"'Tell me more about the ghosts," Msgr. Francis Weber, rector of the San Fer nando Mission, demanded of an old friend who paid him a visit one cold and windy night recently to search for presences from the past in the 173-year-old mission.
"What's this new invention?" Weber asked his guest, a bouncy, long-haired man of about 30 in a blue blazer, turtleneck sweater and crepe-soled shoes.
The man answered cautiously.
"Really, nobody knows what a ghost is," he said. "In parapsychology we're really working on a makeshift basis. All we know is a bunch of theories. People who say they know what ghosts are--that's not true."
He was Richard Senate, history buff and ghost hunter. In the Ventura area, Senate has established a reputation. People call him when they think they hear ghosts. He tells them who the ghost is and is usually able to assure them that it means no harm.
To show how it is done, Senate accepted an invitation to an after-hours tour of the mission.
Weber said he didn't believe in ghosts but would be delighted to go along for the publicity. He has known Senate for several years from his days in Ventura.
The expedition got started in the convento, the original structure of the mission. It was built in 1812 of adobe and timber. It served over the years as rectory for the parish priests and quarters for visiting bishops.
Today the building is more of a museum than a spiritual center. It has been restored to nearly its original appearance and is open for visitors during the day. It has the smell of centuries and is decorated with religious objects of the Spanish period of California history, including an ancient pipe organ and the bed where the visiting bishops slept.
Under the shadows cast by wrought iron chandeliers, these objects made excellent props for a ghost hunt.
To help, Senate had brought along a psychic named Debbie Christenson and an electronic enthusiast named Brian Black.
He declined to predict what they would find. He said that might prejudice the psychic.
"Well, let's go along with the rules," Weber said in a tone of amiable skepticism.
Still, he confessed that he believes in psychic phenomena.
"I firmly believe in ESP," he said. "I believe before the year 2000 we'll have investigated that whole area so well that we can transmit ideas."
Weber led the way up a small stairway into the darkness of the second floor. He groped in the dark for a light switch. A single bare bulb went on.
The party walked through several rooms without finding much.
They were about to leave when Black stopped and thrust a tape recorder into the air.
"Do you feel that tingle," he asked Christenson.
"Uh-huh," she said.
Christenson, in a plaid skirt and simple sweater, looked more like a schoolgirl than a spiritualist. Her nose was sniffling and her hands were blue. But her concentration was intense.
"I'm getting flashes of things now," she said. "You know, it's strong. I'm getting flashes of people up here."
"Are you picking up any emotional?" Senate asked. "Happy? Sad?"
"Distraught," Christenson said. "Something that is going wrong."
"Do you get a name?"
"I'm getting a . . .. It's a man who's about 5-foot-10. Fairly recent, I imagine; 1901 maybe."
"Do you get a name?"
"I get initials."
"What are they?"
"Would you like to tell us your name?" Black asked, offering his mike to the air. "Talk to my recorder."
"I keep getting animals," Christenson said. "There's cats moving all over this place."
Christenson said she wanted to go outside to the colonnade on the north side of the building. While walking past the arches earlier she had felt something, she said.
It was colder outside. But Christenson's concentration intensified.
"Oh," she said. "I got lots of kitty cats. I am getting the presence of a lady. She used to be here every day. I get the feeling of a lady coming here every day and feeding them and petting them. It wasn't a long time ago."
"An older woman. She wasn't old when she first started coming, but it got difficult to . . . . Oh, she's standing near here. She wants to be here. She is here."
The image reminded Weber of something.
"Up till eight or nine years ago, there was a lady who came to the end of the colonnade and left out food for about 30 cats," he said. "She'd been a bit of a nuisance. But she kept the place clean. The rector worked out a deal that she could come if she kept the place clean. I don't remember what happened to her. She must have just died."
"I'm feeling very cold, and I don't think it's anything spiritual," Senate said.
Weber led the group across a courtyard to the social hall.
Inside, they lingered a few minutes, discussing the evening.
Weber still didn't believe in ghosts.
"But there was a cat lady," he said. "I suppose through ESP she could be picking up something."
Senate said most ghost stories don't actually prove true.
"Most of the haunted houses I've been to have not been haunted," he said. "A lot of the time, people really want there to be a ghost."
He also said he never gets involved in radical practices, such as exorcism.
"Exorcism?" Weber said. "I believe in that."