Common Terms of the California Missions

Many words and phrases used during the California mission era are still in use . These include architectural and military terms, religious words and phrases, Native American terms and place names, and of course, the Spanish words for many aspects of everyday life. This glossary provides a handy single reference of these California Mission terms.


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An individual having charge of the sacristy of the church.


Room off the sanctuary containing priest garments and other articles used in church services.


Formal reception room; an area in the mission used to receive guests and visitors.

San Luis Rey de Francia

Part of the church containing the altar.


Spanish for Tabernacle, an ornamental receptacle placed in the center of the altar and used to hold consecrated wafers.


A condition resulting from a lack of ascorbic acid (Vitamin C). Common among sailors due to an inadequate intake of fresh fruits and vegetables. Many of the sailors on the Portola expedition of 1769 died of scurvy.


The process under which the Mexican government removed the mission lands from the jurisdiction of the Franciscans (who were replaced by secular priests) and half the mission land theoretically turned over to the Indians. The bylaws for secularization were enacted by the Mexican Congress in 1828, ratified in 1833 and fully enforced in 1834.


Medicine man responsible in an Indian tribe for curing disease and contacting the spiritual world.


A Chumash sacred area found within a village

Soldados de Cuera

The term used to describe the Spanish soldiers, named after their distinctive reinforced leather jacket. According to regulations, the jackets were to be made out of seven layers of buckskin, and were designed to stop an Indian arrow.