Take a guided tour of the San Fernando Mission in Mission Hills and you can see the largest two-story adobe mission building in California, the oldest pipe organ in the Golden State and, perhaps, a ghost in the library. The mission’s 13 volunteer tour guides, who celebrated the 25th anniversary of their founding last month, lead hundreds of tours annually for schoolchildren and adults. From 25,000 to 30,000 individuals visit the mission each year, taking self-guided tours or a tour from the docents who enjoy sharing the history of the mission complex that includes San Fernando Valley’s “Mother Church.”Established by Fray Fermin Francisco De Lasuen on September 8, 1797, the San Fernando Mission — the seventeenth in the chain of outposts along Alta California’s El Camino Real — was a Spanish settlement in the valley which had been inhabited for centuries by the Tongva Indians. By 1806, nearly 1,000 Indians lived at the San Fernando Mission, tending livestock and producing leather goods, tallow and cloth as well as constructing mission buildings and the quadrangle. The tour guides explain what life was like during those early mission days, after secularization in the mid-1830s, and following restoration efforts which began in the 1920s.Mission enthusiastsTwenty-five years ago, Msgr. Francis Weber, archdiocesan archivist emeritus, was approached by a group of mission enthusiasts about forming a tour guide association to educate visitors. Among those founding tour guides was the late James W. Trent, UCLA professor and history buff, whose wife, Gretchen, 78, carries on the founders’ legacy as the group’s secretary. “I tell everybody, my husband’s dying words were, ‘Whatever it takes, keep the tour guides alive,’” said Trent, a vivacious former IRS group manager who keeps busy in retirement by teaching English as a Second Language at MEND in Pacoima and serving as a Eucharistic minister at Providence Holy Cross Medical Center.Tour guide, Diane Antoni, 71, a former dancer with the American Ballet Theater in New York who retired in 2006 from a 30-year career as an L.A. Unified high school French and ESL teacher, says she enjoys teaching about the history of the San Fernando Mission, since it’s “something that is not generally known by very many people.” The tour, she says, usually draws “oos” and “ahs” from school children, when it commences on the long, grassy lawn between the entrance building and the old Mission Church with the adjacent workshop building. “More than once the children say, ‘It’s so beautiful.’ They’re always kind of amazed at this whole courtyard,” remarked Antoni, who proceeds to enlighten her visitors that, back in the day, the courtyard wasn’t grass green but dirt brown and it was where they sometimes had horse races and dances for entertainment. There was also no flower-shaped fountain in the middle, as at present. “I love the little kids,” said Joan La Porte, 78, who leads tours with her husband Joe, 83. He likes to point out to the children that the mayordomo’s one-room house, where the foreman of the mission ranch lived with his family, doesn’t have many of today’s amenities — like an indoor bathroom. When the couple finishes the tour with a visit inside the old Mission church, an exact replica of the original erected between 1804 and 1806, some of the children confide that it’s the first time they have ever been in a church.“I just love it. The kids are magnificent — I’ve got reams of accolades,” said John Pankratz, a spry over-80-year-old who has been giving tours since 1994. “I retired and had to do something so I decided I should go to Mass at the mission in the morning.” He became acquainted with the mission’s need for tour guides and leads groups dressed in a white shirt, black pants, black brimmed hat and red kerchief tied around his neck.Fellow tour guide Dave Beaumont, 78, a retired computer manager who has led tours for 12 years, shares bemusedly that the docents are frequently asked by children: “Were you here when Father Serra [or] the Indians were here?” Beaumont, whose son, Franciscan Father David Beaumont, works with Indian tribes in Sonora Mexico, likes to point out the glass-encased, gray robe of a mission-era Franciscan in the mission’s museum, which also houses pottery, santos, trade and commerce items. “The biggest export out of this mission was shoes,” he told a recent tour group. “They made them by the thousands and brought them down to Long Beach and sold them to ships coming into the harbor.” The museum has a pictorial history of the mission, including post cards of the old mission in decay. It was almost in ruins at the time California became the 31st state in 1850. Before the age of the automobile, it served as a stagecoach drop-off for travelers to the San Fernando Valley. Thanks to restoration efforts, including rebuilding the church, workshops and mayordomo’s house, the Valley’s mission provides a “glimpse of yesteryear,” according to a recent visitor on a guided tour. ConventoThe convento, a 13-year construction project completed in 1822, is the largest two-story adobe mission building in California and the only original building remaining at the San Fernando Mission. The impressive structure, built to provide housing for missionary activities, has an outside corridor with 21 Roman arches and original four-foot adobe walls and iron grilles.The convento survived the 1971 Sylmar earthquake which destroyed the mission church. Costly and extensive repair work, including retrofitting, was done on the convento following the earthquake to strengthen its adobe walls.The library in the convento contains many books from California missions dating from the 16th to the 19th centuries, as the San Fernando Mission is the archival center for the state’s chain of 21 missions. The room with its shelves of books encased in glass is where a ghost has been sighted by a few people, including children and adults, taking the guided tours.“They all describe him [the ghost] exactly the same way,” said Beaumont. “He is a man standing [in front of one of the bookcases] dressed in a black suit. He looks like a teacher and he’s holding a book while looking irritated at people for bothering him.”None of the tour guides have seen the apparition, but more than one have stories of people on their tour who said they saw the figure. Beaumont says he never tells people about the possibility of seeing a ghost before taking them into the room so as not to alarm them. As recently as five months ago, a fourth grader told Beaumont she saw the black-suited man, who some conjecture by the description of his clothing may have lived during the early 1900s. Affecting livesBeing a tour guide is meaningful to the giver and the receivers, say those who take visitors on guided tours. “You really do affect people’s lives more than you think,” said Beaumont. While he emphasizes that the guides are giving history tours, not religious tours, visitors of all denominations and backgrounds are looking at mission art and artifacts. “It gives people a feeling for things, especially religious things,” said Beaumont.“We’re constantly studying and sharing ideas,” about the mission days and leading tours, said Maureen Wiggins, tour guides president. She notes that retired tour guides lend their support by praying for the continued success of the tours — and for more tour guides. “I think it’s very important to always have that prayer foundation to help us,” said Wiggins.Reflecting on his recent guided tour of the mission, Marc Ferguson, a home builder, expressed his admiration for the mission builders: “I like the architecture and the ingenuity they had using the natural materials. From this history, you can see we’re all kind of similar no matter what generation we’re born in. God’s given inspiration to use what we have to build. I don’t know a lot about the Catholic Church, so seeing all the [mission artifacts] is really amazing — the passion that people put into them out of love.”The San Fernando Mission, located at 15151 San Fernando Mission Blvd., Mission Hills, is open 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m. daily. Admission: $4 adults; $3 children ages 7-15. Guided tours at no additional charge can be arranged by calling the gift shop one month in advance, (818) 361-0186. To inquire about becoming a tour guide, call (818) 455-7539.{gallery width=100 height=100}gallery/2011/0826/sfmission/{/gallery}