Times Past: ‘Gift’ meant to ensure priests kept spiritual mission in mind

July 7, 2012 

The portrait of St. Louis of Anjou (Obispo de Tolosa), a 13th century Franciscan bishop, was painted by José de Paez in Mexico.


The 49-year-old priest was buried at the foot of the altar of his uncompleted church in December 1789. He had been ill for at least several weeks. He signed his name to a baptismal entry on Nov. 20 with a trembling hand.

Father José Caveller was the first padre of Mission San Luis Obispo. Two weeks ago, we related how Father Junípero Serra had passed through San Luis Obispo on Sept. 1, 1772. Father Serra founded the mission, but left the next morning en route to Mexico City. Father Caveller was left with five soldiers, some flour, sugar and chocolate for his morning beverage.

Shortly before his death in 1784, Father Serra wrote how he had “trusted in the providence of God alone” in founding our mission.

But it was Father Caveller who was left to convert the Native Americans and guide them in the building of the mission.

Father Caveller was born in the village of Falcet near the ancient Roman city of Tarragona in Catalonia, Spain. He spoke a Catalan dialect similar to that of Father Serra, who was from the nearby Balearic Islands. As a child, he would have enjoyed the religious festivals when the men would stand on one anther’s shoulders, forming pyramids five and six high.

He became a Franciscan in the Tarragon Province and asked to be assigned to the North American missions.

His passport recorded at the Spanish seaport of Cadiz notes that he was of medium height, somewhat overweight and had a dark complexion.

Father Caveller arrived in California by ship in March 1771. He was with Father Serra when the mission was moved from Monterey to the Carmel River site in December. Father Serra had planned to assign Father Caveller and Father Domingo Juncosa to the new mission at San Luis Obispo. A shortage of priests forced Father Serra to leave Father Juncosa behind at the newly established Carmel Mission. Father Juncosa didn’t come to San Luis Obispo until late January 1773.

The first mission buildings were a rough-hewn combination of rocks, logs, thatch and adobe. The two padres had to “make do.” But Father Serra did not want them to neglect the spiritual aspects of the mission.

While in Mexico, Father Serra commissioned oil paintings of the saints for whom each mission was named. He went to the studios of José de Paez and asked for a portrait of St. Louis of Anjou (Obispo de Tolosa), the 13th century Franciscan bishop.

The painting reached San Luis Obispo before Father Serra’s arrival at the mission. Fathers Caveller and Juncosa knew that the 18 peso cost of the painting would be charged against San Luis Obispo’s share of the Pious Fund, an account established to aid missions in Baja and Alta California.

Fathers Caveller and Juncosa would rather have spent the money on much needed supplies for their mission. Eighteen pesos was a large sum and would have purchased several much-needed iron plowshares, adzes (hoe-shaped axes used in construction) and other farming implements.

Farther Caveller delicately informed Father Serra that his mission already had a portrait of St. Louis, suggesting that Mission San Antonio might like the portrait, writing that San Luis Obispo was “unworthy” of so fine a painting. Father Serra replied that the one he had sent was nicer. Father Serra ordered Fathers Caveller and Juncosa to accept the “gift.” He instructed them to pray to St. Louis the bishop that their mission might become worthy of so fine a painting.

The painting did in fact travel to other missions but was recovered from the nearly ruined portion of San Miguel Mission during the pastorate of Father Appollinarius Rousell at San Luis Obispo, 1874-1891.

In a few months, it will temporarily travel to the Huntington Library in San Marino for a special exhibit.

• • •

Old Mission parish will celebrate its patron saints feast day and founding Saturday, Aug. 18. A historic feast will be held at Trinity Hall in Edna at 5:30 p.m.

Starting in 1993, the mission community has hosted La Mesa de las Padres in the style of Franciscan hospitality.

This year La Mesa de las Padres is catered by Del Monte Cafe with a Basque orientation that would have appealed to both Gov. Pedro Fages and Father Serra.

You can reserve space at the table of the Padres for this feast by calling the Old Mission Office at 781-8220.

Dan Krieger’s column is special to The Tribune. He is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and president of the California Mission Studies Association.

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