Mission San Fernando
in California

How an Old Episode of Dragnet
Inspired My Visit

By Marianne Schwab | Best Travel Deals Tips Blog

I had no idea that I live just a little over six miles from the Mission San Fernando until yesterday. I was watching an old episode of the original Dragnet on Antenna TV and Sgt. Joe Friday and Officer Bill Gannon were investigating a robbery that took place at the Old Mission Church.

I love watching the old shows that were shot on location in Los Angeles since the city has changed a lot in the past 45 years. This episode, The Christmas Story, originally aired on December 21, 1967, and inspired me to find out where Mission San Fernando was located. To my surprise, it is located about ten minutes away from my home in the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles so I took a couple of hours on a Friday afternoon to visit the beautiful oasis.

I discovered that Mission San Fernando is one of 21 Spanish missions on coastal California that start in San Diego and go up to Sonoma in wine country. They were founded between 1769 and 1823 by Franciscan missionaries and today these missions are a beautiful and important part of California history.

Mission San Fernando may be the least dramatic of these missions when it comes to architecture, but the grounds and interiors have been wonderfully preserved and you'll be enchanted by a tour of this special place that includes a historical museum, convent, gardens, and the Old Mission Church featured in the episode of Dragnet.

Mission San Fernando was founded in 1797 in Mission Hills, California and is named for St. Ferdinand, King of Spain (1217-1252). The Old Mission Church in the photo above at the end of the long corridor and a front side view below is actually the fourth church built on this site and is an exact replica of an earlier church built between 1804 and 1806. The church was also blessed by a visit from Pope John Paul II in September of 1987.

The Dragnet episode plays out like this. Friday (Jack Webb) and Gannon (Harry Morgan) investigate the theft of a statue of the baby Jesus from the nativity scene at the Old Mission Church on Christmas Eve. After Friday and Gannon enter the property in the old cloister wing seen in the first photo above (which I discovered that you can no longer enter the mission at this building when I visited), they meet up with Father Rojas at the altar inside the church (in the photo below). The Ezcarey altar furnishings you see actually date back to the 17th century.

In the Dragnet episode, the figure of the baby Jesus itself has little monetary value, but Father Xavier Rojas explains this Jesus statue has been at the church for decades and has great sentimental value to the parishioners.

The detectives pursue a lead that ends up taking them nowhere and they think they won't be able to close the case before Christmas. As they return to see Father Rojas at the Old Mission Church, a small boy enters the back of the church (as seen in photo below) pulling a red wagon.

As the boy gets closer to the altar, Friday and Gannon realize the statue of the baby Jesus is in the little boy's wagon. The boy tells the priest that he had prayed for a new wagon for Christmas and promised the baby Jesus the first ride if he received it as a gift. The episode is a remake of "The Big Little Baby Jesus" from the original 1951-59 series written by Bill Koenig.

I found this clip of the final scenes of both episodes edited together. It's such a sweet story.

The beginning of each Dragnet episode begins with, "The story you're about to see is true. Only the names have been changed to protect the innocent." I have no idea if this is a true story, but it sure is a sweet one.

A little TV trivia -- Barry Williams (a.k.a. Greg Brady) has a small role in this episode as an altar boy who gives Friday and Gannon some info on a possible suspect. You can watch the full episode of Dragnet's The Christmas Story on IMDB for free. It doesn't have to be the holidays for you to enjoy it. If you're planning a visit to Mission San Fernando, you might want to watch this episode before you go.

The Mission San Fernando interiors and courtyards were also used to film scenes of the Alamo in Pee Wee's Big Adventure shot on location in 1985 and silent movie star Rudolph Valentino (photo to the left) shot scenes for The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in 1921 here as well, just to name a few movies that have used the mission as a filming location.

There is so much to explore when at the mission that you'll want to plan on a minimum of two or three hours for your visit. The biggest surprise to me was discovering the Bob Hope Memorial Garden located on the north side of the Old Mission Church. The Hollywood legend is interred here along with his wife, Delores, and the garden is lovely.

Mission San Fernando is located at 1515 San Fernando Mission Blvd. in Mission Hills, California and is open daily from 9:00am to 5:00pm. Admission is $4.00 for adults; $3.00 for senior citizens and kids ages 7-15. Children under 7 may visit for free when accompanied by an adult. You can find out more information about the mission at MissionsCalifornia.com.

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