The story of Mission Assistencia in Santa Margarita

San Luis Obispo - The TribuneApril 13, 2013 

Assigned to a remote mission, the ailing Franciscan faced a painful and lonely death. The last days of the Mission era in California are filled with such stories.

            In December 1833, Fr. Luis Gil Y Taboada traveled up the Old Padre Road over the Cuesta. He wanted to say Mass for the neophytes who were engaged in planting the winter grain crop at the Mission Asistencia, Santa Margarita de Cortona.

            At the foot of the altar in the Asistencia chapel, he suffered a violent attack of dysentery and began vomiting blood. Fr. Juan Cabot was summoned from San Miguel and administered last rites before Fr. Luis died on Dec. 15, 1833. His remains were taken to San Luis Obispo for burial.

            At the right base of the sanctuary in the mission you can see the inscription commemorating the burial site of Fr. Luis, one of the last of the Spanish Franciscans.

            Fr. Luis was appointed “permanent replacement” at our mission in December 1830, replacing Fr. Luis Antonio Martinez, who had been expelled by the Mexican government of José María Echeandía.

            Ironically, Fr. Luis Gil y Taboada was accused of serious crimes by the highly corrupt Mexican government in California.  In 1821, while in charge of Mission Santa Cruz, he was charged with smuggling, gambling and other immoral acts. No formal hearing was never held on the matter, possibly because of Fr. Luis's ailing health.  He did write to Jose Maria Herrera, the customs clerk in Monterey, protesting his innocence. He argued that he had gone to notorious gambling dens merely to reveal the identity of errant neophytes who were prone to squander their family’s income.

            The decision to send Fr. Luis to San Luis Obispo rather than deporting him to Spain was in recognition of the padre’s bad health. He could not have survived the long ocean voyage.

            Fr. Gil y Toboada’s linguistic and medical knowledge was evidently considerable. In 1817 Fr. Vincente Sarria, the Father-President of the California missions, commended him for his knowledge of Indian languages and his skill in performing a Caesarian delivery which saved both the mother and child.

            Fr. Luis  found that conditions had deteriorated considerably at San Luis Obispo since the departure of Fr. Luis Martinez. He made repairs to the structure, but continuing ill health restricted his energy.

            His trip to Santa Margarita to minister to the Indians reflected the importance of the Asistencia, literally an “assistant mission” established sometime during the 1780's.  In 1817, Fr. Luis Antonio Martinez, the pastor at San Luis Obispo, reported that he had started construction of a stone chapel, padre’s quarters and grain storehouse on the site.

            This was the chapel where Fr. Luis Gil y Toboada died. By the 1860's the chapel was in ruins and became a favorite subject for artists like Edward Vischer and Henry Chapman Ford. Ford’s image of forlorn decay with the beautiful Santa Lucia mountains in the background hung in the “catacombs” of Frank Miller’s Mission Inn in Riverside. For me and thousands of visitors, it epitomized the failed dreams of the Franciscan endeavor in California.

            The stone ruins remain, protected by a giant barn on the Santa Margarita Ranch. It’s shown to the public for special events. Surprisingly little has been written about them. They are the most extensive ruins of a Mission era asistencia. The small press run of Msgr. Francis Weber’s 2002 account was largely bought up by the ranch owners.

            Santa Barbara’s Ed Vernon is well known for his work on the Missions of Baja California. Ed recently published “Asistencia Santa Margarita de Cortona”.  It’s a richly illustrated account of the structure.

            Join the Santa Margarita Historical Society on April 28 at 2:30 p.m. at the Santa Margarita Community Hall to listen and see images from Ed’s  research into the historic Asistencia Santa Margarita de Cortona.

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





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