Mission San Francisco de Asís and Its Historic, Cinematic, and Photogenic Garden Cemetery


Located in The Mission neighborhood of San Francisco, this mission is also referred to as Mission Dolores. Its common name originates from a creek that once ran near the community named Arroyo de Nuestra Señora de los Dolores. Founded by Franciscans, it is named after my favorite Catholic hero: San Francesco d’Assisi.

It is difficult for me to believe that I have been to the Bay Area almost twenty times in my life, and yet, this was my first visit to the city’s oldest structure, a location made even more famous by its inclusion in one of my all-time favorite Alfred Hitchcock films, Vertigo.

I loved that the official plaque made it very clear that the original adobe walls and roof tiles were still intact.

The first Catholic Mass celebrated here took place under a shelter at this site just a few days before the
signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. These bricks had not yet all been formed and dried at the site. The building was completed in 1791.
Inside, the proof is made even more crystal clear.
My namesake, St Ann(e), mother of Mary, is to the right of the crucified Christ and the Immaculate Conception Mary is to the left. Above St Ann(e) is St Clare, the founderess of the Poor Clares, or, the female Franciscans. Above Mary is her father San Joaquin.
Without going into too much detail about the alter and its iconography, I can say that much is being said in this one that is rather atypical. Since I am such a plant and animal nut, it was really great to see such a formal alter for St Francis and all that he stood for in his work.
Beside the mission church is the larger, more modern, Basilica. Seeing its main alter decked out with garlands of blooms and tons of flowers flooded me with memories. It also allowed me to show my husband where my penchant for springtime pagan-like bloom worship sprung from.

Lastly, there is the famous cemetery. If you have not yet seen Vertigo, I promise to hide my shock. If you have, this is where Jimmy Stewart’s character Scottie follows Madeline and he watches her as she sits and visits a gravesite.

This was the only Italian gravestone we found but there  were many in English and Spanish.  I was also really curious about many of the early Irish people who appeared to have been living here when it was still Mexico. That makes sense since it was Catholic. I’d like to learn more about these people now!

The gravestone from the film is no longer here, but there are plenty of real people to keep you more than entertained for an hour of so. Oh, and then there are the plants!

The plants are rambling all over the place.

If you go and you see something you like, there is a list of plants posted.

The architecture, the light, and the plants, made for an unimaginable visit that day.

Even though it was overcast, I could easily see why Hitchcock had picked the site. For many years the church actually left the gravestone of one Carlotta Valdes in the cemetery, but it became too much of a tourist site, and the stone was removed. I am not sure where it is now, but I am sure that it is out there somewhere.

In the film, this figure can be seen behind Scottie. It was once part of a grotto, and from online research, it appears to have been moved around a bit.

St Francis pacing in thoughtful prayer around the rose garden. He was a bit too large and lifelike for me.

I really liked this stone seat. Its permanence is unquestionable.

A newer addition, this looks a lot like the spineless Prickly Pear developed by Luther Burbank. Against the white wall, it really stands out.

As always, the history of the site appears to overlap with that of my husband’s ancestor who travelled on what was John C. Frémont’s famous Third expedition. It is sad that Basil LaJeunesse became an historical footnote during that trip, but his death reverberated for many years in the lives of those closest to him. It is my belief, based on what I’ve been reading, that it was a loss both Kit Carson and Frémont were unsettled about since during the ensuing weeks they did things they later regretted.

I loved the casual feel here. The stepping stones, Sedum and hose make this feel so much like a garden.

One of the most controversial actions these men took involves this man.

This is the grave of the first mayor of San Francisco—though he was called an Alcalde and the city was then still Yerba Buena. Kit Carson shot and killed his twin sons and their distant cousin in 1846 near San Rafael when told to do so by John C. Frémont. This was just a few weeks after Basil’s death, after they’d attacked and killed the wrong Native Americans to avenge the death in Oregon, and after they must have realized they’d been tracked by Modoc paid by the Mexican Government who’d been tracking them from their encampment near Monterey as they’d headed north of the border for safety.

So enough about all of that for now, you soon will be seeing more of Frémont as he has so many native plants that have his name attached to them. I just have to add this stuff because it is so much a part of why both my husband and I love where we live, between both the Pacific Northwest and California.

So the next time you find yourself in San Francisco, I invite you to sit and stay awhile. Meditate a bit and transport yourself back in time to a California before the Gold Rush, to a time when it was part of Mexico.

Mission San Francisco de Asís or Mission Dolores

2 thoughts on “Mission San Francisco de Asís and Its Historic, Cinematic, and Photogenic Garden Cemetery

  1. Fascinating. I immediately thought of the movie Vertigo. In my opinion, your pictures show a much nicer place than what was starkly depicted in the black and white movie. Great post.


  2. Thank you Grace! I had never thought of this until now, but I think my love of photography came from watching everything Alfred Hitchcock as a girl. I think being somewhere he filmed was actually really intimidating.

    Wish the flowers looked better too but this spring has been horrible. I will have to go back later when the place is sunny and in bloom!


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