Outpost in Search of Souls


On a cool morning in the early 1800s, the Franciscan turned to face his congregation at Mission San Fernando. As he displayed the consecrated Host and the chalice of consecrated wine, the friar looked out at dozens of rapt faces, and joy filled his heart. Although he did it gladly, for the greater glory of God, the priest had suffered mightily in coming to this remote outpost of the Christian world. To make converts, the friar had had to use all his eloquence to persuade the local Indians to give up their traditional ways. He had no doubt that the gifts he offered his flock, crowned by the prospect of Eternal Life, were superior to anything in their pre-mission lives, but he had to labor ceaselessly in the face of their indifference, even their hostility. But saying Mass every morning renewed his faith, strengthened his resolve and reminded him of the glory of his mission. During Mass, he devoutly believed, the bread and wine he blessed became the body and blood of Christ, who had died for the sins of the world. It was this miracle, with its promise of redemption for all, that was the mission’s reason for being. And it was the friar’s faith in that promise that sustained him as he struggled to turn his hard little corner of the world into another Eden.

Mission San Fernando was established 200 years ago, on Sept. 8, 1797, by Franciscan Fray Fermin Francisco de Lasuen. The 17th of the 21 missions of Alta California, it was dedicated to San Fernando, a saint and the third king of Spain.

As Msgr. Francis J. Weber, history administrator of the mission and archivist for the Diocese of Los Angeles, explains, the missions were founded in the Catholic belief that “we have the message of salvation and want to share it with those who don’t.”

The Spanish began proselytizing even before Pope Paul III declared, in 1537, that Native Americans were fully human beings with souls that should be saved, a matter debated by theologians since Columbus brought the first Indian back to Spain.


But, as Msgr. Weber points out, the missionaries were practical men as well as idealists. They expected certain environmental criteria to be met before they unpacked their holy books and chalices and set up a mission.


In addition to being close to as many as 20,000 Indians, the San Fernando site, in what is now Mission Hills, had other advantages. It boasted four springs and wood for building and fuel in the nearby Santa Susana Mountains, which protected the backside of the mission from attack.

The new mission also encompassed more than 120,000 acres of nearby ranchland, including what is today the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library near Simi Valley.

Two months after its founding, Mission San Fernando had a makeshift church and more than 40 Indian converts, called neophytes. By 1804, the Indian population was almost 1,000.

Today the San Fernando Mission is a tranquil refuge in the crowded northeast Valley and a museum and repository for mission-era artifacts. It is often hushed, except for the chattering schoolchildren who visit by the thousands and the occasional screech of one of the resident pea fowl. But less than a decade after its founding, San Fernando was both a growing Christian community and a bustling commercial enterprise, conducting a brisk trade in cattle, hides, tallow and other mission-made goods with the nearby pueblo of Los Angeles.

Terrible suffering lay ahead for its Indians, including their decimation by disease, the loss of much of their own culture to an alien one, and their exploitation, more often by secular forces than religious ones. And even as the missionaries thought eternal thoughts, the mission itself proved to be ephemeral, doomed by history, including the expansionist dream of the young United States.

The local Indians were hunter-gatherers whose lives depended on their ability to find acorns and other local foods. According to Gloria Ricci Lothrop, who holds the W. P. Whitsett chair in California history at Cal State Northridge, some Indians may have been drawn to the missions by the promise of three meals a day, while others may have been attracted by European technology, which included gunpowder and ocean-going ships. Still others came into the missions to join members of their extended families who had already joined up.


The Indians’ transformation began as soon as they set foot inside the mission walls. Saving souls was the missionaries’ Job 1, but they also had a cultural agenda. The unself-conscious near-nudity of the Native Americans was an affront both to Spanish style and Franciscan modesty. However well-adapted to the climate, native breechcloths and G-strings would never constitute proper dress in the eyes of the friars. “They put them into clothes right away,” says Lothrop.

At the local mission, the Indian men dressed in smocks and trousers, the women in chemises, full skirts and rebozos, the Mexican-style shawls that can be pulled over the head in church. Red sashes became a mission fashion for both genders.

Absolutely certain of the rightness of their views, the friars also set out to change the sexual practices of the Indians. As Lothrop explains, the local Indians were less prudish about sex than the European friars, but “the Native Americans were extremely sensitive to the ecological balance.” Acutely aware of how many individuals a piece of land could support, the Indians limited their population by practicing forms of birth control. “They had a diaphragm made of mistletoe, and they were familiar with a variety of abortifacients,” mostly herbs, Lothrop says.

The friars were predictably horrified. They tried to limit nonmarital sexual contact involving the Indians by segregating single men and women. Unmarried women (all those 8 and older) were locked up at night in their own building. The padre was in charge of the key.


A typical day at Mission San Fernando was governed by the same religious timetable that shaped that of the friars. At sunrise the mission bells announced morning prayers, followed by Mass. Afterward, families, single men and single women, had breakfast in their respective quarters. The mission diet was quite different from the found foods and game that the Indians traditionally ate. Wheat, barley or corn mush, called azole, was a mission staple, as was pozole, barley and beans, mixed with meat and vegetables.

The most important work of the mission was instructing the Indians in their new faith. According to Msgr. Weber, the process of religious instruction took as long as two years and was concentrated on the young. The principal text was a catechism, written in Spanish because the Indians had dozens of languages, none of them written, and because their languages tended to have few words for the abstractions, such as the Trinity, that Catholicism is grounded in.

The catechism asked, and answered, such basic questions as “Who made me?” “God made me"--the principles of faith that Catholic children continue to be drilled on. As Msgr. Weber points out, mission catechisms were typically used until they fell apart, but Mission San Fernando has a rare surviving one, in good condition, on display. When the padre thought his charges were ready, he administered the sacrament of Baptism.



But the missions were never purely religious communities. They had to produce virtually everything they needed, from food and clothing to roof tiles and other building materials. When a new mission was founded, the existing missions sent seed, stock and other supplies. In the early years, each mission’s store of wine, olive oil, metal tools and other necessities was replenished or supplemented by the annual arrival of supply ships from elsewhere in the Spanish Empire. Political turmoil throughout Europe in the early 1800s disrupted the system, making self-sufficiency more critical than ever after the supply ships stopped coming in 1810.

By necessity, the missions became trade schools where the Indians acquired skills to sustain their new community. The men drove cattle. Both men and women planted and harvested crops. Women used their traditional skills to make baskets for storage, sometimes using local asphalt to make them watertight. The Indians also shared their knowledge of the healing properties of local plants with the friars.

Grapes were grown and wine made. Leather was tanned and used to make everything from shoes to thongs that were often used in construction in lieu of scarce spikes and nails. Women processed wool, wove cloth and did all kinds of sewing. They also made pots and tiles of clay. Men worked metal, fashioning everything from bear traps to bits and other riding gear inlaid with silver. (Mission San Fernando became famous for the wonderful things produced by its forges, including the elaborate grilles that covered its windows.) Tallow was made into candles.

Cattle made San Fernando one of the wealthiest of the missions. In its best year--1819--the mission, including its outlying ranches, had 12,800 cattle, 7,800 sheep and 780 horses among its livestock, the third-largest herd among the missions. San Fernando traded with the other missions, but its best market was the nearby pueblo. On the road to Los Angeles, Mission San Fernando also became a popular stop for travelers, who enjoyed the beauty of its garden and the amenities of its Long Building, or Convento.


The friars also instructed the Indians in European-style music and other fine arts. Every mission had a choir, and San Fernando had a number of gifted visual artists as well.

As art historian Norman Neuerberg points out, one of San Fernando’s treasures was its 14 Stations of the Cross, paintings on canvas done by native artists that depict the events leading up to Christ’s crucifixion. Probably painted in the 1820s and now at Mission San Gabriel, the stations were done collaboratively by Native Americans who included self-portraits among the faces.

Native artists also did the unique paintings in the mission’s Convento, the elegant structure punctuated with 21 Roman arches where the padres lived and visitors to the Valley could spend the night. The motifs are “purely Indian,” Neuerberg notes. One of the best, now plastered over, shows an Indian dressed in buckskin hunting a deer.

According to historian William McCawley, who has written a book about the first, indigenous Angelenos, the mission Indians worked 30 or 40 hours a week. The day ended about 8 p.m., with the ringing of the mission bells.


On Saturdays, women did the wash. “Hotly contested races and athletic events were held after Mass on Sundays,” McCawley reports. Native dances and games were allowed on feast days, and the Indians could usually return to their villages for two weeks after every five weeks at the mission.

But the Indians continued to cherish their freedom and frequently ran away. When caught, they were forcibly returned and flogged or otherwise punished. As McCawley points out, these corporal punishments were very different from the natives’ own system of punishing wrongdoers, which usually were nonviolent and involved making reparations.

Loneliness was perhaps the greatest hardship for the friars of the San Fernando Mission, who often served alone.

In a study of the 14 friars who led San Fernando, USC history professor emeritus Doyce Nunis found that most were hard-working men of God, with a few saints and sinners mixed in.


Among the most pious was Marcos Antonio Victoria. In the judgment of his superiors, Victoria, who served from 1816 to 1820, had mediocre skills as an administrator but was an almost angelic man, much loved by the Indians.

At least one San Fernando friar, Vicente Pascual Oliva, had a serious drinking problem. In residence from 1814 to 1815, Oliva was relieved of his duties and sent to Mission San Diego. There, with the help of his fellow priests, he beat the bottle and became an active missionary once more.

San Fernando’s certified sinner was Fray Blaz Ordaz, who served from 1837 to 1847. Described in church documents as a “notorious profligate,” the priest had at least two children. According to Nunis, the record shows that Ordaz baptized his forbidden offspring himself. Ordaz was as cavalier about the truth as his vow of chastity. In the baptismal register, he described the children’s father as “unknown.”



One tragic result of contact with Europeans was the death of thousands of local Indians, who lacked immunity to measles, influenza, tuberculosis and other diseases the newcomers carried. As Lothrop points out, certain missionary practices contributed to Indian mortality. One was the imposition of European-style housing. The local Indians lived in temporary houses made of saplings and other plant materials. When one of these shelters got dirty or infested, the Indians burned it down and built another.

But in the missions, the Indians were crammed into permanent buildings that soon became notorious for the number of fleas and other pests they sheltered. The friars exacerbated the problem by encouraging the Indians to give up their traditional daily baths and frequent trips to the sweat lodge.

But, as Nunis says, the European influence on local health was not all bad. The mission fountain provided a dependable source of clean water. And although the mission had no indoor plumbing, it practiced back-trenching, a sanitary method of disposing of human waste that had been tested in the field of battle by the ancient Romans.

The Spanish also understood the value of quarantine. And at the beginning of the 19th century, according to Nunis, they began vaccinating against smallpox throughout their empire. In this first international public-health effort, the Spanish recruited orphans to produce antibodies. Promised good adoptive parents at the end of his or her journey, the child was inoculated with the milder cowpox pathogen. After a pustule formed, it was burst and used to vaccinate the next child. By passing the pathogen from one child to the next, the Spanish were able to maintain its effectiveness even during long sea voyages. As a result of quarantine and vaccination, Nunis says, “There were no cases of smallpox in California until 1837, when a Yankee brought it in.”


But there is no doubt that the mission priests performed Last Rites on thousands of Native Americans and their descendants. The burial register at San Fernando includes 2,425 names, beginning in 1798 and ending in 1852 with the interment of an unnamed child.

The missions were never meant to be permanent. The plan was to have the Indians become Christians and, eventually, taxpaying citizens of the Spanish empire. According to the original timetable, all mission lands were to be distributed among the Indians after a period of 10 years.

That was never to be. When the Mexican government “secularized” Mission San Fernando in 1834 (having become independent of Spain in 1822), most of the land went, not to the Indians, but to local speculators. Andres Pico, brother of California Gov. Pio Pico, acquired the San Fernando Mission. According to Msgr. Weber, “Pico sold everything he found here, including the tiles off the roof.”

Some of the mission Indians were able to use their wits and marketable skills to thrive during the post-mission period. But many suffered terribly, working under awful conditions for slave wages in the homes and businesses of local landowners. The coming of the Americans, most of whom had no interest in Indian souls, was often a disaster for the local Native Americans.


In 1850, Los Angeles passed a notorious ordinance that allowed any Indian picked up for drunkenness to be auctioned off to the highest bidder for a week of labor. At the end of the week, most of the involuntary worker’s pay went to the city. The rest was paid to the Native American in alcohol. According to McCawley, Indians “enmeshed in this vicious, self-perpetuating cycle usually died within one to three years.”

The mission itself fell into disrepair as it changed hands and uses over the next half-century.

Between 1857 and 1861, the western section of the Convento served as a stop on the Butterfield Stage Line. In 1861, the U.S. Land Commission returned the mission lands and buildings to the Catholic Church.

In the 1880s the Convento was leased to the Porter Land & Water Co., which used it for storage and to house ranch workers. In 1896 the increasingly decrepit mission was being used as a pig farm. Visitors described how tragic it was to see the once-proud mission in ruins, its church roofless, its adobe melting with each winter downpour.


As artists began to sketch and sell drawings of the missions, including San Fernando, in the second half of the 19th century, a nostalgic concern for them began to grow. Locally, journalist Charles Fletcher Lummis and his Landmark Club began to campaign for the restoration of San Fernando and the other missions. In August 1916, 6,000 local preservationists paid $1 a piece for candles that they lit and carried throughout the darkened mission after nightfall. Another major restoration of the mission was undertaken during the 1930s. It was restored again after the catastrophic earthquakes of 1971 and 1994.

Today, once more, a priest says morning Mass at Mission San Fernando. Two hundred years after its founding, the mission is both a sanctuary from secular tumult and a window on an idealistic but troubled past. If you look at the exhibits and read the explanatory texts, you may catch a glimpse of long ago, when Fernanden~os and friars, exploiters and saints, struggled to give birth to the San Fernando Valley.

This week, The Times Valley Edition will publish a series of stories exploring the past, present and future of the Valley as the San Fernando Mission marks its 200th anniversary.