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The city's oldest building and its namesake, whitewashed adobe Misión San Francisco de Asís was founded in 1776 and rebuilt in 1782 with conscripted Ohlone and Miwok labor – note the ceiling patterned after native baskets. Recent restorations revealed a hidden mural behind the altar painted by Ohlone artisans: a sacred heart, pierced by a sword and dripping with blood.
The building's nickname, Mission Dolores (Mission of the Sorrows), was taken from a nearby lake but it turned out to be tragically apt. With harsh living conditions and little resistance to introduced diseases, some 5000 Ohlone and Miwok died in mission measles epidemics in 1814 and 1826. In the cemetery beside the adobe mission, a replica Ohlone hut commemorates their mass burial in the graveyard, among early Mexican and European settlers.
Surrounding the Ohlone memorial, you'll notice graves dating from the Gold Rush. Alongside mission founders are buried Don Luis Antonio Arguello, the first governor of Alta California under Mexican rule, and Don Francisco de Haro, the first mayor of San Francisco. Hitchcock fans looking for the grave of Carlotta Valdes will be disappointed: the tomb was only a prop for the film Vertigo .
Today the modest adobe mission is overshadowed by the adjoining ornate Churrigueresque basilica, built in 1913 after an 1876 brick Gothic cathedral collapsed in the 1906 earthquake. The front doors are usually only open during services, so you'll need to pass through the original adobe mission structure and cross a courtyard to enter a side door.
Your eyes may take a moment to adjust once you're inside, because most of the light is filtered through the basilica's splendid stained-glass windows. The choir windows show St Francis beaming beatifically against an orange background, and lower windows along the nave feature the 21 California missions from Santa Cruz to San Diego and mission builders Father Junípero Serra and Father Francisco Palou. True to Mission Dolores' name, seven panels depict the Seven Sorrows of Mary: one above the main door and three on each of the side balconies.