Father Serra - Missionary

Father Serra - Missionary
Always forward, never back

Tuesday, April 11, 2017


1830 – Swamps and Pits of Tar

As the mayordomo told them the dueños slept late, James and Teresa awoke early and after sharing break fast with the foreman and his family, prepared their animals and left.

Thick clouds offshore explained the wisps of moisture they had felt in the night. Thick kelp beds rolled with the waves and the ever-present otters lay on their backs atop the kelp leaves, using stone to open shells to feed.

A stream came down out of hills covered with chaparral and trees so, turning upstream, they found a secluded spot to dismount, disrobe, and take a long bath. The chill of the air made the water feel less cold.

Refreshed, the remounted their animals and continued their journey. When they left the shadows of the tall hills, a plain spread before them, small herds of deer, antelope, and cattle grazing on the tall grasses. Many of the low hills lay covered in gold, flowers called poppies carpeting them. Their goal was a series of higher hills directly to the east where they were told more ranchos were.

Keeping the animals to a gentle walk allowed them to savor the fresh air and listen to many birds bringing their songs to their ears.

Ah, my husband. This is indeed a blessed land.”

Yes, my dearest, it is. However, for how long?”

Teresa looked at him, understanding his concern. As the non-native herds increased, they took over grazing lands once reserved for the native animals. And, the cattle reduced the amount of vegetation in which birds and small animals once thrived.

And, I do not think the rancheros care for anything but their herds and their wealth. If the Gentiles do not work on their land, they wish them removed.”

James could not argue with Teresa.

They noted a river bed, only with a small trickle of water. As they rounded the northern side of the hills, they saw an area filled with a large swamp and signs of several springs. Those had been restrained by earthen dams to provide water for the herds of cattle grazing in the area. Where not covered by grass, large clumps of this brush was broken by animal trails. Very few oaks grew there, but many grew lower down, along with huge cottonwood and willows.

A large group of adobe buildings appeared in the distance, surrounded by hedges similar to Misión San Gabriel. As they drew closer, they saw a lack of cacti, having noted few if any of the plants during their ride. Workers in the usual blue cotton clothes worked at various tasks, mostly unsupervised.

A man wearing a big red sash came to open the gate in the hedge as they drew near. “Welcome to Rancho las Cienegas, Señor y Señora. I am José Fernando, the mayordomo.” He led them to a hitching post in front of a large arch over the entrance to the center of the rancho, and asked their names. He then bade them water their animals while he went inside to tell the dueño of their arrival.

The peones appear well fed and clothed.”

James nodded. While the hardest work appeared to be in a large clay pit about a half of a league away near one of the swamps, the remainder of the workers carried out tasks typical of a rancho with its own industries. There were several tallow vats and a chandlery, a blacksmith working at a forge, two youths taking turns at the large bellows, others pulling weeds from a large garden while others turned the earth under a variety of fruit trees in an orchard. Chickens roamed freely pecking at the ground for seeds and insects, a herd of pigs made noises in their heavily fenced-in area, and hobbled goats complained of their inability to romp and play.

Welcome to my humble home, honored Señor y Señora I am Francisco Avila, by the grace of Governor Argüello, guardian of this land.”

Don Luis Antonio was a most caring and generous man,” James replied. “Everyone we know liked and respected him. We also had great admiration and respect for his father, Don José Dario. Every man who served under him felt the care and respect he gave them.”

A woman came out onto the porch just then. “Francisco. How inconsiderate of you, making our honored guests stand out here in the sun. Bring them inside where it is cool and we may offer them refreshments.”

When Teresa was presented to and heard her name, she brightened. “Doña Maria, I was a flower girl at your father's first marriage at Misión San Carlos.”

The woman's eyes widened and her mouth opened slightly. “You are the daughter of Jaimenacho, The Carpenter?” Teresa made a slight curtsy in acknowledgment as Doña Maria turned to James. “And you are the son of Don Timoteo, the Englishman?”

She then turned and chided her husband for not showing more consideration to their guests. “These, my husband, are the first born of California and were born during Don Gaspar's expedition.”

She called out for ranch hands to come and take the animals to the stables. “Nonsense,” she said when Teresa tried to object, “you will come inside and refresh yourself.”

Francisco profusely apologized to James while his wife disappeared somewhere within the imposing house. “I had no idea who you were.”

Don Francisco, you do not need to apologize. And, we require no special attention. We are simply two travelers on the road, exploring the land we passed through in our childhood and have never really come to know. Reverend Father Serra traveled this land a hundred times more than we.”

The mere mention of Father Serra caused Avila to suck in his breath. “You knew the reverend father.”

Not only did they know him, husband, but he personally baptized them and officiated at their wedding.”

Somehow, Teresa had obtained fresh clothing from their packs and ordered him to follow her to a room when his clothing waited.

The midday meal was on the table when they returned and they spent the majority of it relating their memories of Father Serra and the various important people they had known.

They were then given a tour of the rancho after a brief siesta where they slept in the stall next to where their animals were. It took the entire afternoon at a lope to cover the outline of the grant. At one point, Francisco waved to the east to tell them that was the boundary with Rancho la Brea belonging to Rocha and Dominguez. He made certain to mention that Rocha was in no way related to Alférez Rocha who had come to California with Governor Echeandia. “Dominguez was one of the early settlers of Los Angeles. Alcalde Carrillo granted the land to them for civil service.”

Alcalde? What gave him the authority to grant land?”

Well, Governor Echeandia confirmed it two years ago,” Francisco said.

The rancho was well located with plenty of grazing land.

The discussion continued over the evening meal and the visitors continued to gain the impression that Californios living in the south were most unhappy about being left out of the important decisions of the territory.


Less than a two hour ride from Rancho la Cienegas, they came to a far less substantial gathering of structures they had been told was Rancho la Brea, The Place of Tar. A stream wandered through the area and all they saw was a small pond where cattle and other animals stopped to drink.

A Californio came out of the larger building to greet them. “I am Antonio José Rocha, one of the grantees of this rancho. May I ask who my visitors are?”

James introduced them as they dismounted. “We have just come from the rancho of Don Francisco.”

Rocha winced as he knew how poorly his stead compared to Avila's. “What brings you to my humble rancho, Señor y Señora?” He listened as they explained the intent of their journey and what they had seen to date. “You are indeed fortunate to be able to make such a journey, Señor y Señora. I envy you.” Asking if they had supped, he invited them to share a cup of hot coffee, a drink becoming quite popular throughout the territory.

I understand the name of this place,” James said, “but I do not see the tar it refers to.

Rocha chuckled. “It is not easily visible, Señor y Señora It was discovered when the local Tongva scooped it up to use in sealing some of their storage vessels. The Chumash use the same substance to seal their seagoing tomols.” He led them to the pond and, warning them to be careful where they stepped, pointed out black gobs and a few bubbles in one part of the pond. “It comes out of the ground there and nobody knows from whence it comes.”

Not wishing to insult their host, James hesitated to make their farewell but was most relieved when a ranch hand rushed up with an urgent request of his superior. Rocha excused himself and hurried off, leaving them to remount and make their way east.

The trail was not well-marked but they had the range of hills to the north of them to follow. They reached the banks of a large river, knowing it was el Rio Porculina. A cairn of stones marked the fording place and they crossed with little difficulty to the far side. A turn to the north and they came upon the most substantial gathering of buildings seen up to then.

This must be Rancho los Feliz,” Teresa observed. With the river on one side, the land spread out onto a rolling, grassy plain to the east. Another range of hills rose to the far end of the plain with towering mountains beyond.

A man stepped onto the porch of the main house, calling out a welcome to the visitors as well as ordering a ranch hand to see to their animals. Tired of continually explaining their usual manners with the animals, they allowed the worker to take the reins and lead them away.

I am Domingo Feliz, the son of Don José Vicente, a retired soldier and one time comisionado of la Puebla los Angeles.”

James introduced themselves and commented upon how substantial and well built the main compound was.

Domingo's chest filled with pride and he preened his large mustache. “My father worked diligently to fulfill Governor Fages' trust in him to grant him this prime land. He was always proud to have served true and faithfully.”

I do not believe my parents were ever acquainted with your father,” James said.

Feliz looked again at the pair, squinting his eyes as he tried to remember something. He then broke into a huge grin. “I know who you are. Your parents were with Father Serra and the original expedition to explore California.”

They nodded.

The man quickly apologized for not recognizing them earlier and hastily invited them inside the house. “You must forgive me for being less than a good host but my wife is not here. She prefers to stay in the family house in the pueblo. Ranch life does not suit her.”

They stayed but a brief time, sensing things were not well with the rancher or his home.

It took little time before they came upon another ranch, el Rancho San Rafael, this one even more impressive than the last.

A hand came to open the gate in a hedge surrounding the main buildings, removing his hat in respect as they entered. An elderly man sat on a wicker chair in the shade provided by a wide awning over the porch, examining them.

I pray that we are not intruding upon you, honored sir, but your ranch is the next stop on our long journey.” James quickly doffed his hat, introducing he and Teresa.

The old man struggled to rise and a younger woman rushed outside to fuss over him. “Don José, you must not exert yourself.”

Do not belittle me in front of these honored guests, Maria de Jesus. I am not so old that I can no longer acknowledge these two, the children of those who traveled with myself, Governor Fages, Governor Portolá, and Governor Rivera those many years ago.” He coughed and acceded to being returned to his seat, apologizing for his lack of manners.

James and Teresa came onto the porch and stood before the elder. “We were far too young to remember you, Don José but were aware of your status as a member of the Voluntarios Catalan. We have been told of the immense suffering you experienced during that heroic trek and how you continued in spite of it.”

Another had joined them at that point, listening intently to the exchange. When given the opportunity, he introduced himself as Julio Antonio, Don José's eldest. He had servants bring a small table with chairs, demanding the visitors sit and enjoy a refreshing sumac tea to quench their thirst. A woman, walking with the aid of a cane also joined them. Don Julio introduced her as his sister, Maria Catalina. It was clear she was ether blind or close to it.

He tried very hard but Don José began to nod off, the excitement sapping his strength. A motion brought two hands to lift the elder from his chair and carry him inside.

My father would be most embarrassed by not showing you more courtesy but, as you could see, the years lie heavy on his shoulders.”

The visitors nodded, apologizing for their causing the Don's exertion.

Dinner will be served in under the turn of a glass. May I invite you to refresh yourselves beforehand?”

Teresa hastily explained their concern for the welfare of their mounts and their desire to bed down near them in the stables.

Father would be most proud of you, Señor y Señora He has always told us of how a major rule of being a Catalonian Volunteer was to care first and foremost for one's mounts. He often speaks of sleeping next to his favorite horse during that time when he was so ill with the wasting disease.”

There were several children in the household and, as customary, they ate at a different table. However, they could not help but hanging on to every word spoken by the adults during the evening meal.

Explaining that they were far too young at the time to remember their father, James and Teresa repeated stories they had heard from their parents about the long ago trek through uncharted wilderness.

Braving a possible rebuke from his parents, one of the children bravely asked, “Were they not fearful of the many savages they encountered, honored elders?”

Learning the child's name was Teodoro Chrisóstimo, James responded, “The Gentiles never attacked us, child. In spite of what you may have heard, they were never warlike. Other than those living around Misión San Diego, they posed no threat to us during the trek.”

What of those who confronted the reverend fathers when they first sought to establish Misión San Gabriel, Señor? Did they not threaten the fathers?”

James admitted that they had, adding how they had immediately dropped their weapons upon seeing the picture of the Holy Virgin. “The only times since that terrible tragedy in San Diego, the only time that Gentiles have risen up were when they were treated intolerably. Treat them as Christ taught us and they will always be our friends.”

Do you have children?” a little girl asked Teresa. She giggled when she learned just how many they had and how they had grown up as they had.

As customary, the ladies disappeared somewhere after dinner permitting James and Julio to retire to the porch. Julio remarked on James' pipe, indicating he would seek to obtain one as it appeared much more enjoyable than a cheroot.

One of the house servants came to the stables the next morning to inform them they were invited to break their fast with the family. She led them to a large room on the eastern side of the main house where overhanging eaves kept them morning sun from filling it with its light. The large table was covered with dishes and tureens and they were told to help themselves.

Don Julio entered with his father clutching his arm for support while he wife led his blind daughter to the table.

And who joins us at out table, my son?”

Don Julio introduced James and Teresa as companions of his from those many years before when he rode with Don Pedro, Don Gaspar, and Don Fernando.

The old man's rheumy eyes brightened and he struggled to sit up straight. “Come here, young man, I wish to see your face.” James rose and went to Don José's side, kneeling so he could peer closely. Reaching out a trembling hand, he touched Jame's blond hair and softly asked, “You are el Inglés?”

No, Sargento Feliz. I am James, his son who was born in the reeds those many years ago.”

Don José appeared lucid and smiled. “You have your father's hair and eyes. He lives well in these times?”

Yes, Señor, he lives well as does my uncle, Jaimenacho the Carpenter. This woman at my side is his daughter – and my wife.”

Don José peered at Teresa, struggling hard to remember of whom James spoke. The memories eluded him and a pang of misery passed through him, shame at no longer being able to remember important things.

Seeing they were tiring the elderly man, they returned to their seats to partake of the sumptuous meal, leaving the son and daughter to help him gum his atole, teeth having long ago disappeared from his mouth.

Unlike all the other missions they had visited, Misión San Fernando Rey de España was not built in an enclosed quadrangle. A very long building with arches called el Convento took up one area by itself and they had been told it was there to provide shelter for visitors. The large chapel stood at the end of a building holding the mission industries with a large garden to the west and a smaller to the east. They saw signs of several springs with zanjas leading to the mission grounds.

A mayordomo greeted them and showed them to the stables. “Padre Ibarra is at prayers, Señor y Señora but I am certain he will be most pleased to greet you when he finishes. If you wish, I will come when he is ready to meet you.”

They unburdened their animals and, with the help of two young disciples, prepared the stalls for themselves and the animals.

The Great Earthquake had damaged the missions buildings as it had so many others and they were impressed at the rebuilding that had been accomplished. The most impressive feature were the rows upon rows of grapevines growing in the nearby hills along with large fruit orchards. They knew the mission housed nearly a thousand disciples with many more dependent upon the mission for their livelihoods.

Padre Ibarra awaited them in the friar's garden. A man of medium height and build, the years of laboring at the mission were beginning to show. He welcomed them with open arms, blessing them and having them join him in the shade of massive wisterias with large clusters of light purple flowers. The tinkling fountain added to the calm atmosphere filled with the aroma of flowers carefully cultivated by the friars.

He knew who they were having been informed by riders from the last two ranchos they had visited. After a brief chat, he took them on a tour of the mission, justly proud of what had been done to repair the earthquake's damage. The tannery was large with many bales of finished hides ready to be sent out for making clothes and other leather goods. The “clack-clack” of looms announced the large room where women operated the looms taking woolen thread and weaving it into a variety of brightly colored cloths. The chandlery was equally large, endless rows of candles waiting to be used to light the chapel and other areas. One of the innovations they encountered were lamps lit by oil that seeped out of the ground on the mission grounds.

They also knew the mission site had once been occupied by Don Francisco Reyes, an alcalde of los Angeles. In fact, during construction of the mission, the friars had lived in Don Reyes' ranch house.

After midday prayers and a meal at the friars' table, they repaired to the friar's garden where James showed Padre Ibarra the scroll from Prefect Sarria. The friar furrowed his brow and sighed. “Yes, the father prefect has reason to worry. The disciples here are not prepared to take charge of the mission lands or industries without our supervision. They are good of heart and give everything they have to make this place successful. But, they simply cannot operate it without our watching over them.” He crossed himself and bowed his head, softly praying, “Dear Jesus, Son of God, watch over Thy children and bless them that they will not return to the savagery from whence You led them.”

It was a prayer that neither James nor Teresa felt could be granted.

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