Times Past

San Luis Obispo Mission docents help to guide visitors back in time

Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa.
Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa. The Tribune

“The beans are ready, the beans are ready, better hurry or you won’t get any.”

Docent and master Mission bell ringer Michael La Freniere climbed up on the platform that holds the original 1818 bells made by Manuel Vargas in Lima, Peru. He explained to a group of fourth-graders how the rhythmic and tonal patterns were used to send an 1820s-style “mess call” to the neophytes.

The students clapped along with the rhythm, repeating the ditty, and smiling broadly.

Years ago, some missions had resident Franciscan, Claretian or Dominican priests, sisters and brothers to give tours. Most, like San Francisco’s Mission Dolores or Ventura’s Mission San Buenaventura, simply had a small gift shop and a museum but didn’t offer regular tours. During the mid-1940s, San Luis Obispo was among the latter.

I have a vague memory of visiting here about 1948 and asking about the history of the mission. I was referred to Jesse Kistler’s book, “Tales Tolled by the Mission Bells,” (1947) which had a story about each of the 21 missions. It was one of my favorite books, leaving me wanting more.

By the 1980s, there still wasn’t a process for training guides.

Old Mission needed a docent program. A docent — from the Latin “docere,” meaning to instruct, teach or point out — is a person who acts as a guide, typically on a voluntary basis, in a museum, art gallery, etc.

I’d done docent education for what is now our History Center of San Luis Obispo County for nearly 20 years. Even with the leaking conditions in the very worn Carnegie Library, there were more than 60 docents in the 1980s.

I tried to jump-start such programs at our mission in the mid-1980s and mid-90s. But it took Cathy Velardi to get a truly solid program.

Cathy took charge of the docents at Mission San Luis Obispo in 2002, when she moved to Arroyo Grande from Lompoc Valley, where she’d overseen docents for Mission La Purisima State Historic Park.

Purisima is considered the class act among docent programs for the California missions. Cathy brought in professionals from the California Department of Parks and Recreation interpretation program to get us started.

Janet Potter from Edna Valley joined Cathy. For more than 30 years, Jan took the history of California’s Native Americans into dozens of classrooms.

“One of the important parts of any community effort is to enrich citizens and visitors, and there’s no better way than to enhance what is unique to us,” Jan said. “In the same way, we appreciate the Spanish and French culture of New Orleans, visitors from Louisiana can appreciate the truly individual Spanish flavor we enjoy here.”

Jan enjoyed sharing tours with her fellow docents.

“I find fascinating the difference in each guide’s tours,” she said. “Each of us has special interests and interprets in a different manner, but since fourth-graders in California study this history, they have the tremendous good fortune to see how the Spanish and Yankee pioneers came, benefiting themselves and California.”

Jan’s advice for new docents: “Every tour is the beginning of a new adventure. You will always get more than you give.”

Both Cathy and Janet have died, but their legacy continues under the leadership of Angela Bertrand, Donna Young, Roger Powers, Kay Fernandez and Connie Pillsbury, who have done a meticulous job editing the new docent manuals.

Join us for Saturday docent training sessions beginning April 22 at 9 a.m. in the Serra Room in the Mission Office. I’ll speak on the history of our region up to 1769.

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