Ep. 025: California's Mission San Antonio de Padua

One of the most remote missions in California

Before I was the Temple Guy, I was the Mission Guy, in California and all over the American Southwest. Every couple of weeks I'll take you to one (or more) of my faves, and today it's one of California's most remote missions, San Antonio de Padua in the foothills of the Santa Lucia Mountains. Starting right now on this episode of--


The distinctive burnt-brick facade in front of the church’s vestibule

The California missions are a vestige of the Spanish incursion into what is now the state of California, but was once home to around 500 distinct sub-tribes or groups of Native Americans, many of which were required to "blend" as they were forced to live in mission communities. The Spanish, of course, intended this for their "betterment," but it resulted in untold social disruption and loss of language and culture, as well as death from disease, starvation, and overwork. It is estimated that the coastal populations, where most of the missions were located, were reduced by 90 percent in the eight decades from 1769 to 1848.

The first mission in Alta ("Upper") California, as one might expect, was planted near the border with Baja ("Lower") California, at San Diego, in 1769. (I wrote about the Baja missions in Episode 007.) A year later, the second mission, just as logically, was placed in Monterey, which in that same year--1770--became the seat of the Spanish governor, making it California's first capital. The mission church was inside the presidio or fort, and the priest--now-Saint Junipero Serra--soon fell into conflict with the military governor, and moved the mission to Carmel, a stone's-throw away. (The Cathedral of San Carlos Borromeo, also called the Royal Presidio Chapel, remains on the original site. The stone building dates to 1794, and is the oldest cathedral in the United States. The mission at Carmel is also dedicated to San Carlos Borromeo.)

The mill race runs into a grist mill.

Now, logic would dictate that, if you were creating a chain of missions that should be in communication with each other, Number Three would have to be halfway between the first two. And here the redoubtable padre missed the mark--dreadfully. By modern roads, which must more-or-less follow the contours of the land, it's 400 miles from San Diego to Mission Number Three, but only 80-90 miles from there to Carmel. That makes it very roughly 80% of the way from San Diego and 20% of the way from Carmel--a huge difference! (Incidentally, the center point would probably be somewhere between Mission Santa Barbara and Mission Santa Inez at Solvang.)

Mission Number Three

And what is this mysterious third mission? Why, of course, it's Mission San Antonio de Padua, named for a famous Franciscan preacher from Portugal. (One of his claims to fame is that his was one of the fastest canonizations on record, occurring 9-1/2 months after his death.) The Spanish missions in California were founded by the Franciscans, so over half are named for saints who were somehow connected with the order founded in 1209 by Saint Francis of Assisi. Five of the missions' names reflect Biblical characters (including the parents of Jesus) or concepts (such as the Holy Cross), not counting the three archangels who serve as patrons. Eleven in all are Franciscans, though two of those were kings who were lay members of the order. Francis himself is the namesake of the mission in San Francisco. (Other well-known cities in California named for their missions are San Diego, Ventura, Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz, and San Jose). Oddly, two of the missions were named for virgin martyrs of the 3rd century. Go figure.

A two-man saw.

Anyway, Mission San Antonio de Padua was originally founded in 1771 by Father Serra and his companions, a couple of miles down what is now called Mission Creek from its current location. As a result of crop failures, the mission was moved to a new site with a more dependable water source in 1773. (In the same year, California's first-ever wedding was performed at the mission, between a 25-year-old Mexican man and a 22-year-old Indian woman.) One of the early priests, Padre Buenaventura Sitjar, had a genius for irrigation planning, and built a dam three miles upstream, along with conduits and flumes to carry the water to the mission and its fields. The mission became self-sufficient early on, though outstations were established for the water-intensive cattle-raising operations. Evidence of the water system remains, including the mill race and housing for a water-powered grist mill.

The church building--40 feet wide and 200 feet long--was completed in 1813, and eight years later its most distinctive feature was added: a vestibule behind a three-arched wall, with bells and an unusual vaulted brick ceiling.

Sadly, the site was confiscated when the newly-formed Mexican government took over from Spain, and the gobernadores had dollar signs (or something) in their eyes. The last baptism was performed in the church in 1844; Governor Pico tried to sell the place, but it was so remote that no one was interested. San Miguel, the nearest mission and a "daughter" of San Antonio, was the last of the missions to be sold, on July 4, 1846; three days later the United States took possession of all of California as part of the Mexican-American War.

In 1851 the United States Land Commission returned the mission to Church ownership, and in that same year a Mexican Indian priest, Doroteo Ambris, arrived, remaining at San Antonio until his death in 1882. Thereafter, the mission was abandoned. Neighborhood ranchers scavenged what they could from the buildings, which unfortunately included the roof tiles and the fir beams that had been floated down from the Santa Lucia Mountains. With the roof gone, the adobe brick walls soon became moldering piles of mud, though most of the burnt-brick structures remained standing.

Cattle was butchered under this tree. A nearby sign says that "Until recent times large mounds of bones marked this spot."

Fortunately, the destruction happened late enough in history that there were numerous photos of the former buildings available. (Wikimedia has a nice selection.) In 1903, do-gooders organized the California Historic Landmarks League and, among their other projects, began to restore the church and its outbuildings to their former glory. One neat trick: they simply dug up the melted adobe, placed it in forms, and re-used the reconstituted bricks to rebuild the walls on the same foundations. Restoration of the church itself was completed by 1908, but much remained to be done.

In 1928 the Franciscans returned, though many of the buildings were still in ruins. In 1949 the Hearst Foundation kicked in $50,000 for the final push (you'll hear more about their interest in a minute), and the church was rededicated in 1950.

San Antonio as I Knew It

It has been nearly half a lifetime since I visited San Antonio. The description here is almost certainly outdated in many respects, as excavation and restoration has been ongoing. However, the broad outlines--such as the mission's location on a military base--certainly remain.

A one-horse-power grist mill. (Get it?)

Most of the California missions are not too far from U.S. Highway 101 (which is labeled Interstate 5 south of Los Angeles). But to reach San Antonio (from the south), you have to turn off the highway north of Bradley and drive 20-some miles of gently curving county road running through equally-gently rolling grasslands dotted with oaks (my favorite type of landscape), through the town of Lockwood (population in 2010: 379) to Jolon (population 401). Jolon is located on Fort Hunter Liggett, though the guard gate is just west of town, on Mission Road. Drive six more miles up that road and you'll reach the mission.

Perhaps because of the military presence, perhaps because of the power of a previous owner, or perhaps because the highway has passed it by, the setting of Mission San Antonio probably looks much as it did a couple of hundred years ago. The afore-mentioned oaks and grasslands are the most noticeable feature, and the mission is nestled among the foothills of the Santa Lucias.

Incidentally: I once drove my gigantic full-sized 1986 Chevy Suburban SUV over the Santa Lucia Range on the road from the mission to the coast. San Antonio, along with San Miguel to the south and Soledad to the north, is one of the few missions trapped on the east side of a mountain range away from the coast. And what a range! The Santa Lucias are called "the steepest coastal slope in the contiguous United States," and my trip over them followed a treacherous, winding road which is described as having "precipitous drops... unprotected by guard rails." It's true! Its 24-mile length peaks out at 2,759 feet; it's quite a drop from there to the coast. I swear I was looking down on birds, and they were being blown over backward by the wind!

The fountain stands in the weedy courtyard.

At any rate, once you drive out from Jolon to the mission, you might as well be in the 19th century. The grounds hold the church and grist mill mentioned before, as well as: a cobble-stoned threshing floor, where hoofed animals would stomp the grain; an elevated saw, arranged so one man could operate it from above and another from below for cutting planks from logs; and a tree under which cattle used to be butchered, as a prominent sign explains. In addition to the water-powered mill, there is another that was powered by a horse or donkey.

The inside of the buildings is delightfully painted, with trompe l'oeil around the doorways, and inside the museum there's an interesting, large hand marked with signs for directing the Indians in singing. The inner courtyard, which seems to have been greatly improved since my last visit in the 90s, has a central fountain. When I was there the courtyard was weedy but with a profusion of beautiful golden California poppies. I'm fairly sure it's all been prettified now, as I have read there are re-enactments and "Mission-era food" available there, at least during the yearly fiesta (June 13).

Weird San Antonio

No old building is worth a dang without a ghost story or two. San Antonio has several, mostly of the "mysterious guys in robes" type (although there's one that claims these robed guys were flying).

But the story that caught my attention is a sort of two-for-one. It's one headless woman with two back stories.

A pretty door in the courtyard features trompe l'oeil.

In one version, the principals have names and an arrival date and everything. In 1898 Michael and Alice Halloran and their little daughter Clara arrived in Jolon on the way from Philadelphia to their homestead on the Nacimiento River. As it was springtime, the locals warned them that the river was too dangerous to cross. But Michael, ignoring Alice's pleadings, and suspicious that he was somehow being swindled, forged ahead.

And capsized. Alice was beheaded by the horses' reins, and her headless body is buried on what is now Fort Hunter Liggett. Soldiers have reported seeing her floating around looking for her head--and for Clara, who was lost down the river in the accident.

The other story is a bit vaguer. An Indian woman married a prospector. He went out a-prospectin' and came home to find her in the arms of her Indian lover. He killed them both, and her white horse to boot, and chopped them all up. She is seen riding around on the re-membered horse, looking for her head--which was buried separately. (Another variation swaps the race of the husband and the ill-fated lover. Whatever.)

In 1975, four soldiers chased after the Headless Horsewoman in a jeep. Around 20 "credible" sightings have been reported.


You Mentioned the Name "Hearst"?

I believe this is the side door to the chapel.

So, if you take that wicked drive over the Santa Lucias, and turn left when you hit the coast, in 36 slow miles you'll be at San Simeon, gateway to Hearst Castle. Built in the early 20th century by Julia Morgan, architect for the fabulously wealthy (and not a little unscrupulous) newspaper publisher and politician William Randolph Hearst (1863-1951), this model of ostentation was not Hearst's only holding in the area. Back on the other side of the Lucias, he had begun buying up old Spanish land grants around Mission San Antonio, and had Morgan design for him a building called "The Hacienda," meant to serve as the headquarters for his ranching operations.

In 1940, taking advantage of America's war efforts (and not for the first time--his desire to sell newspapers is cited as one of the causes of the Spanish-American War in 1898), he sold his land to the U.S. Army as a training ground. This was the beginning of Fort Hunter Liggett. It's unclear whether Hearst ever actually owned the land the mission sits on, but the old "ranch headquarters," which today is operated by the Army (through a concessionaire) as the Hearst Hacienda Lodge, stands about a half-mile from the mission church.

There's a peculiar contrast between the dazzle of the Hearst money (they are today America's ninth-richest family) and the faux-rustic ambiance of the original Hacienda. It was built on the ruins of a ranch house that had burned in a 1920s fire. The Hacienda as Morgan designed it had no electricity; a phone line was run over the mountains from the Castle. Heat came from fireplaces and wood stoves, light from lanterns and candles, and water from a well and a cistern.

A memorial to California's first marriage is painted on the wall.

But: there was an airstrip for such high-toned guests as Spencer Tracy, Clark Gable, and Errol Flynn--not to mention President Herbert Hoover, and Hearst's mistress, the actress Marion Davies. There were fiestas in the Californio style, complete with mariachi bands. To his credit, though, Hearst prohibited hunting on the property.

A Somber Note

Well, I started this piece out vaguely hinting that I disapproved of the actions of the Spanish in California. Oh, I'm grateful that they came: I was born there. But their treatment of the natives was shameful if not outright criminal. It seems the whole enterprise might have operated on a more benevolent, less violent footing.

And it isn't just in the distant past that the white people looked down on the "savages." One of my primary sources for background in this episode was a pamphlet printed by the mission; though it lacks a date, it was probably written around 1956, and was being reprinted at least as late as the 1970s.

A hand-painted hand painted on the wall was used as a guide to singing.

In the "Epilogue," the author, a Franciscan named Regis Rohder, approvingly quotes the words of John S. McGroarty, author of the highly-romanticized 1911 Mission Play (for which a playhouse was built not far from where I grew up). In the "Foreword" to a book by another Franciscan, Owen Da Silva, McGroarty wrote:

A race of aborigines, the most wretched in the world, slothful and ignorant, were taught to work, and to work well, at all the known European trades of that time -- a useless race that was made useful, a naked race that was clothed, a hungry race that was fed, a heathen race lifted out of spiritual darkness into the great white light of God.

Let me repeat: such slander was still being promulgated by churchmen well into my lifetime.

Hmph again.


Well, that's all for this Mission Monday episode! Until next time, may you and your loved ones and all sentient beings be well and happy.

Adios, Amigos!

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In the next episode: Egypt's pyramids are the most famous, but such structures are really a world-wide phenomenon. In Japan, they took the form of kofun, or "ancient tombs." Let's take a look at a few!