Salvatierra, which eventually transforms into a pedestrian concourse that passes right in front of the mission site and church. The street is aptly named, as it was Father Juan María de Salvatierra who, along with Padre Kino (himself the namesake of a parallel street four blocks to the north), conceived the notion of an evangelization mission to the Californias.
Fr. Salvatierra arrived in October, 1697, to found a mission and capital, launching a turbulent century-and-a-half in Loreto. After putting the finishing touches on the new church in 1704, the mission was besieged by a litany of ills. A measles outbreak halved the population just six years later. Starvation was a constant threat, as Loreto lived “ship-to-ship,” scraping by on meager resources as they awaited the next supply ship from across the Sea of Cortez. And Indians from surrounding regions were engaged in a seemingly endless barrage of attacks as they, too, fought off starvation.
Father Jaime Bravo initiated a major expansion of the initial church structure in 1740 as Loreto grew, resulting in the church visitors see today. Within a quarter-century, several hundred called Loreto home, although the 1760s also marked the beginning of a period of great decline for Loreto. The Jesuits were expelled in 1768, ushering in an era of administrative turbulence as the Franciscans, and five years later the Dominicans, each took a turn at the helm of the Baja missions. Loreto ceded its capital status in 1776 and five years later, a wave of smallpox reduced the population to fewer than a hundred. Finally, in 1829, Loreto ceased to be either a regional hub or a mission, as the missionaries and Indians had both headed for the hills.
Astonishingly, the one thing to survive the many plagues of Loreto – not to mention a series of brutal earthquakes and hurricanes, the most recent of the latter being 2009’s Jimena – is the church. Today, visitors to its interior will find a gold-leafed retablo dwarfing the altar from its rear. At its heart is a statue of the Virgin of Loreto, although the original, brought during Fr. Salvatierra’s voyage in 1697, is tucked away from the nave of the main church.
Adjacent to the church, the Museo de las Misiónes has beefed up its collection of artifacts and exhibits about life in mission-era Baja and is worth the visit.
Who founded it?
The Jesuits, led by Father Juan María de Salvatierra.
What should I expect to see?
The main church, over 270 years old and counting, dominates the scene in Loreto’s historic center. Watch for the retablo behind the altar (you can’t miss it), and the authentic natural cross on the museum side of the church, erected in 1997 to mark Loreto’s 300th anniversary.
When should I go?
The church is open daily. As Loreto’s functional parish church, masses and other events take place daily, too. If you want to catch the museum next door, avoid Mondays and lunchtimes (1 to 1.45pm) when it’s closed. Otherwise, it’s open from 9am to 6pm.
Where is it and how do I get there?
Set your GPS coordinates to N 26° 00.61’ W 111° 20.60’. The 20th-century bell tower makes the church hard to miss. From the Transpeninsular Highway, follow the “main” Loreto exit (as marked by the overhead sign) onto the boulevard that becomes Salvatierra. Follow this to Loreto’s only traffic light. From here, you’ll have to head east on foot through the tunnel of trees that mark the continuation of Salvatierra as it becomes a pedestrian thoroughfare. The church is two blocks east at the junction of the street called J.M. Pino Suarez. The town square is just another block east, on the other side of Loreto’s City Hall.
Why should I go?
Nuestra Señora de Loreto de Conchó is the oldest mission in all of Baja. As the “Head and Mother” of Baja missions, it carries more significance than any other in Baja.