Father Serra - Missionary

Father Serra - Missionary
Always forward, never back

Friday, September 12, 2014

The California Jesuits – How Did They Do It? Part VII

The shock of seeing the site where he will be responsible for building a mission does not wear off as they ride down into the valley the natives call Comondú. There is no trail, just a worn-out series of grooves in the stony earth where game and the Indians have traveled.

Towering palms and other trees signal the presence of the rarest commodity in this barren land – water. It bubbles up out of the earth at the base of a cliff forming a large pool which then turns into a stream flowing down the valley. The spring is filled with roots and other plants and there is no doubt that great effort will be needed to clear it out. The area surrounding it is thick with tall reeds. If necessary, they can be used to thatch roofs. Father Mayorga looks around and smiles when one of the converts points out signs of various animals that have come to drink. He has never hunted an animal in his life but pays close attention as Father Ugarte has warned him that being aware of what is around one makes the difference between life and death. To him and his converts.

El Señor Reverendo Padre, see this?” The guide points to a series of large tracks with pointed slits in the front. When Mayorga nods, the Cochimi says, “Es el Tigre, Señor. She bring babies here to drink. See small marks?”

Mayorga looks around and wonders if the big cat is nearby.

Seeing the priest's concern, the Cochimi's lips turn up in a faint smile and he assures the priest the cat and her cubs are far away. He then places a finger to his lips and points to a nearby boulder where something lays in a coil. “Vibora,” he whispers. “Mordida veneno.”

Mayorga holds very still, having learned the snake with rattles on its tail is not something to be trifled with. He relaxes as the snake lowers its head, uncoils, and swiftly glides deeper into the rocks.

Father Ugarte previously surveyed the site and knows exactly where he want the mission sited. “Our first order of business is to ensure water to irrigate the crops.” He points to a spot along the stream, indicating it is where boulders should be placed to hold back the water so it can be diverted into the irrigation ditches. He then leads the way about two hundred paces downstream to a place where the land is elevated above the stream bed.

Here is where the chapel, your quarters, and the storehouse will be built.” He explains how it is safely above the level of water in the event severe rains in the mountains cause it to overflow its banks.

Father Mayorga has learned enough to identify where the gardens will be laid out as the earth appears less sandy, but not of heavy clay. The area has a large growth of grasses and he understands some of it must be cleared away to till the soil. Other grassland must be kept to provide feed for the livestock Father Ugarte will bring from Misión San Javier.

The Ancón, as the Cochimi call it, is a shelf filled with black, lava rock. Some of the stones glisten their ebony shades caused by cooling. Andrade, the guide, grins and shows Father Mayorga his knife made of similar stone. When offered, the priest carefully tests it with his thumb, finding the jagged blade quite sharp. One of the things he learned at the college in Mexico City was the deadly efficiency of native weapons made of obsidian.

The mule train contains everything needed to create the mission. But, there are no hands to do the construction so they can be safely stored. Father Visitador Salvatierra solves that by ordering all members of the group to gather rocks and boulders and carry them to a spot he selects. He draws lines in the hard-packed dirt and trenches are quickly dug.

The moon is full in the starry sky and, after a humble evening meal and prayers, work continues. As soon as the trenches are completed, they are filled with large boulders, rocks packed into the cracks and then sealed with mud from the stream banks. Only when the moon lowers and the night dims do the workers find spots on the sand to nestle into their sleeping blankets.

A storehouse stands before them by midday and goods from the packs are taken inside to be carefully arranged. Stones packed over the wooden frame strengthen the door and a lock is placed into the hasp to ensure the goods will be safe from curious hands.

Speaking of which? Father Julián gazes around all the while he toils to see if any of the Gentiles have come to see what the activity is in their valley. Maybe he is not clear on what to look for, but he sees no signs at all. Had they not begged the father visitador and Father Ugarte for a mission of their own?

The most important steps comes after the goods are safely stored - the outlining of the chapel. It will be aligned so the door faces the rising sun. Once that is accomplished, a cairn of rocks is raised with a plain wood cross on top.

Incense is used to purify the site as the father visitador swings the thurible, chanting prayers while he does so. Holy water is then sprinkled on the spot where the altar will stand and it is announced the site is dedicated to Saint Joseph.

The soldiers and neophytes, with the others supervising and lending a hand, set about leveling the ground and covering it with tightly packed stones and pebbles, also filling in the trenches to start construction of the chapel walls.

Poor Father Mayorga has never dreamed of being a stonemason. Conducting holy rites and teaching people the mystical beliefs of the church are what he envisioned when he first decided to take the vows of the order. Always of ill health, the physical effort of selecting and carrying stones to the site does not bode well for him and, to his shame, he must often pause to rest.

The other fathers and even Captain Rodriguez bend their backs to the task, setting an example for the soldiers, servants, and neophytes.

Much to the pleasure of all, two Cochimi women and their children come to stand apart, watching the newcomers toiling in their area. Father Mayorga cannot control himself and gazes sideways upon the all but naked female bodies, agonizing over the unholy lusts overcoming him. He turns away in shame and mutters prayers begging The Lord God to forgive him.

He does not notice both Father Visitador Salvatierra and Father Ugarte doing the same.

Wood brought for the purpose is used to frame windows about ten feet high on the walls, along with the door leading into the chapel and another smaller one behind the altar area leading into the sacristy. Once filled with stones, the wood is removed so a form of adobe can be laid to hold them in place.

Father Mayorga is surprised at how the other fathers easily form the walls to be thicker at the bottom, tapering to the top with notches to support palm logs cut to span the chapel area and support a roof of palm fronds.

Seven days pass until the altar is erected, the marble slab brought from far away Spain uncrated and set upon the stands. Once again, the incense is used to purify the area along with appropriate prayers and the crucifix is placed in the arched niche on the wall behind it. Intricately carved wooden plaques are affixed on the walls for the Stations of the Cross and a statue of Saint Joseph is placed in a smaller niche on the southern wall while the Virgin of Guadalupe is placed in another on the opposite wall.

A time will come when the interior and exterior walls will be covered with stucco, but there is no time for it at the moment.

The others must depart and Father Mayorga will find himself in that lonely place with but Private Juan Morales, the soldier assigned to be his companion and helper. He is fearful, but sets it aside to strengthen his belief that he and Morales are in God's hands.

Morales is a Criollo from Guadalajara and has been in California for five years. He is married, but his wife and two children are staying in Loreto until the first crops are ready for harvest.

The first Mass conducted in the chapel of Misión San José de Comondú by Father Mayorga is before the two other Jesuits, Captain Rodríguez, and the rest who have helped start it. Juan Morales acts as his assistant and he is most pleased the soldier knows the Mass so well that he need not be instructed in what to do.

Much to his surprise, the Cochimi women stand in the back of the chapel, their children clutching their legs. They clearly have no idea what is happening, but appear to be impressed by the incantations and ringing of bells.

The others say their farewells at the end of Mass, each father returning to their own missions while Captain Rodríguez goes back to Loreto.

What do we now, my son?”

Morales smiles, pleased the father seeks his advice. “We prepare a place for us to dwell while we take the next steps in making this a productive place.” He then pointed across the stream. “See. The Cochimi women do the same.”

The Indians busily gather limbs cut from acacias, along with twigs to construct their open-air shelters that only provide shade from the blazing sun. Cutting their own limbs is far easier and faster with the sharp steel blade Morales wears on his belt.

They have barely hauled the wood to where they wish to build their shelter when the two women approach. The elder says something and Morales grunts and withdraws. “She says it is her place to do this. Not ours.”

Mayorga nods. Although he has not been in the area very long, he has studied their language with great intensity as it is the only way he will be able to teach them the things needed to bring them to The Lord.

The Cochimi language is very simple and Mayorga is in awe of how the other fathers have been able to translate the catechism and bible stories into it. The natives have words only for those things they can see, hear, feel, and smell. Abstract ideas and emotions mean nothing to them. As an example, a person or persons can be here or there or far away. When a person dies, they are simply no longer here or there. If they do not have words for death, how can they understand the idea of resurrection?

Come, reverend father, there is something we should do.”

Mayorga follows Morales to the storehouse and watches as he selects two colorful wool blankets, some pretty beads, and two highly polished pieces of metal that act as mirrors. They wait until the women finish their new house and follow them to their camp across the stream. The priest notices the children are gone and smiles when he sees them return to the new house carrying armloads of wood for a fire.

Following Morales's suggestions – the soldier would never dare to instruct his superior to do anything - Mayorga lays out the blankets on the ground and holds out the beads to the women. They giggle happily and take them, placing them around their necks. Both are stunned the first time they see themselves in the mirrors, chattering gaily as they compare each other. They have only seen themselves reflected in calm pools of water.

Will they understand if I give them Christian names?”

Morales nods. “You can tell them you are giving them a sign of the all powerful creator and it will have great meaning to them.”

The older woman has a scar behind her left ear and Morales explains her Cochimi name means Marked by Puma. Mayorga remembers Saint Catherine of Alexandria who had been beheaded at the hands of the pagan emperor Maxentius. “I shall name you Catarina,:” he tells her, translating his Spanish into Cochimi with Morales's help. “She was a woman of great bravery.” He fails to tell her that Saint Catherine was a virgin.

The other woman's elbow is unnaturally bent and Mayorga suspects it was broken and not properly reset. Mayorga ponders at length, trying to remember a saint who represents the infirm. The only one he can think of is Saint Amalburga of Belgium whose patronage is for arm pain. There is no similar name in Spanish and all he can come up with is Amanda. Morales says it make sense to him and Mayorga signs the cross on the woman's forehead as he had done for Catarina, announcing she is now known as Amanda.

The two women are overjoyed to have been given magical names by the all powerful man in the strange black covering. They clearly cannot wait to have their children so blessed with great magic, understanding the great medicine man must first ponder upon it.

They will now stay here forever, reverend father. You have given them your magic and will follow wherever you go.”

But, my son, where are the men? And boys?”

They wait in the hills until they see the power of our ways.”

I was told they begged Father Visitador Salvatierra to have a mission here in their lands.”

Morales chuckles, not meaning to be disrespectful to the priest. “They are but little children, reverend father. They see new things and wish them for themselves. But, it is not their way to toil as do we and will have to find strong reasons to come and work as you and I.”

The first order of business after the storehouse, chapel, and living quarters is the zanja, the vital channel to bring water from the stream to the gardens. Creating that channel is going to be back-breaking work and Mayorga wonders if his health will permit him to help the soldier.

Much to his chagrin, the problem is quickly solved. Once Morales gets the idea across to the women, Catarina turns and leaves the camp at a lope. She soon returns with three boys nearing manhood. It is clear they are hers and the priest explains what needs to be done. The youths are unhappy, but not about to disobey their mother. Amanda then runs off, soon returning with her two sons.

With five pairs of less than willing hands to help, the task of clearing the path for the trench begins. It cannot be straight due to large boulders in the way, but Mayorga has an eye for such things and uses a stick to draw a line in the ground for it to follow.

While Morales bends his back to show the five youths what to do, the priest turns to clearing stones and rocks from the plot of land chosen for the first garden. It will be for planting the Three Sisters, the most basic foods of a mission; corn, squash, and beans. The rocks and stones are piled up to outline the plot and earth will fill in the cracks so the water will soak into the earth before running off to the next spot downhill where fruit trees will be planted.

There will be yet one other major project and that will be digging a well to provide drinking water to those who live at the mission. Even though the stream flows well, Mayorga has been warned that days may come when the stream dries up and the only water will come from the well.

Catarina and Amanda surprise the two Europeans by their ability to turn cornmeal into masa from which to make tortillas. That is when Mayorga learns they had lived near Misión San Javier and learned to make food the Spanish way. Amanda tells Father Mayorga that is exactly why she and her cousin had come to that place.

Days pass quickly, both Father Mayorga and Juan seeking their sleeping places sore and tired beyond belief. The soldier shakes his head in amazement as the priest forgoes sleep to spend hours deep in prayer. He is not surprised as all the other Jesuits to the same. They eat the simplest of food, spends hours laboring or conducting rites, then the remaining hours of each day in prayer.

How do they survive in this terrible land?

A runner comes to announce that Father Ugarte will soon be coming with livestock and others to help.

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