Times Past

An ‘empty valley’ becomes home to Mission San Antonio de Padua

The Alta Californio Dance Company performs at the entrance of Mission San Antonio de Padua for Mission Days in 2014.
The Alta Californio Dance Company performs at the entrance of Mission San Antonio de Padua for Mission Days in 2014.

The soldiers thought the “Father-President” of the California missions had taken leave of his senses.

On July 14, 1771, St. Junípero Serra, along with Fathers Miguel Pieras and Buenaventura Sitjar, traveled from Monterey to what had been a campsite of the Portolá expedition in 1769.

Serra’s lifelong friend, Father Juan Crespi, was the diarist of that first overland expedition. Crespi thought the San Antonio Valley at the foot of the Santa Lucia Mountains would be an excellent site for a mission.

Less than two years later, the valley seemed empty.

The Salinan tribe regarded the San Antonio Valley as its core territory. As hunters and gathers, most if not all their people would have been harvesting marine life along the beaches or hunting in the foothills and valleys ranging as far east as Fresno County.

Serra directed the soldiers to hang a large bronze bell on an oak tree. He rang the bell while loudly calling for all to come and receive the faith of Jesus Christ. Father Pieras was confused by what he was observing, asking Serra, “Why do you tire yourself here if this is not to be the spot where the mission is to be built? There is no (Indian) nearby. Why waste time ringing the bell?”

Serra is reported to have replied, “Let me give vent to my heart which desires that this bell might be heard around the world.”

Serra prepared to say Mass when a single, curious Salinan Native American arrived. Serra gave him gifts and he returned with other members of the Salinan tribe.

Rejoicing that they had answered his prayers, Serra returned to Monterey where he was establishing the new mission at Carmel, leaving the other priests at San Antonio to begin the actual construction.

On Saturday, April 1, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., you can treat yourself to a most authentic slice of California history.

It’s “Mission Day” at Mission San Antonio de Padua near Jolon. Demonstrations will include adobe brick making, acorn grinding, tortilla making, weaving, bead making, face painting, rope making, bell ringing and more.

John Warren’s New World Baroque Orchestra and Choir will present original music composed at Mission San Antonio by Juan Bautista Sancho, and other Mission-period music.

Sancho is buried at the foot of the altar, near where the musicians will perform his music.

The original El Camino Real passed by the mission well into the American era. The San Francisco Herald reported on May 8, 1859, that a baby was born on the rugged San Antonio to San Jose stagecoach.

During the 1880s, the Southern Pacific laid tracks for its Coast Line along the banks of the Salinas River. Highway 101 would adopt same route. The San Antonio Valley reverted to remote ranching land until the construction of Camp Hunter Liggett.

The Mission’s isolated setting makes it perfect for seeing a mission as it really was with extensive buildings and the archaeological foundations of a much larger community.

You can still sense the challenge confronting Serra in 1771. With a little imagination, you might hear his voice calling.

The rains have produced an especially beautiful setting for this fiesta. Parking is $10. Mission-era food will be offered for $10 per plate, with water and soft drinks available. No alcoholic beverages please.

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April 18 marks the anniversary of the 1906 San Francisco temblor and inferno that left half of the city’s population homeless. On Saturday, March 25, from 1 to 2:30 p.m., Cindy Rankin will autograph her children’s historical novel “Under the Ashes” at Barnes & Noble in San Luis Obispo.

Dan Krieger is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly. He can be reached at slohistory@gmail.com.