Times Past: St. Anthony leaves lasting legacy

June 30, 2012 

A painting of St. Anthony of Padua with a child, attributed to José de Páez, is displayed in the annex at Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa.


‘Tony, Tony, turn around, there is something to be found!”

Many of us know St. Anthony of Padua as “the patron saint of lost articles.” We pray for his intercession in locating our lost keys, credit card or business papers.

He is often pictured holding a baby or young child. Mission San Luis Obispo has both a statue and an 18th-century portrait of Anthony with an infant in his arms.

Although his common name refers to the Italian city of Padua, Fernando Martins de Bulhões was born in Lisbon, Portugal. As one of the early Franciscans, he quickly became noted for his knowledge of Scripture and his ability as a preacher.

He was a special figure in the life of Father Junipero Serra. Serra named the third of the Alta California missions after St. Anthony and often asked that Anthony inspire him with his wisdom and perspective.

Serra needed just that when he founded Mission San Luis Obispo on Sept. 1, 1772. He was in the middle of a fractious fight with Pedro Fages, the military governor of Alta California.

The fight was the result of Serra’s celo ardiente, or ardent zeal, in behalf of founding missions and protecting the Native Americans. He had a special concern that Fages’ soldados not abuse or have sexual contact with the Native Americans.

In May 1771, Serra received permission to move the headquarters’ mission from the presidio, or fort, at Monterey to the fertile mouth of the Carmel River, five miles to the south. By doing so, he hoped to remove the newly converted Native Americans from the influence of the military.

Serra also wanted to found a fifth mission. Lt. Fages opposed what he regarded as over expanding the available resources. The founding of San Luis Obispo as the fifth mission was, to an extent, an act of defiance of the military governor’s policies.

Serra, after consulting his brother Franciscans, had resolved to present his famous 32 requests to the representatives of the Spanish king in Mexico. One of these demanded the removal of Lt. Fages. In 1774, Fages was replaced by Capt. Fernando Rivera y Moncada.

Throughout this painful process, Serra sought the inspiration of St. Anthony and acted with great restraint in words and actions.

Ultimately, Serra found that relations with both of Fages’ successors, Rivera and Felipe de Neve, were also difficult. By 1782, he was willing to accept the return of Fages.

Fages had married Eulalia Callis in 1780. When she arrived in Monterey in 1782, the fashionable lady felt great compassion for the more poorly dressed Native American women. She gave them most of the fine clothes in her trousseau, only to discover that it would take more than a year to order new dresses from Mexico.

Señora Fages became greatly depressed and locked herself in her rooms. She announced that she wished to return to Mexico and sought a decree of separation from her husband.

Gov. Fages was humiliated, but found his strongest supporter in this moment of weakness was his former adversary, Serra.

Could this have been another miracle attributed to St. Anthony?

Brother Jeff Shackleton, the editor of the Franciscan journal The Way of St. Francis, recently wrote of the spirit of St. Anthony in light of the Vatican’s and some of the American bishops’ criticism of nuns and religious women. His concern might well extend to the church-state conflict over health insurance coverage.

Brother Jeff wrote, “It appears to me that some of the leaders of our church have lost perspective. St. Anthony, pray for us!”

Dan Krieger is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and president of the California Mission Studies Association.

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