Editor’s note: “That’s SLO Weird” explores the things that make San Luis Obispo County so wonderful and so ... well ... weird. Wondering about something weird in SLO County? Send your tips to Gabby Ferreira at firstname.lastname@example.org or @Its_GabbyF on Twitter.
As you drive east out of Paso Robles on Highway 46, past the wineries and toward the James Dean Memorial Junction, you might notice a picturesque, white mission-style chapel nestled amid the golden hills of Shandon.
Blink and you’ll miss it.
“It’s just brown, dead grass for miles and then suddenly (you see) a vineyard on a hill and then suddenly a chapel that looks like it’s from the 16th century,” said one frequent visitor, Festival Mozaic music director Scott Yoo. “Even to this day, it still takes my breath away. I’m amazed.”
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The chapel has long been known as Shandon Chapel — or Chapel Hill, a moniker that includes the land upon which it sits. The chapel was rededicated as Serra Chapel following the canonization of Franciscan priest and California mission founder Junipero Serra in 2015.
Serra Chapel was built by Judge William Clark, a Shandon rancher, devout Catholic and close adviser to President Ronald Reagan, and Clark’s wife, Joan. The chapel was finished in 1993, just in time for the first mass to be said there on Thanksgiving Day, Clark’s son, Paso Robles attorney Paul Clark, told The Tribune.
Clark said his parents had always wanted to build a small chapel, originally meant to be part of their home. Then two things happened: William Clark got in a serious plane crash, and he and his wife had an opportunity to purchase several artifacts from the collection of publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst.
In 1988, Clark was involved in a plane crash at his home that nearly killed him. Though he and his wife had already planned to build the chapel, the crash “definitely motivated him to shift his priorities,” Paul Clark said.
When William and Joan Clark acquired the artifacts, they felt they should make the chapel available to the community, Paul Clark said.
The Clarks picked a spot on a hill that was part of their property at the time, and built the chapel in the style of Christopher Wren, the English architect behind St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, according to a 2000 Tribune article.
Serra Chapel is part of the Clarks’ lasting legacy in Shandon, along with William Clark’s service to the United States. At the height of his career, he served the Reagan administration as deputy secretary of state, national security adviser and secretary of the interior.
The chapel is open to the public every Sunday for Catholic mass, but is otherwise off-limits except for an annual concert organized by Festival Mozaic, San Luis Obispo County’s premiere classical music festival. That concert usually happens in July.
But the verdant path up to the top, which echoes the feeling of a traditional Catholic pilgrimage, is open to the public at all times.
Go up Chapel Hill and the first thing you’ll notice is a peaceful silence.
Though you’re not far from Highway 46, the only sound is wind whooshing over the hills. The vineyard that lines the path up to the top sparkles in the sunlight thanks to shiny silver tape meant to distract birds. Olive trees wave you forward through a graceful, weathered arch — one of three on the path.
At the crest of the hill, the sound of the wind harmonizes with the sound of your footsteps echoing on the paved area outside the chapel. Inside the chapel, the tiniest sound reverberates. It’s jarring compared to the stillness and quiet outside.
When the doors are open, the gold leaf on the intricate antique ceiling gleams. When the lights are off, the room is bathed in a rosy glow from the stained glass windows.
Near the main doors are a series of ropes hanging down from the ceiling and secured. Those are the pulleys for the three bells on top of the chapel, Clark explained during a recent walk-through with a Tribune reporter.
“Let me see if I can do this,” he said, grinning as he pulled down on one of the ropes. A sonorous bell toll rang out and reverberated throughout the hilltop. William Clark rescued the bells from a church in Chicago, his son said.
Serra Chapel has become popular with the local Latino community, who prefer to worship at the chapel rather than drive to church in Paso Robles, Clark said. A beautiful statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe, which holds a place of honor in the chapel, was made in Guadalajara and commissioned and paid for by Latino parishioners.
“Judge Clark always had a special place in his heart for workers, in particular the local Hispanic community,” said Father Masseo Gonzales, a Franciscan priest who leads services at the chapel three Sundays a month. “When he got this chapel started, he made it a priority to have a Spanish mass early in the morning. Every Sunday at 8 o’clock, we have a Spanish mass.”
Gonzales, who preached at William Clark’s funeral in 2013, said Clark was full of humility and “had a huge place in his heart for people.”
“That always impressed me,” Gonzales said. “Unfortunately, the more we are blessed with, the more we have, we can become arrogant. That’s not against riches, that’s not against wealth, but sometimes when we’re blessed with things in life, we can get arrogant and prideful. I never saw that in Mr. Clark.”
Gonzales added that the chapel is “truly there for people who are traveling,” noting that the chapel’s location is right on the route many people from the San Joaquin Valley take when they travel into San Luis Obispo County.
“We get a lot of visitors that pass through there,” Gonzales said. “It provides a great resource for people traveling if they have a place to stop and see the beautiful chapel and participate in the services.”
Gonzales said he is moved by the spirit of Junipero Serra within the building as well as the architecture of the chapel.
“The architecture captures California history and the missionary look. I just love it,” Gonzales said. “It’s absolutely a beautiful place physically, and the spiritual dynamic as well.”
The Hearst treasures housed in Serra Chapel include French window surrounds and a 13th century Moorish ceiling, which Paul Clark said his mother and some other women from Shandon restored with help from an expert at the Oakland Museum of California.
The stone archways on the path up to the chapel are also window surrounds from the Hearst collection, Clark said.
In addition, the chapel houses a bone relic from Serra. The relic is displayed during mass but is otherwise kept under lock and key, Clark said.
When Scott Yoo first saw the chapel, the sight left him in awe.
“I remember thinking, ‘I don’t think I’ll ever be somewhere like this ever again in my life,’ ” said Yoo, reached by phone in Mexico City, where he leads the Mexico City Philharmonic. “I remember thinking it was a really strange and crazy place and I still do.”
On that first visit, more than a decade ago, Yoo got a little lost and thought he was in the wrong place — until he heard faint music coming from the hilltop.
“I thought someone had a radio on or something,” he said. “And then I walked up I don’t know how many stairs and the music kept getting louder and louder and louder and I thought, ‘Oh my God, I think I am in the right place.’ ”
Yoo said he always takes first-time Festival Mozaic attendees to Serra Chapel because “it’s a good way to shock and awe people.”
Called the chapel “a study in extremes,” he noted the diminutive size of the chapel compared to the soaring acoustics found there. Weather conditions can also vary on top of the hill, he said, especially during the summer, when temperatures can reach as high as the 90s and as low as the 50s.
“You hear (the music) and it sounds like it’s in a huge room, but it’s tiny,” he said. “It’s shocking ... It’s like nowhere else in the world.”
“There’s something about (performing in the chapel) that’s incredibly intimate,” Yoo said. “It feels like a living room concert except that you’re in no living room you’ve ever been to in your life.”