95. San Antonio de Pala: A Sub-Mission
to Reach the Natives of the Interior
By Miguel Pérez
Back in the begining of the 19th century, when Mission San Luis Rey de Francia was flourishing and its Franciscan friars wanted to extend their reach to more Native Americans, they decided to build an "asistencia" (sub-mission) some 23 miles further inland, in a native village called Pala.
They decided to name it after Saint Anthony, and thus, San Antonio de Pala was founded on June 13, 1816 by Padre Antonio Peyri, who had guided San Luis Rey for many successful years.
“His ability as an architect, and the manager of the vast farming enterprises and various industrial activities at the mission became legendary,” according to the asistencia exhibits.
While the California missions are generally built within a few miles of the Pacific Ocean, some created these "asistencias" some 20-30 miles further eastward. Asistencias were in fact smaller missions where Franciscan friars led smaller native communities.
Most of the asistencias are no longer active, or accessible to the public. But the one considered most active is San Antonio de Pala, which is still in use as an active Catholic church, serving the Pala Indian Reservation.
From a report written by Father Peyri in 1827, we learn that, “at a distance of seven leagues toward the northeast, at the entry of the Sierra Madre, the mission (San Luis Rey) has a station called San Antonio de Pala, with a church, dwelling and granaries and with a few fields where wheat, corn, beans, garbanzos, and other leguminous plants are grown. There is also a vineyard and an orchard of various fruits and olives, for which there is sufficient irrigation, the water being from the stream which runs to the vicinity of the mission.”
In fact, according to the asistencia’s exhibits, things went well at San Antonio de Pala “even when the storm of secularization in 1834 was ruining the “mother” mission of San Luis Rey,” because “the greed of the settlers had not yet reached inland to disturb the peace and happiness of the Indians prospering in the shadow of the cross.”
Nevertheless, in August of 1835, with Peyri gone back to Spain, Father Buenaventura Fortuni surrendered San Luis Rey and all its properties to Mexican authorities.
By 1846, when Mexican Governor Pio Pico sold the entire San Luis Rey mission property (including Pala), the Franciscans were gone and the asistencia buildings were stripped of valuables and left for ruin.
"Abandonment of the missions to the avarice of the rancheros and the influx of white settlers reduced to ruins most of the missions buildings and dispersed the faithful Indians," asistencia exhibits explain. "Tiles and timbers were torn from many of the roofs and carted away for construction of buildings elsewhere.”
Exhibits also explain that adobe walls deteriorate rather quickly if they are left without a roof, which is precisely what happened. "During those dark days, the light dimmed over Pala Mission," the exhibit explains, "but it was not extinguished.”
The asistencia kept getting rebuilt by the natives of the region. Even after the chapel was severely damaged by a Christmas Day 1899 earthquake, it was restored by 1903. Other parts of the mission, also damaged by floods in 1916, including the bell tower, were rebuilt by the end of that year. And again in 1954, the main quadrangle of mission buildings was fully restored by priests and Native Americans, using abode bricks recovered from crumbled ruins.
Although only an asistencia, the "Pala Mission" of today still has many unique features. Its chapel features a wooden crucifix, hand-carved in Mexico in the 17th century! Its cemetery has the graves of some original mission neophytes. Its masterpiece reproduction of an image of Jesus' face (see below), is a hidden treasure. Its freestanding bell tower, separated from the quadrangle of mission buildings and designed by Father Peyri, is a marvel of architecture, inspired by a similar campanario in Juarez, Mexico, and the only one of its kind in California. Its cactus on top of its bell tower (see below) has a very special meaning.
"The Bell Tower is truly a symbol of Pala and of the Indian neophytes who built it and then so carefully preserved it throughout the years," according to an asistencia exhibit. "The bells are the original ones, and have been call the Indians to prayer since 1816. Their simple loud tones speak a clear, understandable language to the faithful."
As with other mission museums, if you take the time to read the information accompanying each exhibit, you feel as if you are walking inside a wonderful book. But if you are in a hurry, and you only look at the exhibits, you miss the most important lessons to be learned from your visit. (Some people do the same thing on Facebook, lol, when they only look at the initial posting and don't bother to click on the link that leads to an article and many more photos).
But if you are here to learn, you will be overwhelmed with fascinating information, especially about Native Americans! Some people apparently come to these "Spanish missions" expecting to see only Spanish history and relics, and then they act surprised when the see that so many of the exhibits are about Native American history and relics, especially from the Spanish mission period.
It should not be surprising. After all, these are the people who built, lived and worshiped in these missions. Like many mission museums, this one - featuring items assembled in 1956-59 - offers a rich collection of Native American art (including statues of saints) and relics from the Spanish period.
And the information shared with these exhibits is usually more fascinating than even the item on display.
Here you learn that since Pala was an asistencia to Mission San Luis Rey, their Indians were also called Luiseños; and that the Pala Luiseños belonged to three different groups of natives "with rather marked differences of language, tradition and custom."
"The Franciscan fathers noted the superior level of aboriginal culture, peaceful disposition, and intelligence of the Pala Native Americans and their neighbors," according to one exhibit. "They made beautiful baskets, a functional pottery, and stone implements and were quick to learn European arts."
Here you learn that the Native Americans of this area were primarily seed-gatherers, "utilizing the meal ground in stone mortars from plant seeds laboriously harvested by the women." Of course, when possible, they ate deer, rabbits, and ground squirrels and even some fish from nearby streams. But you learn that Weewish, or acorn mush, "was probably their most staple food."
You learn that their shelter, or Kish, was partly subterranean and made of tree branches that were thatched together with tules and grasses. You learn that they wore clothes and decorative ornaments made from plant materials, and that on festive occasions, they painted their faces and bodies with red, yellow and blue pigments.
Here you learn that prior to Catholicism, the natives believed in a supreme being, a very powerful God “dictating the ritual of their religion and the conduct of daily life.”
That exhibit explains that, “On the whole, it can be said that there was little opposition by the natives in accepting Christianity. Some older Catholic Native Americans have stated: ‘We believe in the same thing before, only we called God by a different name..’”
A special treat
If you stare into Jesus' eyes, they will open!
In my opinion, one of the biggest treasures to be found in this museum is this 1955 original monotype (copy) on cloth by renown Mexican artist Raul Anguiano of the image of Christ's face originally created in 1874 as an engraving by Austrian artist Gabriel Cornelius Ritter von Max.
This image, depicting the reflection of Christ after coming down from the cross, has been reproduced many times and given different names: "St. Veronica's Handkerchief" or "Veil of Veronica." In this museum, perhaps because that's what Anguiano called his monotype, it is called "The Peace of the Resurrection."
The Great Hispanic American History Tour travels north to Mission San Juan Capistrano. Do you know why this mission is know? Because of the beautiful undocumented immigrants who fly there every year.