Times Past: Blessing sets history in motion

June 23, 2012 

Father Junipero Serra in 1768, shortly before his arrival in California.

COURTESY PHOTO

The gray-robed friar knelt for a blessing before an older priest near a dusty knoll where San Luis Obispo’s center is today.

The blessing completed, the older priest mounted a horse with the aid of a Native American. The neophyte then guided the horse down the slope toward the creek bed.

A Spanish officer wearing the blue jacket of the Catalonian Volunteers was waiting.

The officer, Lt. Pedro Fages, seemed to grimace as the priest rode toward him. He had reasons for his apprehension. The soldier was engaged in a bitter power struggle with the priest, Father Junipero Serra, the padre presidente of the Franciscan missions in Upper California. Serra was taking his case to Mexico City, where he would seek the removal of Fages as military governor of Alta California.

Serra was prepared to use his position as inquisitor general of the province to bring charges of heresy against Fages. That wasn’t something that was taken lightly in Spain’s colonial empire.

It was going to be a long, unfriendly ride down El Camino Real.

Soon, the group disappeared into the morning mist of the Edna Valley.

Father José Caveller remained on the knoll at the juncture of the creeks.

He knew that the next time he saw Father Serra, the padre presidente would expect to see a substantial mission community.

Father José was already sensing the terror of isolation and loneliness that would beset him for the remaining 17 years of his life — a life spent in dedication to the mission he had founded the day before, alongside Father Serra.

Father Francisco Palou, Serra’s close friend and biographer, was the first historian of the Franciscan missions in California.

Palou writes of this era of scarcity both in materials and human resources: “[Fr. Serra] assigned two Lower California neophytes in order that they might begin to build the dwelling and the chapel. For the maintenance of the missionary, Father (José Caveller), the five soldiers, and the two Indians, … left there 50 pounds of flour, 3 pecks of wheat for sowing, a quantity of chocolate, and a box of brown sugar for which later they might obtain wild seeds from the (local Indians).

“As [Fages] had to hasten to reach San Diego in order to receive the supplies, and to dispatch the transports, there was no opportunity for the Rev. Fr. Presidente (Junipero Serra) to tarry at the new Mission of San Luis Obispo. Lest he miss this chance, he set out from there on the day after having founded the Mission, that is to say, on Sept. 2 …”

Next week, we will look at the personalities of the first Franciscans who took up residence along the Central Coast.

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