Times Past

SLO Mission fed and sheltered refugees in 1824 much as it helps the homeless today

John Edward Borien drew this picture of Mission Purísima after the Chumash Rebellion in 1824.
John Edward Borien drew this picture of Mission Purísima after the Chumash Rebellion in 1824.

A major refugee crisis hit San Luis Obispo in 1824 following the Chumash Rebellion at Missions La Purísima Concepción, Santa Inés, Santa Barbara, and San Buenaventura.

A young Purísima neophyte was severely flogged by the soldiers at the nearby Mission Santa Inés. This led to an uprising at the four missions, the largest Indian revolt in the history of the California missions.

Nearly 2,000 Chumash warriors captured La Purísima, imprisoning the soldiers, priests and civilians at the mission.

The La Purísima insurgents allowed Father Blas Ordaz and the Purísima soldiers and their families to go to Mission Santa Inés.

The other priest, Father Antonio Catarino Rodríguez, was suffering from congestive heart failure. Apparently much loved by the Purísima Indians, they allowed him to come and go as he pleased, often carrying him in his bed.

Father Antonio’s good relations with the rebels have caused many historians to question the assertion that the Chumash disliked the Franciscans at La Purísima.

Pacomio (José Pacomio Poqui), a carpenter and majordomo at Mission Santa Barbara, joined the rebels at Purísima and fortified the mission. He built wooden palisades with gun loops outside the mission walls for cannons and swivel guns. He drilled the rebels for days trying to teach them European-style tactics.

All the training didn’t help the rebels during the 2½-hour siege by skilled Mexican troops. Father Antonio’s bed had to be carried from room to room as the Mexicans’ four-pounder cannon pulverized adobe walls. Ultimately, the rebels asked Father Antonio to negotiate a truce in late March 1824. The soldados pursued fleeing Chumash into the foothills and San Joaquin Valley.

Father Antonio Ripoll, the pastor at Santa Barbara, wrote Gov. Luis Argüello, defending the actions of the rebels and asking for their pardon.

Food became a problem both in the missions to the south and in the refugee-filled hills. Father Luis Antonio Martinez was not confronted by any sign of rebellion at San Luis Obispo. He welcomed refugees and supplied food to Missions Purísima, Santa Inés, Santa Barbara, and San Buenaventura.

In September 1824, the terminally ill Father Antonio Catarino Rodriguez was brought to San Luis Obispo, where he died on Nov. 25 and was buried at the foot of the altar, next to Father José Caveller, the founder of our mission.

Father Luis Antonio Martinez was legendary for his hospitality, which included serving Napoleon Brandy from France to his guests. He funded this generosity through a healthy trade with the Russian American Co. based in Sitka, Alaska, and the British Hudson Bay Co. in Canada. He traded tallow, hides, dried beef, wine, locally distilled brandy, wheat and barley for beeswax candles and iron tools. The cases of brandy captured from the Napoleonic invasion were given to him by the Russians.

His response to the refugee and food crisis of 1824 has been carried on in our own time at Mission San Luis Obispo. During the 1980s Father Jim Nisbet established a lunch kitchen under the Mission’s colonnade. It led directly to the city of San Luis Obispo creating the permanent homeless day center at its Prado Road facility.

When Father Jim arrived as pastor in 1980, Eunice Pierce approached him about creating a homeless overflow shelter in the Mission Hall. Father Jim said, “go for it.” Since then, the overflow continues to this day, throughout the month of January in the now beautifully restored hall.

La Mesa de los Padres was started in 1993 to raise funds for historic preservation at the Mission by replicating the hospitality of Father Luis. This year “A Taste of the Past: An Evening in the Gardens” with music, dancing and fine wines and foods will be held on Saturday, Aug. 26, from 6 to 9 p.m. Tickets are $75, available by reservation only at the Mission Office 805-781-8220.

This year, La Mesa de los Padres will honor the late Santos Arrona and all the greeters and ushers who have carried on the tradition of hospitality at the Old Mission in its modern history.

Santos was a greeter and bell-ringer at the Mission and a volunteer leader at the Community Action Partnership (CAPSLO). We will write about Santos’ remarkable life next week.

Dan Krieger is professor of history, emeritus 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.