Cathedral Oak Monument

Cathedral Oak Monument — Los Angeles Explorers Guild

Cathedral Oak Monument

Along a sleepy stretch of road in South Pasadena you’ll drive by the location of the first Easter service ever held in California. Supposedly.

Once upon a time, this spot was the location of the Cathedral Oak, a huge tree under which the first Easter services in California were held way back in 1770. Or so it’s been told.

This legendary Easter service took place during the second Portolà Expedition, where Spaniard Gaspar de Portolà led a group of explorers on an overland journey from San Diego through the wilds of Alta California to locate the port of Monterey.

Cathedral Oak Monument — Los Angeles Explorers Guild
A simple metal cross marks the approximate location of where the Cathedral Oak stood until 1952. Photo from the author’s collection.

The Portolà Expeditions

The first Portolà Expedition left San Diego in the Summer of ’69 (1769, that is) with the intention of establishing a settlement at Monterey, first surveyed by Sebastián Vizcaíno in 1602.

On their way north, they passed through the Los Angeles area in August. This is when Father Juan Crespí (the party’s official chronicler) first christened a large river they crossed as El Río de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles de Porciúncula — today’s Los Angeles River.


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The party of 74 explorers continued their northward venture along what would become El Camino Real (you’ve probably seen the bell-shaped monuments marking this path here and there around L.A.), arriving at Monterey Bay sometime in November. But they didn’t recognize it as the place they were looking for. So after stumbling around the wilderness for a few weeks, they headed back to San Diego, arriving on January 24, 1770.

Somewhat shamed by Father Junipero Serra (in what was probably an early instance of smack talk) at not finding what they had been looking for, Portolà struck out again from San Diego on April 17. His group was half the size of his first expedition, and they followed the path they’d carved out the previous year. The trip took only five weeks, and this time they found Monterey, arriving on May 24, 1770.

The First Easter Service in California

But along the way, the group celebrated Easter under a large oak tree adjacent to the Arroyo Seco, according to the records kept by Crespí and Portolà. It’s said Portola carved a cross at the base of the tree.

Portola's Cross in the Cathedral Oak
Portolà’s Cross in the trunk of the Cathedral Oak, circa 1895. Photo via Los Angeles Public Library, Security Pacific Bank Collection.

This claim is a bit dubious, however. Easter in 1770 occurred on April 15. Since the party didn’t depart from San Diego until April 17, it seems a bit of a stretch to think that good Spanish Catholics would wait upwards of a week (considering travel time) to hold Easter services in the middle of nowhere.

It’s much more likely that they held Easter in San Diego and set off on the search for Monterey after the holiday celebrations had concluded.

But if Easter wasn’t celebrated under the Cathedral Oak, why did Portolà carve a large cross in its trunk? That is a question that will never be answered.

The Legacy of the Cathedral Oak

The Cathedral Oak was honored by the Daughters of the American Revolution (Oneonta Park Chapter, a bit odd because it’s based in New York) with a plaque in 1932.

A man in front of the Cathedral Oak, circa 1895.
The magnificent Cathedral Oak, circa 1895. Photo via University of Southern California Digital Library, California Historical Society Collection.

Alas, by 1952 the tree had fallen, so the same organization marked the spot with the old plaque and a new plaque, both embedded in concrete flanking a simple cross monument.

Cathedral Oak Monument Plaques — Los Angeles Explorers Guild
Twin plaques honoring the legacy of the Cathedral Oak. Photo from the author’s collection.

The Cathedral Oak, whether its history is myth or reality, is South Pasadena Heritage Monument No 19.

While you’re in South Pasadena, don’t skip visiting another notable South Pasadena Heritage Monument — No. 34 — the Century House, better known as the filmic home of Michael Myers from the film Halloween.

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Cathedral Oak Monument


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Tom Fassbender is a writer of things with a strong adventurous streak. When not exploring Los Angeles, he’s been known to enjoy a cup of coffee or two. You can find him at Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

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