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Catholic Voice
October 23, 2017   •   VOL. 55, NO. 18   •   Oakland, CA
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A crowd of 200 people filled the mission church for the presentation.

Missions designed to shed light on liturgy

A ray of sunlight through a window above the choir loft focuses light on an altar cherub.

Early American Catholic churches may have been built using geometry and sunlight to highlight liturgical and religious events.

Ruben G. Mendoza, an archaeologist and chair of the School of Social, Behavioral and Global Studies at California State University Monterey Bay, contends these "illuminations" were intentional, perhaps part of an evangelization effort by New World missionaries during the Spanish colonial period.

They were first noticed at Mission San Juan Bautista in 1997. Mendoza and others have spent the last 20 years researching the illuminations.

"This is not coincidence," Mendoza told about 200 people crowded into old Mission San Jose in Fremont on Oct. 4. "How they did this is anybody's guess.

"People used to accuse me of using Photoshop until they saw these illuminations themselves."

Saints' paintings, statues and parts of the altar can be illuminated, he said, often to coincide with a feast day.

"Mission San Jose has spectacular alignments," Mendoza said, especially around March 19, the feast of St. Joseph.

On the evening of Oct. 4, sunlight from a window above the choir loft shot a beam of light directly onto a cherub carved on the altar. In March, the sunlight directly hits a statue of St. Joseph atop the altar.

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Because of the movement of the earth, the sun will strike different parts of the interior at different times of the year.

These churches were built with a level of precision and attention to liturgy, he said, though as some of them have been renovated, they've lost their illumination.

Not just the California missions, but other South American and Philippine churches demonstrate this phenomenon.

"More than 110,000 churches were built in Mexico alone in a 100-year period," Mendoza said.

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