Famous Missions of California - W. H. Hudson

Of the Downfall of the Missions of California

Such in briefest outline, is the story of the planting of the twenty-one missions of Alta California. This story, as we have seen, brings us down to the year 1823. But by this time, as we follow the chronicles, our attention has already begun to be diverted from the forces which still made for growth and success to those which ere long were to co-operate for the complete undoing of the mission system and the ruin of all its work.

Perhaps it was in the nature of things (if one may venture here to employ a phrase too often used out of mere idleness or ignorance) that the undertaking which year by year had been carried forward with so much energy and success, should after a while come to a standstill; and the commonest observation of life will suffice to remind us that when progress ceases, retrogression is almost certain to set in. The immense zeal and unflagging enthusiasm of Junipero Serra and his immediate followers could not be transmitted by any rite or formula to the men upon whose shoulders their responsibilities came presently to rest. Men they were, of course, of widely varying characters and capabilities—some, unfortunately, altogether unworthy both morally and mentally, of their high calling; many, on the contrary, genuine embodiments of the great principles of their order—humane, benevolent, faithful in the discharge of daily duty, patient alike in labour and trial, and careful administrators of the practical affairs which lay within their charge. But without injustice it may be said of them that for the most part they possessed little of the tremendous personal force of their predecessors, and a generous endowment of such personal force was as needful now as it ever had been.

Mission of San Luis Rey


Not unless we wish to emulate Southey's learned friend, who wrote whole volumes of hypothetical history in the subjunctive mood, it is hardly necessary for present purposes to discuss the internal changes which, had the missions been left to themselves, might in the long run have brought about their decay. For as a matter of fact the missions were not left to themselves. The closing chapter of their history, to which we have now to turn, is mainly concerned, not with their spiritual management, or with their success or failure in the work, they had been given to do, but with the general movement, of political events, and the upheavals which preceded the final conquest of California by the United States.

In considering the attitude of the civil authorities towards the mission system, and their dealings with it, we must remember that the Spanish government had from the first anticipated the gradual transformation of the missions into pueblos and parishes, and with this, the substitution of the regular clergy for the Franciscan padres. This was part of the general plan of colonization, of which the mission settlements were regarded as forming only the beginning. Their work was to bring the heathen into the fold of the church, to subdue them to the conditions of civilization, to instruct them in the arts of peace, and thus to prepare them for citizenship; and this done, it was purposed that they should be straightway removed from the charge of the fathers and placed under civil jurisdiction. No decisive step towards the accomplishment of this design was, however, taken for many years; and meanwhile, the fathers jealously resisted every effort of the government to interfere with their prerogatives. At length, with little comprehension of the nature of the materials out of which citizens were thus to be manufactured, and with quite as little realization of the fact that the paternal methods of education adopted by the padres were calculated, not to train their neophytes to self-government, but to keep them in a state of perpetual tutelage, the Spanish Cortes decreed that all missions which had then been in existence ten years should at once be turned over to bishops, and the Indians attached to them made subject to civil authority. Though promulgated in 1813, this decree was not published in California till 1820, and even then was practically a dead letter. Two years later, California became a province of the Mexican Empire, and in due course the new government turned its attention to the missions, in 1833 ordering their complete secularization. The atrocious mishandling by both Spain and Mexico of the funds by which they had been kept up, and the large demands made later upon them for provisions and money, had by this time made serious inroads upon their resources notwithstanding which they had faithfully persisted in their work. The new law now dealt them a crushing blow. Ten years of great confusion followed, and then an effort was made to save them from the complete ruin by which they were threatened by a proclamation ordering that the more important of them, twelve in number, should be restored to the padres. Nothing came of this, however; the collapse continued; and in 1846, the sale of the mission buildings was decreed by the Departmental Assembly. When in the August of that year, the American flag was unfurled at Monterey, everything connected with the mission their lands, their priests, their neophytes, their management—was in a state of seemingly hopeless chaos. Finally General Kearney issued a declaration to the effect that "the missions and their property should remain under the charge of the Catholic priests. . . until the titles to the lands should be decided by proper authority." But of whatever temporary service this measure may have been, it was of course altogether powerless to breathe fresh life into a system already in the last stages of decay. The mission-buildings were crumbling into ruins. Their lands were neglected their converts for the most part dead or scattered. The rule of the padres was over. The Spanish missions in Alta California were things of the past.

In these late days of a civilization so different in all its essential elements from that which the Franciscans laboured so strenuously to establish on the Pacific Coast, we may think of the fathers as we will, and pass what judgment we see fit upon their work. But be that what it may, our hearts cannot fail to be touched and stirred by the pitiful story of those true servants of God who, in the hour of ultimate disaster, firmly refused to be separated from their flocks.

Among the ruins of San Luis Obispo, in 1842, De Mofras found the oldest Spanish priest then left in California, who, after sixty years of unremitting toil, was then reduced to such abject poverty that he was forced to sleep on a hide, drink from a horn, and feed upon strips of meat dried in the sun. Yet this faithful creature still continued to share the little he possessed with the children of the few Indians who lingered in the is about the deserted church; and when efforts were made to induce him to seek some other spot where he might find refuge and rest, his answer was that he meant to die at his post. The same writer has recorded an even more tragic case from the annals of La Soledad. Long after the settlement there had been abandoned, and when the buildings were falling to pieces, an old priest, Father Sarria, still remained to minister to the bodily and physical wants of a handful of wretched natives who yet haunted the neighborhood, and whom he absolutely refused to forsake. One Sunday morning in August, 1833, after his habit, he gathered his neophytes together in what was once the church, and began, according to his custom, the celebration of the mass. But age, suffering, and privation had by this time told fatally upon him. Hardly had he commenced the service, when his strength gave way. He stumbled upon the crumbling altar, and died, literally of starvation, in the arms of those to whom for thirty years he had given freely whatever he had to give. Surely these simple records of Christ-like devotion will live in the tender remembrance of all who revere the faith that, linked with whatever creed, manifests itself in good works, the love that spends itself in service, the quiet heroism that endures to the end.