Times Past

Day of the Dead ceremony at Mission San Antonio offers glimpse into past traditions

By Dan Krieger

Special to The Tribune

The 1804 cemetery at Mission San Antonio de Padua under restoration in 2013.
The 1804 cemetery at Mission San Antonio de Padua under restoration in 2013.

Cemeteries can tell us a lot about the way people lived in times past.

During World War II, my grandmother took me for long walks in some of California’s oldest cemeteries. We would stop at a gravestone or family crypt or mausoleum and she would tell me about the people interred at that site.

The unmarked grave sections always bothered this 4- or 5-year-old boy, particularly at California’s historic missions. My grandmother said that the large, unmarked sites were for the baptized Native Americans. I asked, “didn’t they have names?”

I later came to understand that before modern medicine, death came in waves of epidemics when there were scant resources and little time to bury the large numbers of dead.

Mission San Luis Obispo’s Indian cemetery extended into what is now Chorro Street. The “Fresno scrapers” (horse drawn earthmovers) plowed it under as they created Chorro in the late 19th century.

Mission San Antonio’s 1804 cemetery still survives. Surrounded by a wall of adobe brick, it has kept its character for more than 200 years. By the 1990s, the walls were reduced to less than half the height depicted in Edward Vischer’s 1860s drawing of the site.

In 2012, the Hind Foundation granted $17,459 to the Salinan Heritage Preservation Association to restore the 20,000-square-foot cemetery by repairing and stabilizing 120 feet of the adobe wall. Tribal members did the work and built and installed a gate to replace the entry gate.

Archaeologist Robert Hoover employed Historic Human Remains Detection (HHRD) Dogs to detect the possibility of human remains being buried outside the walls.

That cemetery is at the center of the celebration of the Day of the Dead at Mission San Antonio.

At 1 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 27, you can 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 Scott McCarthy from the Diocese of Monterey for the All Souls Day Mass. McCarthy is known for his colorful, Native American like vestments.

An especially joyful part of the liturgy will be the music of the New World Baroque Orchestra and the choir of St. Rose of Lima Church 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, O.F.M. (1772-1830), who led the best known of mission orchestras at Mission San Antonio.

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.

This is a rare opportunity to have a firsthand encounter with the real history of California.

▪ ▪ ▪

Readers are invited to join me this Halloween at 4 p.m. in the Old Mission Cemetery at the new Bridge Street entrance near the intersection of Beebe and Bridge behind the Pacific Coast Center. We will see the last resting places of San Luis Obispo’s pioneers, including Ah Louis, Josefa Carrillo Dana and her husband, William Godwin Dana, and, more recently, Alex Madonna. Please join us for this Halloween treat.

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.

Related stories from San Luis Obispo Tribune