Father Serra - Missionary

Father Serra - Missionary
Always forward, never back

Friday, April 7, 2017


1830 – The Sorry Condition of Misión San Juan Capistrano

They arose with the dawn and, as modesty permitted, cleansed themselves in the corral's water trough. They quickly packed and the animals were ready to travel well before morning prayers – the girths of their saddles loose so as not to tire the animals.

As always, the prayers soothed them but they were startled when Padre Martin acknowledged their taking food to the soldiers and families of the garrison.

Break fast was filling; eggs mixed with nopal chunks and a generous slab of smoked ham. Of course, tortillas and frijoles were included, along with milk fresh from the mission's milch cows.

A soldier sitting his horse awaited them as they went through the mission gate. His left hand steadied the tall lance while his right hand touched the rim of his hat – a salute reserved for superior officers – certainly not civilians.

Sergeant Pico. May we be of assistance?”

No, Señor. It is I who am indebted to you and the Señora for the care and generosity you showed my soldiers and their families.”

It was nothing, sargento. The friars had the food available and it was but a minor task to take it to them.”

It is clear the friars did not explain how things have been here for some time.” Seeing they wished to move on, the sergeant drew to one side and talked as they rode down the mission road to the main highway. “When the friars bring food to the garrison, Captain Portilla or Lieutenant del Pliego or Ensign Salazar have it taken to the storeroom where it is later handed out to their families and those of the sergeants and corporals. There is never any left over for the private soldiers.”

How disgusting,” Teresa Marta said through clenched teeth. “Does the governor know this?”

If he does, Señora, he cares not, for he does nothing.” Before she could respond, he added, “You have made enemies with what you did, honored Señor y Señora. The word quickly spread throughout the town and will carry further afield. It makes the officers look bad and they will never forget.”

James loosed a hearty laugh. “They would not be the first – or last – enemies we have made over the years. What we know is that we thank Our Lord Jesus that such fare was ready and that we could follow His teachings and share it with those in need.”

Sergeant Pico stayed with them until they reached the junction of el Camino Real, the King's Highway their fathers had ridden so many years before, following the intrepid Sergeant Ortega and his leatherjacket scouts. He gave them a final salute and rode off towards the presidio.

But a few miles north, they began to see trees described as Torrey Pines and reached an arroyo with a substantial stream. A trail led inland and they saw a post with a brand they had been told belonged to Rancho Santa Maria de Los Peñasquitos granted to Captain Francisco María Ruiz by Governor Argüello for his many years of service.

They leisurely rode inland, enjoying the sounds of songbirds and small creatures rustling in the brush and grasses. Cattle grazed in little bunches, fat and content with the food available to them. Most of the cows had healthy calves.

A substantial rancho came into sight with a large adobe building as the main feature. There were several storage structures, two large corrals, and housing for ranch hands and their families. A number of peones worked in gardens while others used large scythes to mow hay to spread for drying.

A mayordomo welcomed them to the ranch, asking if he could be of assistance. When they announced their names, he turned and sent a worker to run to the main house.

They drew near the building and dismounted, looping the reins over a rail there for that purpose.

I am Captain Ruiz. May I be of service to you?”

James doffed his hat and the captain's eyes brightened in recognition. “Don Jaime. It is you. And this lovely lady at your side? She most certainly must be your wife.”

James took the man's forearms in the traditional greeting and acknowledge Teresa's position as his wife. “We are making a journey to follow the footsteps of our fathers and mothers. You are a little way from where they passed, but we felt it our duty to stop and acknowledge you and yours.”

After caring for their mounts, they followed Don Francisco into the substantial adobe structure. While the outside temperature was comfortably warm, the interior of the house was quite chilly and the dueño led them into the big main room, offering them comfortable chairs in front of a roaring fire. A young girl brought them steaming cups of tea, which they sweetened with raw, brown sugar.

I offer my apologies, honored visitors, but I have no wife to assist in entertaining you.”

That surprised them as a man of his years and experience should certainly have a woman to look over his household.

Just then, a woman – clearly full-blooded Indian – entered the room carrying a large tray of sweet cakes. She demurely offered it to them and Don Fernando, seeming somewhat embarrassed, presented her as the lady of the house. “Her name is Antonia and her parents are at the mission.”

We are most pleased to be presented to you, Señora Ruiz. You well care for this home. It is most pleasing.”

Their acceptance of his mistress seemed to put Don Fernando at ease.

As Antonia prepared to back away to leave the room, Teresa Marta rose and went to her. “Come! Let us go somewhere while the men make their talk.”

Many visitors question why I have not married one of my status.” When James only grunted, he added, “Antonia served me at the presidio and has given me two sons and three daughters. I will one day call upon the friars to join us in marriage,”

There is no need for shame, Don Fernando. You have apparently forgotten that my mother was a Baja Indian and both of Teresa's parents are Indios.”

The retired captain tried to offer a profuse apology but James cut him short. “There are those who glory in their pure Spanish blood and others seeking positions of power who ignore a bit of so-called tainted blood in their line. It is stupid and totally against the very foundation of our Mexican republic.”

The hour for the midday meal came and they retired to a shady porch overlooking the stream where the ladies came to lay platters on the big, heavy table. A large tureen of rich soup with ham was the main dish. Fresh tortillas was followed by a dish not normally served in Californio homes – a salad of lettuce, tomatoes, onions, and green peppers served with a topping of lightly seasoned olive oil.

One of the inglés living in town has this at most of his family meals and I have become quite fond of it. How does it suit you?”

James nodded, not stopping chewing on the crispy combination.

Antonia had reluctantly joined them when Teresa directed her to the fourth chair. “I and all members of our family eat with our men. It is their sign of respect for us and I am showing my respect for you.”

She blushed.

And, from this day, this will be the custom of this house,” Don Fernando vowed.

Instead of retiring for the customary siesta, James and Teresa told their hosts of their desire to reach Misión San Luis Rey that day. “It is not a long ride from here and we should easily reach it before nightfall.”

You are quite correct, Don Jaime. But, at all costs, do not travel the highway after dusk. And do not seek to lay down your bedroll before reaching the mission.” Seeing their questioning looks, he added, “Nobody wishes to speak of it, but there are those who stop and rob travelers who are unarmed. With what you carry, you should have no worries.”

The retired soldier had carefully examined their weapons, most impressed and eager to purchase similar ones when he next met a trader.

As they rode away from the rancho, both glanced back and smiled at seeing Don Fernando standing on the porch with his arm around Antonia's waist, a public show of affection the ranch hands had never before seen.

They rode at a gentle lope, the miles passing quickly without putting strain on the animals. No one else was on the road, but they did pass several small gatherings of huts where gentle fisher folk made a decent living from the sea.

The sun hung low in the west, less than an hour before sinking below the horizon, when they reached the road leading inland to Misión San Luis Rey de Francia. The bell tower was not as towering, but the church fit within the surrounding hills, one long side of the quadrangle filled with arches.

Disciples moved toward the church to the sound of bells announcing evening prayers. James and Teresa pulled up near the chapel entrance and dismounted, drooping the reins of the animals to let them graze.

A gray robed figure stood in the doorway to the chapel, examining them.

Reverend father Peyri, it is comforting to see you here.”

The friar's face burst into happiness at recognizing James. “My son! It is so good to see you again. And, might I believe this lovely lady at your side if your wife?”

Teresa curtsied as she had been taught and rose as the friar lifted her, signing the cross upon her forehead, turning to do the same to James. As was the custom, they removed their hats as they went inside but Teresa quickly laid a vilo to cover her head. Padre Peyri had a disciple lead them to the front row of pews.

The two knelt and carefully looked around the chapel. Great beams supported the roof but several were formed as arches. Light entered from a dome far above. The entire rear wall was composed of the main altar, a statue of the patron saint high above the cross of agony with Jesus gazing down at the gathered disciples. The two side altars were dedicated to San Miguel and San Raphael. Disciples filled the balcony on the front wall. singing at appropriate times throughout the ceremony, their sweet voices echoing from the roof and walls.

When the rite ended, Padre Peyri left through the sacristy and the mission mayordomo came to lead the visitors back outside, showing them to the stables and stalls for their animals. He also pointed to the community dining area and invited them to join the disciples. Two youths assisted with unburdening the animals and helped pile fresh straw in a third stall where they planned to sleep.

The meal was standard, a large haunch of beef and a smoked ham sat in the middle of the table, each diner using their own knives to cut what they wished to put on their platter. There were a number of roast chickens. Several bowls contained frijoles, squash, and ears of corn. Round woven containers covered with thick clothes held fresh tortillas. As the mission had a substantial orchard, apples, pears, apricots, and plums were provided to sweeten the pallet. A light wine and pitchers of beer slaked their thirst.

Tell us of your journey, children.” And then, before they could start, the friar announced to the gathering, “These two are the first born of California. They were birthed among the reeds while on the journey of Reverend Father Serra, Don Gaspar Portolá, and Don Fernando Rivera. Their fathers served the reverend father well and the Señora's father carved the statue of San Luis over the altar and the crucifix of our beloved Jesus.” He paused and added, “Jaimenacho taught our carpenter to carve the stations of the cross we are so proud of.”

Everyone listened to the story of their journey to date and gazed in wonder at the thought of how much further they had to go.

As always, the delightful evening musica offered the visitors a chance to sit and talk with Padre Peyri. He read the brief missive from the father prefect and sighed. “Yes, my children, I know not a single friar who does not fear the secularization that appears to be facing us. Nor do our disciples. When given a chance to be on their own, every one of them begs to remain with us.” He thought long and sadly added, “If this is to happen, I will have no choice but to depart this land and return home to Spain. I truly thought I would find my final resting place here in this place.”

Although two miles from the sea, they felt its presence as they settled into their bed.

I sense a deep sadness in the land,” Teresa whispered as they snuggled together. “The friars seem to sense what is coming and deeply fear for those who have come to the church.”

James sighed. “And the Californios are more than unhappy with the governor and those criminals sent here by Mexico. Nothing but trouble will come of it.”


The next stage of their journey passed without hindrance. Sturdy bridges crossed arroyos and ravines, although many showed a lack of routine maintenance. When they did see a small working party, the two soldiers in charge sat on a log, letting the workers do their own things – which appeared to be as little as possible.

Convicts,” whispered Teresa.

James nodded and fingered a pistol as they rode by.

There were several small rancherias of Indios, fisher folk, all of them with well-tended gardens.

They reached Misión San Juan Capistrano well before sunset and evening prayers. The sentry at the gate did not challenge them and they rode into the large inner court. A man hurried up, introducing himself as the mayordomo. When they explained who they were, he beamed and offered to lead them to the friar's garden where Padre Barona was resting before evening prayers. “The reverend father is quite ill, but always does his best to perform the holy rites for us.”

The condition of the mission made them suck in their breaths.

They knew the church had been all but completely destroyed by the great earthquake of 1812 and they saw what little had been done to restore the once beautiful structures. The bell tower was gone, but the bells now hung in a spot above part of the wall next to where the chapel had stood. There were a few spots where work continued, but the mayordomo told them, “My fellow disciples have been chastised for their past sins but, things have not returned to where they were before the outrageous conduct of Corporal Cañedo against the reverend father. They are no longer eager to serve Our Lord Jesus. The crops are less than half of what they once were and cattle wander far away, the vaqueros unwilling to chase them down and brand them. Many gather them up and take them to their own rancherias.”

The stables were somewhat unkempt, manure not removed and most of the straw old and soiled. The mayordomo called some disciples over and whispered something to them. They straightened out of their slouches and got to work swamping out three stalls, filling them with fresh straw from the loft. Another brought a bale of fresh hay and put it in the trough for the animals.

As that was underway, James and Teresa unburdened the animals and curried them until their pelts shone. They hung the blankets and saddles to dry but left the bridles on the animals. As they were hackamore style without bits, the animals easily ate and drank from the canvas buckets provided.

Seeing their concern, the mayordomo quickly assured them no one would touch their belongings. “I told them you are a famous warrior who has tracked down and killed many bandidos and Indios who stole from Misión San Carlos. They do not dare raise your ire, Señor y Señora.

The bell rang for evening prayers and they watched several fiscales under the direction of the mador going through the compound gathering up young ladies and youths, taking them to the chapel.

Although urged to take a seat at a pew in the front row, James and Teresa chose one at the very back of the chapel. It was little more than a large storeroom with a crude altar and a drab crucifix. A friar entered, supported by two altar boys and bowed to the altar instead of kneeling. A book lay open on the altar and, in a voice that barely reached the back of the room, haltingly read the prayers. The disciples who bothered to say the prayer along with the friar almost drowned out his voice.

The moment the prayers were over, the disciples hurried from the make-shift chapel, nudging each other in their eagerness to depart.

The reverend father wishes to see you.”

They thanked the mador and went to the front of the chapel, kneeling at the alter before going into the sacristy. The friar was not there, the stole for the season hung in its place. They continued through another door and found themselves in a small, well-kept garden with a bubbling fountain in the middle. The friar sat on a wooden bench, absent-mindedly fingering his prayer beads.

You asked to see us, reverend father?”

Padre Barona looked up to examine them. “You think I am too old and infirm to perform my duties here?”

That is not our intent, dear reverend father,” Teresa said, kneeling before the friar. “We are but visiting as part of our journey of discovery.” She carefully explained who they were and the purpose of their travel.

However,” James added, “Father Prefect Sarria has given us the task of asking the friars of the missions about their feelings of the current situation and the prospect of secularization.”

The friar came to life at those words. His eyes cleared and he straightened. “You are on a mission for the father prefect?”

James handed him the scroll and the friar carefully read and re-read it. At last, he sighed and handed it back to James.

A disciple entered just then carrying a bowl of atole and a goblet of wine for Padre Barona. “Come, reverend father, you must eat.”

Then, while I sup, you will escort these honored guests to the dining area and see that they are properly fed.”

The disciple bowed and gestured for James and Teresa to follow her.

The tables and benches were worn and slightly warped. The bowls and platters were of wood, crudely formed. The atole was watery and tepid, sorry pieces of meat floating in it. The frijoles did not appear to be fresh as well as the tortillas. Instead of the weak wine, they filled goblets with water, tasting it first.

There was no musica and they went to the stables to be with their animals. The rear door of the stables looked out upon the corral with hills in the background.

This is truly a sad place. I wonder if the governor and the father prefect know of this.”

Even if they do, husband, what can be done. The disciples no longer love and respect the reverend father and he is too infirm to lead this place with the discipline needed. If anything,” James said, “this is certainly a place more than ready for secularization.”

They slept lightly and uneasily that night, concerned for their own safety and that of the animals.

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