It was a disaster that proved to be a blessing in disguise.
Mission San Luis Obispo was preparing for a joyous Easter to be celebrated on April 4, 1920. Plans had to be changed when a fire destroyed the roof and interior of the church on March 27.
This event and its consequences were recently brought to mind when Docent Michael LaFreniere discovered a letter addressed to Father William G. Blatt, the interim pastor at our Mission dated May 16, 1939:
“I have heard with much interest of your plans to hold the 15th annual Fiesta de las Flores in the gardens of the Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa in commemoration of the founding of the mission in 1772 by Father Junípero Serra. I trust that this festival will be an inspiring success and that it will quicken in the minds of all who participate an interest in the romantic history which brought this old mission into being.”
The letter, on White House stationery, is signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Why did an American president, still fighting the effects of the Great Depression, with a world on the brink of war, write to our little community? The story begins with the fire itself.
The mission buildings were made of adobe covered with a water-resistant limestone plaster. The roof tiles protected the building from rain falling into the interior. The Indians who knew how to maintain the adobe walls died or fled the epidemics of typhus and cholera that decimated their numbers in the 1850s and 60s. The tiles were removed by local residents for their own structures when the mission fell into private hands in the early 1840s.
As a result, the building had to be covered with clapboard and shingles after 1875. Without the iconic arches of the campanile, it resembled a New England church. Even the inside of the church was covered by wood from floor to ceiling. Fires from spontaneous combustion occurred regularly.
The 1920 fire, in the early morning hours, was probably from a bad electrical connection in the sacristy. A good deal of the old roof remained under the clapboard. It was composed of tules and reeds woven by the neophytes over a century earlier.
The flames had smoldered for hours until discovered by a lamplighter, making his early morning rounds of turning off the gaslights which illuminated the streets of San Luis Obispo.
Ironically, the 120-year-old oak rafters, hand hewn by the neophytes with hoe-like axes called adzes, and tied in place with rawhide tongs, held in place. They prevented the adobe walls from collapse.
Father Daniel Keenan, pastor of Old Mission, 1925-1929, sought to fully restore the historical appearance when he founded La Fiesta de las Flores in 1925. Father Keenan fully understood the potential of “mission mania” as an attraction in the age of the automobile.
Father Keenan used advertising in newspapers, magazines and radio stations in San Jose and Los Angeles. The event attracted thousands of motorists to the local “fiesta.” The beef barbecue was a special hit for motorists from the Southland.
Progress was delayed by the Depression, but by 1938, the mission was restored to its historical appearance by Father John Harnett, who died in July, 1939.
With the 15th anniversary coming up, legendary San Luis Obispo Postmaster “Bill” O’Donnell contacted his boss, fellow Texan, Irish Catholic and World War I comrade James A. Farley, then the Postmaster General. Farley was the head of FDR’s ”Kitchen Cabinet.”
He was widely credited with creating the coalition of American Catholics, labor unions, African Americans and farmer that had elected FDR in 1932.
In 1978, Bill, shortly before his death, told me about writing Farley about La Fiesta. Now FDR’s letter shows how Farley gladly secured help from high places for an old friend.
Would you like to know more about the hidden history of Mission San Luis Obispo? We will hold classes for newcomers and docents on Wednesday from 7-8:30 p.m. May 14 and 21, resuming June 4 and 11 the Parish Hall. There is no obligation to serve as docents. For further information call the 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