Times Past

Celebrate a traditional Day of the Dead at Mission San Antonio de Padua

Mission San Antonio de Padua as drawn by Edward Vischer, June 26, 1873. In the foreground, Salinan women are washing clothes in the lavanderia, or washing pools, to the right of the 1790s grist mill.
Mission San Antonio de Padua as drawn by Edward Vischer, June 26, 1873. In the foreground, Salinan women are washing clothes in the lavanderia, or washing pools, to the right of the 1790s grist mill.

The Day of the Dead, Día de los Muertos, is a celebration born in the Americas. In the years that followed the Spanish conquest of Mexico, it fused the Old World Catholic celebrations of All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day, Nov. 1 and 2, into the rich elements of Native American culture.

I know of no better place to get a perspective on this fusion than Mission San Antonio de Padua. It is an especially meaningful experience on a cool autumn afternoon.

On Saturday, Oct. 29 at 1 p.m., you have a rare opportunity to experience a traditional religious ceremony celebrating the “Day of the Dead” at California’s third oldest and most remote mission.

The ceremony will begin with leaders of the Salinan Tribe of San Luis Obispo and Monterey counties, greeting Father Jim Nisbet, former pastor of Mission San Luis Obispo and a Native American who was active in promoting the cause of 17th century Mohawk Kateri Tekakwithaas the first Native American saint.

There will be a traditional Four Directions ceremony honoring Father Sky, Mother Earth and Spirit Tree.

Everyone then proceeds into the restored mission church for the All Souls Day Mass.

An especially joyful part of the liturgy will be the music of the New World Baroque Orchestra conducted by John Warren. The “Kyrie a Duo” and the “Angus Dei” (Lamb of God) are from La Misa en Sol (The Mass in G), composed by Padre Juan Bautista Sancho (1772-1830), who led the best known of mission orchestras at Mission San Antonio.

Father Sancho’s compositions are celebrated in a book by Cal Poly’s renowned musical scholar Craig Russell, “From Serra to Sancho: Music and Pageantry in the California Missions” (Oxford University Press). Father Sancho is buried at the foot of Mission San Antonio’s altar.

This is a ‘non-scary,’ respectful and historic approach to understanding the role of burial places in interpreting times past.

Prayers will be chanted in the Salinan language by tribal elders and children.

Mission San Antonio is called “the mission in the Sierras” among California’s chain of 21 Franciscan missions because of its mountainous backdrop. Yet it’s less than an hour and a half away from most points in San Luis Obispo County.

It is about 30 miles northwest of Camp Roberts along Monterey County Road G-18, which is reached at the Jolon turnoff on Highway 101.

Despite the heavy military presence at Fort Hunter Liggett, the isolated valley gives us an idea of what California mission life was like in 1771 when St. Junípero Serra founded Mission San Antonio de Padua.

The abundant acorns from oak trees fed the Salinan Native Americans stretching from San Luis Obispo to Big Sur and inland to the edges of the San Joaquin Valley.

You are also invited to my traditional Halloween Day tour of the historic Old Mission Cemetery in San Luis Obispo on Monday, Oct. 31. Meet at the Bridge Street entrance at 4 p.m.

This year, I’ll be joined by my friends Debi Dismer, Linda Winters and Mary Golden from the Spooner Ranch Docents who will be in costume as Josefa Carrillo Dana, Ramona Carrillo Pacheco Wilson and Maria Asuncion Salazar Dallidet.

This is a “non-scary,” respectful and historic approach to understanding the role of burial places in interpreting times past.

Both events are free and open to the public.

Dan Krieger is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly. He is past president of the California Mission Studies Association, now part of the California Missions Foundation. He can be reached at slohistory@gmail.com.

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