An older, swarthy complexioned, balding priest rode horseback on a grassy knoll between two creeks. A blue-jacketed officer of the Catalonian Volunteers stood nervously below.
The officer seemed to grimace as the priest rode toward him. He had some reason for apprehension. Father Junipero Serra, the “Padre Presidente” of the Franciscan missions in Upper California, was engaged in a bitter power struggle with him. Serra had objected to soldiers based at the Presidio in Monterey having improper access to the native women.
Ironically, Serra located the new mission in San Luis Obispo because earlier that year, the officer gained the nickname “El Oso” (“The Bear”) while hunting bears for meat in the Los Osos Valley, which became a reserve food supply for the northern missions.
Serra was taking his case to Mexico City. There he would seek the removal of Lt. Pedro Fages as military governor of Alta California.
It was going to be a long, unfriendly ride down the El Camino Real.
Soon, the group consisting of a dozen soldiers turned from the creek bed and disappeared into the morning mist of the Edna Valley.
Father José Caveller looked out from the crest of the knoll. There were some sycamores growing along the creek banks. Some of the branches had been cut and used to build several “armadas” or shelters. The walls consisted of palisades of smaller branches and reeds tied together in bundles.
He knew that by the time of his next visit to San Luis Obispo, 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 Junípero Serra.
Father Francisco Palou, Serra’s close friend and biographer, wrote:
“ the Fr. Presidente 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, the captain left there fifty pounds of flour, three pecks of wheat for sowing, a quantity of chocolate, and a box of brown sugar ”
By the time of Father José Caveller’s death in 1789, the herds of mission sheep and cattle were growing into the thousands. The mission church and colonnade were completed. It is the only large structure in California that resembles its appearance more than 220 years ago.
By the 1790s, the padres were able to greet visitors with a measure of hospitality. Father Luis Antonio Martinez became famous for his “mesa,” or meal table for guests, which included wines and brandies made at the mission.
The Mission San Luis Obispo parish will celebrate both its patron saints’ feast day and its founding Saturday. A “historic feast” will be held at 5:30 p.m.
Starting in 1993, the mission community has hosted the La Mesa de las Padres banquet in the style of Franciscan hospitality.
This year the La Mesa de las Padres which supports historic preservation at the old mission returns to the mission campus. It will be a sit-down dinner catered by Chef José Dahan of Et Voila, whose French-Basque orientation would have appealed to both Pedro Fages and Junipero Serra, who eventually became great friends. One could imagine them enjoying a meal prepared by Chef José.
You can reserve space at the table of the Padres for this feast by calling the Mission office at 781-8220.
Dan Krieger is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and president of the California Mission Studies Association.