Father Serra - Missionary

Father Serra - Missionary
Always forward, never back

Friday, January 6, 2017


1813 – 1814--A New Chapel and Home on Horseback

Their next landfall came in the cove overlooked by Misión San Buenaventura. James quickly saw the benefits of the mission's site. On the point of hills, the stream flowing from the north provided excellent irrigation while livestock filled the broad valley to the east. Mission Indians on horseback watched over cattle, horses, mules, and sheep. Several herds of goats scrambled over the steep hillsides.

The padres and soldiers worked as hard as the neophytes in restoring the mission buildings. They paused long enough to wave enthusiastically at the sloop as James fired his musket to draw their attention. Even from over a mile, they recognized the figure in the gray robe as the president guardian.

Sailing east, they encountered a flotilla of Chumash tomols coming from the islands. The occupants drew close and happily greeted Father President Señán. Having spent time in their territory, the friar called back. The leader offered a beautifully woven basket filled with shellfish called abalone and Pedro gave them one of his fishing nets in return. Father President Señán learned they were still a full day's sail from the next Euro village and suggested they would find ample water just behind the cape of green poles. James recognized it as los Palos Verdes.

They rounded the point where, as described by the Chumash, a large river flowed into an ample harbor.

Why did Governor Portolá and Padre Crespí not select this as a mission site?”

James had overheard his father discussing it and quickly answered Pedro's question. “Because they traveled inland from San Juan Bautista and did not find it until several years later. When they did, the carpet of amapolas del oro and wild grapes provided much-needed nourishment.”

He then added that the Tongva used the roots and seeds of the golden colored flowers as medicines.

As do my people,” Pedro said.

Father President Señán became quite interested at that and asked Pedro what they were used for. He quickly added that to his pharmacology of California herbs and flowers. As all the friars, he studied the native medicines to use in his role as physician to his disciples.

Passing sailors told of the extremely cold winters in the east of the New World as well as in Europe. Most of the rivers froze so thick wagons could be ridden across them. As James stared at the river Porculina flowing copiously into the Pacific in that month of November, he could not even begin to imagine such things. A slight chill filled the air, but was easily fended off by the campfire.

As always, after saying prayers, Father President Señán told tales from the bible to the crew and Tongva. As did all the friars, he told them using local things so the Indians could relate to them. James once again dug a depression in the sand for his hip and shoulder, settling snugly to quickly fall asleep. The soft hoot of an owl brought a smile. “Good hunting to you, little brother.”


The sharp crackle of canvas filling with the morning breeze came as the sloop shifted slightly and picked up speed. Several seagulls screamed their rage at the intruder in their domain. James bent to coil lines, listening to waves breaking on the shore.

Father President Señán stood on the aft deck next to the wheel, waving at the Tongva gathered on the beach. They had joined in the morning breakfast. Two of the young maidens sulked that their offers to the leaders of the visitors had been rebuffed. They had not learned Christian ways and felt insulted.

With the winds behind them, it took but a couple turns of the glass before they saw the creek coming down the valley where the bell towers of Misión San Juan Capistrano showed above the trees. A flock of sheep grazed on a hillside and the shepherd gaily waved at the ship.

The bell tower of Misión San Luis Rey could not be mistaken. Although next to last of the nineteen missions, it had blossomed into one of the most fertile. Father President Señán told James and Pedro, “Padre Peyri has labored dearly on the mission. Although he is from Catalonia, he has always been a student of Moorish architecture. He has striven to meld those forms into a glorification of Our Lord Jesus and His most sainted mother.”

He also added that Padre Santiago had worked equally hard to teach the Payomkowishum, now called Luiseño, animal husbandry and agriculture – quite successfully.

They had no problem finding the entry to la Bahia San Miguel as someone had piled up stones to show its location. And, they could not miss el Castillo de Guijarros, the fortification with cannon, powder magazine, and barracks.

It does not appear that formidable,” Pedro muttered.

James had to agree. It appeared to be no more than piled up adobe bricks with wooden structures, most roofed with tule reeds.

The partially completed quay could not take full-sized ships and, with its fin keel, the San Carlos could not moor at it either. So, they dropped anchor about a hundred feet away and lowered the ship's boat to go ashore. Captain Zúñiga, the commandant, came to greet them, beaming at Father President Señán. He even turned to shake Jame's hand, completely ignoring Pedro, a mere Indian. He offered to give Father President Señán a tour of the presidio, but the president guardian explained his desire to reach the mission as soon as possible.

Pedro stayed behind to unload the items Father President Señán had brought. He left one crew member aboard while he and the rest went to the small pueblo next to the fort. Some enterprising Mestizo had opened a cantina and they enjoyed some locally brewed cervesa and food.

As they walked the six miles to the mission, James noted several Diegueño rancherias. The men now wore white cotton pants and shirts, their feet bare, while the women wore ankle-length white shifts. Even then, they continued their cultural habit of tattooing and painting themselves. James did not miss a number of weapons, mostly wood-tipped spears and arrows with flint heads. He knew their bows were nowhere as deadly as those he had learned to use and carried by his father and uncle.

The mission impressed James very much. The large granary made of adobe bricks had red tiles on the roof. Walls surrounded the entire compound and he saw a large vineyard and several fruit orchards, including several with oranges, lemons, and limes. Two Diegueños walked behind a pair of yoked oxen, preparing a field to lay fallow until planting time the following February. He also noted several zanjas bringing water to the mission. There were four large buildings open to the breezes with cots for the sick. And, he could not miss the special building for the presidials, to include a separate room for the corporal.

Padres Sanchez and Martin came out from the mission to greet the president guardian, the mayordomo and alcalde right behind them. After the usual warm greetings, Father President Señán giving his blessings to the neophytes crowding around him.

James found a cot in the mission carpenter shop, the carpenter being an acolyte of his Uncle Jaime many years before. The evening meal filled his belly and he sat with Padre Barona during the evening entertainment.

The Gentiles appear to love our music.”

Yes, my son, they are very adept. I love their natural harmonies,” the friar answered. “They especially enjoy singing their praises to The Lord in the chapel.”

James heard the pride in the friar's voice. The reason for Father President Señán being there was to dedicate the newly completed church. It was then he learned of the death of Padre Panto.

He was quite ill for seven months and had an attack of violent vomiting from which he died. The soldiers think that Nazario, the father's cook, poisoned him.” He added that Sergeant José Maria Pico was investigating the matter.

Early the next morning, a group arriving from the south surprised James. The leader wore a white with a black robe and cowl. Instead of the flat-brimmed hat worn by the Franciscans, he simply pulled the cowl over his head to protect it from the sun. James learned he was the Reverend Father Thomas Ahumada, a Dominican missionary of Misión San Miguel in Baja California. He rode a mule with two servants riding behind leading two more mules.

The dedication ceremony was impressive. The fathers, led by the president guardian, went around every nook and cranny of the church with incense and prayers to purify it. All the candles were lit, although sunlight streamed through the slits high under the roof. Padre Barona from Misión San Juan Capistrano officiated and celebrated the High Mass. It was the twelfth of November eighteen-thirteen, forty-four years after that day when Father President Serra hung a bell on a tree limb and blessed the first chapel of sticks and rushes.

Padre Boscana of Misión San Luis Rey de Francia preached the first sermon lauding the friars who had served and died there. Father Ahumada preached the second sermon. Don Francisco Ruiz, lieutenant of cavalry from Presidio del San Diego served as the King's sponsor for the ceremony.

James stood against the back wall next to Pedro throughout, unable to take his gaze from the beautiful artwork, Stations of the Cross, and other statues, many of them from the hands of his Uncle Jaime. A Diegueño chorus under the guidance of Padre Sanchez sent chills down his body, their beautiful harmonies echoing from the walls and ceiling of the chapel. I think Our Lord Jesus and Our Heavenly Father will look down with favor upon this effort.


You need not stay, my son, I will return to Misión San Carlos by land.”

James had expected that and warned Pedro to be prepared to sail. But, he had different ideas for himself. “I wish to travel with you, reverend father. I have never seen this land I was born in and greatly wish to do so.”

Father President Señán smiled. He expected the request and admitted, “I asked Padre Sanchez to add a horse for your use.”

The San Carlos sailed on the morning tide, carrying three soldiers from the presidio north to augment the Presidio del San Francisco at the governor's orders.

James had another day to explore the mission, the presidio and the surrounding area. When he asked for a horse, Corporal Alvarez informed him he could not leave the area without an escort. “The commandant would punish me severely if I did so.” As the corporal had a wife and family, James had no desire to see the man punished due to his own pride.

They set out, going along the base on the hills, riding south toward the Ti Wan river. “The land here is quite lush. Why is there so little livestock?”

Corporal Alvarez shook his head. “The herds are kept close to the presidio to keep the Gentiles in the hills from running off with them.”

James shook his head. The presidio had been founded more than forty years earlier and should have been far more substantial by then. He made it a point to ask when he got the chance.

He understood the river more or less separated Upper and Lower California and the domain between the Franciscans and Dominicans. Several Indian families had a rancheria in the riverbed and, unlike their ancestors, had taken to tilling the ground and raising some pigs and chickens. The leader spoke Spanish quite well and appeared unafraid of the corporal and private soldier accompanying James. He even invited them to his fire where he shared a noon meal of a very savory stew and tortillas.

Why do you not live near the mission or the soldiers?” James asked.

Big Turtle looked stoically at the visitor who was neither a Spaniard nor an Indian. “I do not wish to be kept in one place as the Grey Robes demand,” he said. “Me and my people wish to be free to travel throughout our land.”

Then how do you speak the language of the Bearded Ones and grow food as they?”

Because, Visitor to my Camp, my children have attended the school and have brought these things back to our camp.” He then added, “And a Gray Robe sometimes comes to this valley to visit among the families who live here. There are even words spoken of making mud buildings as are at the mission here along the river.”

James also learned that Dominicans from the south had built one of their missions not far to the south and even spoke of building one of their magic jacals alongside the banks of the river. James understood that to mean the building of a church, probably a visita.

We will leave on the morrow, my son.”

James smiled and told Father President Señán he would be ready. “Padre Martin has given me two horses from the mission herd, reverend father.”

The father president smiled and returned to the chapel to meet with the friars. James went to the carpenter shop where he felt most at ease, the disciple working there in awe of the son of the man from which he had learned his trade as a youth. James saw a carved crucifix on the wall and grinned, recognizing it as his uncle's work.

How fares my maestro?” Jesus Maria asked with deference. He beamed when he learned that Uncle Jaime continued to teach youths the skills and art of finding the spirits in wood. “One day, I would be most pleased to be able to work with the red wood as you have so far from here. It is most beautiful.”

James showed the cross Uncle Jaime had carved for him that he wore around his neck and Jesus Maria, along with his two students, nodded their appreciate for its beauty. After evening prayers, the carpenter insisted that James join he and his family for dinner. That was the first moment when James realized just how far he was from his own family, especially seeing the children frolicking so happily in the yard of the hogar.

Father President Señán mounted his donkey directly after morning prayers, Pablo, his aid, riding a mule and leading another with the things the father president took with him as part of his position of authority.

I am most curious about the weapon you carry, my son. It is unlike those the soldiers carry.”

James smiled and held out the long rifle for the friar to inspect. “I received it from an American ship we encountered while we were fishing. The captain gave it to me in exchange for a good portion of our catch.” James also explained that the American had included the flints, powder, and lead needed to make the bullets. “I should practice with it more, but am afraid to use too much gunpowder and have none when I need it.”

He still carried a large hunting knife and the dirk he never went without.

They had barely departed the mission, when Corporal Higuera rode up with two private soldiers. “Lieutenant Sal sent us to escort you, reverend father president. He told me to remind you of the regulations that say you must have an escort when you travel.”

The friar grimaced. Father President Serra's travels with only his aide were legendary. No Gentile dared raise a hand against him, as all believed him to be a man of great power and magic. Unfortunately, those who followed did not raise those feelings.

The corporal also asked James about his rifle, clearly realizing the benefit of the long barrel. All soldiers in the New World had heard of the American sharpshooters and their fearsome assaults of British soldiers from a great distance. Even more so as word reached California of the latest war raging in the east.

They stopped for the night at Misión San Luis Rey where Padre Peyri waited until the disciples finished kissing the father president's hands and receiving his blessings. “It is good to see you. The missions are recovering from the tremors?”

The two friars went inside to talk and James examined the mission and surrounding area.

Corporal Rúiz rode by his side, explaining what James saw. “Reverend Father Peyri never seems to rest. He works from sun up to sun down and even Padre Sola has great difficulty matching his efforts.”

His efforts have certainly resulted in a magnificent church and compound. How many disciples are there?”

The corporal grimaced. “I have been told there are more than one thousand. Most, of course, do not live in or just outside the walls of the mission. As you can see, there is a multitude of small pueblos alongside the river.”

James nodded. The bell tower rose high above the land and he realized just how big the interior of the chapel had to be. In addition, he saw fields and gardens in every direction. There were also numerous pens for pigs and goats. Several flocks of sheep grazed on hillsides and he saw large herds of cows and horses.

They then walked through the mission compound. Every shop bustled as disciples and neophytes plied the trades the friars had taught them. In one area, shaded by a large rush roof, several dozen men and women worked at looms, turning out beautiful blankets, serapes, and capes. Some of the items appeared to be uniforms for soldiers. The tannery had piled bundles of leather and a boot maker turned out stacks of footwear, while a saddler had a number of stacks of saddles, reins, and racks ready to load onto the backs of mules.

Of even greater industry, James noted the racks upon racks of candles. Not only white, but red and other colors.

But, there was more. Several orchards showed a large variety of trees, including some James was unaware of.

They are los cítricos, Señor Beadle. The oranges are most sweet, while the yellow and green a bit tart. They are excellent. I believe the people of your father, los inglés were famous for carrying them aboard their ships.”

Ah, yes, corporal. Limes. Said to keep away the scurvy.”

They rode close and the corporal leaned from his saddle to pluck two orange fruits from the trees. He split one in half with his knife and handed both halves to James, then did the same for himself. “We are most fortunate here. The weather is so gentle that the trees provide two crops each year.”

The corporal also explained the alfalfa was even more fertile. “With proper watering, we are able to reap three crops per year. As you can see, many fields are filled with tall stacks.”

The evening paseo filled the plaza with young men flirting with the parade of young girls walking in twos and threes under the watchful eyes of their nannies.

James settled on the cot provided by the friars for visitors, savoring the softness of the wool-filled mattress. He had knelt to say his evening prayers, asking The Lord to watch over his family – and all the people of the land.

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