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Mission West - Fr. Fabian Stanley Parmisano, OP -- Chapter 1.1

Dec 1, 1999

Mission West
The Western Dominican Province 1850-1966
by Fr. Fabian Stan Parmisano, OP

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San Francisco was a genteel, laid-back sort of town from its early Spanish beginnings in the 1700s to the drifting in of pioneering Europeans and U.S. citizens. But shortly after the cry "Gold!" was heard from Sutter's Mill in January, 1848, even the most sober and settled of its citizens caught the fever and joined in the rush.

Overnight carpenters dropped their hammers, masons their trowels, bakers their loaves, clerks their pens, to rush to the American River. Schools were closed as both teachers and pupils deserted; shopkeepers hung signs on their doors -- "Gone to the Diggings," "Off to the Mines" -- and disappeared. By June 15 [1849] San Francisco was a ghost town, with houses and shops empty, and all who could walk, ride, run, or crawl rushing toward the Sierras."[2]

A ghost town, yes, but not for long. A year later San Francisco was alive again with those returning from the mines, rich or as poor as ever, and with late comers from near and far stopping off to cash in. The town soon became "the City," percentage-wise as cosmopolitan as we find it today. So a wide-eyed seminarian, later ordained by the city's first archbishop, wrote to the Society of the Propagation of the Faith on September 18, 1851:

What a port! What a town! What a population! French, English, Germans, Italians, Mexicans, Americans, Indians, Canacs, and even Chinese; white, black, yellow, brown, Christians, pagans, Protestants, atheists, brigands, thieves, convicts, firebrands, assassins; little good, much bad; behold the population of San Francisco, the new Babylon teeming with crime, confusion and frightful vice.[3]

The archbishop who ordained this young enthusiast was Joseph Sadoc Alemany, then, as the above letter was being written, simply (!) bishop of the two Californias, Alta and Baja, Nevada, most of Utah and a fair slice of Arizona, with his episcopal see in Monterey. Less than a year prior to this date, Alemany, a Dominican friar newly ordained bishop expressly for the wilds of California, arrived at the port of San Francisco. It was the night of Friday, December 6, 1850. With him was another Dominican friar, Fr. Francis Sadoc Vilarrasa, and a Dominican sister, the Belgian-born Sr. Mary Goemaere. Next day Alemany with his party was formally welcomed and the following day, December 8, he presided at the Mass of the Immaculate Conception in the small wooden church of St. Francis, the only Catholic church in San Francisco besides the mission. After the Mass he was presented with a gift of $1400.00 to cover the expenses projected for the visitation of his vast diocese.

Such was the modest ceremony, prayerful and practical, that began a new era in the history of the Catholic Church in California. It also was the beginning of the presence of the Order of Preachers in the whole of the western United States. For Bishop Alemany had come not just to oversee the California Church but also to establish in California a new province of the Dominican Order. Before his departure from Rome where his consecration took place, Alemany had spoken to Fr. Jerome Gigli, the Vicar General of the Order, of his intentions with regard to the new foundation, and had been given the green light. Once arrived in his new diocese he immediately set to work not only as bishop but as "provincial." Within a few days of his arrival we find him writing to the new Vicar General, Fr. Alexander Vincent Jandel, requesting more explicit directions with regard to the province. Fr. Jandel responded graciously but also rather sharply that "It is entirely forbidden to any Dominican religious elevated to the episcopacy to retain any jurisdiction in the Order itself: this is clear in our Constitution and confirmed, if I mistake not, by a bull of Benedict XIII.[4] Since I am unable to give you the authority to establish our Order in California, I send with this answer letters patent to Father Vilarrasa to do so." Jandel's letter, however, did not reach Alemany until some weeks after its writing, thus permitting the bishop in good faith to take some initial steps in the establishment of the western Dominicans, both men and women.

Although Fr. Vilarrasa under the title of "commissary general" became the founder in legal fact of the province, it is to Alemany that the idea and inspiration of the province originally belong. Even before he was consecrated bishop, as the newly appointed provincial of the Eastern Province he had begun the process. A young Dominican, Fr. Peter Augustine Anderson, had come to him asking to be missioned in California. Alemany immediately granted the request, hoping that Fr. Anderson would restore the Dominican missions in Baja California and thereby lay the ground for another Dominican province. And, when made bishop, one of his first acts was to enlist Fr. Vilarrasa as companion to help in the new foundation. A further indication of his initiative and seriousness in this regard was his invitation, dutifully accepted, to some Dominican sisters to participate in the work. It was St. Dominic over again: as the Dominican Order in its very inception was composed of both women and men, so it would be with the Order in its newest and newly challenging terrain.

Prehistory: The Baja Connection

Beginnings, however, are difficult to define. Certainly the disembarkation of the three Dominicans in the port of San Francisco was significant. But they were not the first of their Order in California, and certainly not the first in the western reaches of the New World.[5] We think of the earliest Dominicans who accompanied Columbus in his explorations and others who ministered shortly thereafter in South and Central America. We especially recall that other great missionary bishop, Bartolome de Las Casas (1474-1566), and his Dominican companions in Hispaniola (Haiti) and southern Mexico. But there were others who subsequently made their way further and further north, finally into the lower regions of the territory known as The Californias. The Jesuits had been first on the scene in Baja or Lower California with the founding of the mission, Our Lady of Loreto, by Fr. Juan Maria Salvatierra and his superior, Eusebio Kino, in 1697. It was the first of 21 Jesuit missions in southern Baja established over a period of seventy years. After the expulsion of the Jesuits in 1767 by King Carlos III of Spain, the Franciscans took over briefly -- 1767-1773 -- while also moving into Alta California, where they raised their first mission in San Diego in 1769 and their last in Sonoma in 1823. In 1773 it was the Dominicans' turn in Baja.

The Dominican venture in Baja almost ended as soon as it began. Under the leadership of Fr. Juan Pedro de Iriarte, newly appointed vicar-provincial of Baja, twenty-seven Dominicans left Mexico City, June 1, 1772, for the new mission territory. They travelled nearly four hundred miles northwest to Guadalajara, where one of the missionaries died, June 27, 1772. The rest continued an arduous two hundred mile journey through mountains to the coastal town of San Blas. Here the worst, rather than being over, was about to begin. One of the missionaries, Fr. Louis Sales, later described the terrible sea voyage. He blamed the Viceroy for having commanded the Dominicans to embark immediately in ships ill-prepared for the voyage, with incompetent crews, and food already spoiling, and in a perilous season for sailing (September). His account reads:

As soon as we left the harbor we ran into contrary winds, with the result that a hole opened in the ship that was like an open conduit. The missionaries worked to plug it but they could not. Then an epidemic began on the ship. With the sailors all out of action the missionaries steered the ship and carried out their heavy tasks of labor. At last the pestilence, an epidemic of putrescent boils, which appeared chiefly on the head, attacked the missionaries. Being in this bad situation there came a most furious storm of thunder and lightning, the sea rose up, and among the missionaries there were scarcely any who could get about. Twice the ship put us under water. The poor missionaries cried to heaven in screaming voices. The poor sick men below were all drenched by the great quantity of water that came in. Already we thought that we had come to our last day, but in the end we reached a little port called Mazatan [Mazatlan] and resolved to land and care for the sick. We prepared a small boat and set out toward an unknown greater uncertainty, but we saw a distant light, steered toward it and soon entered a lagoon. Thinking that it would have shallow water we went overboard, dressed and shod, and after walking for an hour in water up to our breasts we got out at nine o'clock at night and met some poor mulattoes who had a little house there but no supply of food. The night having been passed in sighing and lamenting, they led us to a town and there we laid out some mantles on the ground for the sick. Two of these died, and the Father Master Vicar General [Iriarte] died in the greatest pain, more at the sorrow he felt at seeing us in such misery than of his illness, for he saw us begging alms from door to door, without clothing or utensils. You may be able to guess what were the feelings of all, and much more when we learned that the other missionaries who had gone in the other boat had disappeared in the sea because of the fury of the wind. Our boxes and bundles still lay on the beach and we all expected death at any moment because of the sickness and the lack of supplies. But the Viceroy and the Province of Santiago, notified of all that had happened, gave the necessary orders to enable us to continue our voyage. In fact they sent some new missionaries, naming a Vicar General [Vicente Mora], and sent a vessel with a good crew to cross over to California. On the second voyage our fears were augmented, but with difficulty the boat arrived at the Mission at the Port of Loreto, and in a few days the other ship which had been lost [also arrived]. The missionaries could hardly stand on their feet. They made their entry, some in chairs, some on the backs of Indians, and still others supported by the Franciscan Fathers who were expecting us. Two days later one of us died.[6]

Once arrived and recovered, and initiated into the Baja mission field by the Franciscans who were happily leaving for the kindlier lands of Alta California, the Dominicans set about their work. Purportedly, however, little documentation remains of the Dominicans and their labors in Baja. The California historian, H.H. Bancroft, puts the matter bluntly, and not very flatteringly for the Dominicans:

Salvatierra, Venegas, and the rest have furnished a copious account of the Jesuit period; Palou and his associates have left satisfactory material for the Franciscan occupation; but the Dominicans have left no account of their labors. It would appear that they accomplished nothing in California worth recording, even in their own estimation. To make matters worse, the secular archives, elsewhere so invaluable for filling up gaps in the systematic chronicles, are here singularly barren of information.

However, Bancroft does not altogether blame the Dominicans. As he suggests, they left no records because they accomplished nothing; but, he adds, they accomplished nothing because there was nothing to be accomplished!

In fact, there was little to be recorded. Nowhere was life more monotonously uneventful than in Baja California. Scattered items of routine military, financial, and missionary reports, the occasional founding of a mission, an epidemic or revolt, the arrival of a vessel, or a party quarrel between officials, these are the piers on which the historian has to build a frail bridge to carry the reader over the gulf of years that have no record.[7]

But some records did survive. Fr. Zephyrin Engelhardt, the Franciscan historian, who was also annoyed at Dominican carelessness with regard to historical matters, was able, nevertheless, to piece together enough surviving bits of information to devote a fair-sized section of his volume on the Baja missions to the Dominicans. And for this he was especially grateful to the efforts of two northern California Dominicans, one of whom, especially, will later feature prominently in our present history. Speaking of the paucity of information about the Baja Dominicans which was available to him when he published the first edition of his history, Fr. Engelhardt, in his second edition (1929), happily announced that "Owing to the kindly interest of the Very Rev. Fr. James Reginald Newell, O.P., we are in a position to supply a more accurate list of the Fathers and a clearer view of their activities in the northern portion of Lower California, at least" (pp. 600-601). And he quotes, in full, an explanatory letter he received from Fr. Newell, sent from St. Dominic's in San Francisco and dated May 2nd, 1916:

Dear Fr. Zephyrin:

I received your letter. It was from July, 1887, to March, 1888, that Fr. William Dempflin, O.P., and I were down in Lower California. We were earnestly desired to go by Bishop Mora of Los Angeles, and he gave us the most extended faculties for our mission. >>>

Partial Endnotes

[1] For full references of secondary materials cf. bibliography. Most references throughout our study are to be found in the Western Dominican Archives (WDA). These, thanks mainly to the efforts of Fr. Charles Hess and Sr. Veronica Lonergan, are neatly and safely stored in cartons marked with Roman numerals, each carton containing multiple files pertaining to the general subject designated by the number on the carton and noted on a directive sheet in the archives. The files contain letters -- originals and/or copies -- contemporary or later newsclippings pertaining to the subject, biographical materials, official documents such as visitation records, property deeds, financial reports, minutes of provincial or house meetings, etc. There are cartons of photographs and of catalogi, and on the various shelves may be found Acta of General and provincial/congregation chapters and sundry other materials.

For Alemany -- Most by far of what I say about Alemany comes from John B. McGloin, S.J., California's First Archbishop... There has been much subtraction and a few additions, but it is to McGloin's devoted and pioneering study that I am heavily indebted for what I know and have written about the Dominican archbishop. I have, of course, rearranged (and sometimes reinterpreted) McGloin's materials as the particular history with which the present book is concerned demands. The supplemental materials used may be found in Alemany's file, WDA XIII:3 and in R. Coffey, The American Dominicans... and V. O'Daniel, The dominican Province of St. Joseph... For a full discussion of the primary sources for Alemany, cf. McGloin, pp. 367-377.

For Vilarrasa -- In this chapter and in subsequent chapters, cf. his file, WDA XIII:4, especially his letters and his Chronicle from 1850 to 1884. For his Chronicle, written in simple and direct Latin, I have used Fr. Paul Starrs' translation and notes as published in "The Catholic Historical Review," January, 1952, pp. 415-436.

For Baja -- Of the several cartons of documents on Baja in the western Dominican archives my references are to WDA XI, 950 (C). I have also made use of Fr. Charles Hess's unpublished monographs on the pre-history of the province and Fr. Ramirez de Arellano. Fr. Hess's monographs are in the relevant files in the WDA. I have also relied heavily on Fr. Zephyrin Engelhardt, O.F.M., The Missions and Missionaries of California..., vol. I, pp. 555-714. In addition I have used Peveril Meigs' study, The Dominican Mission Frontier of Lower California..., and the doctoral dissertation of Fr. Albert B. Nieser, O.P., The Dominican Mission Foundations in Baja California 1769-1822... This last concludes with an extensive description of the original sources (manuscripts, printed materials, and their locations) for the history of the Dominican Baja missions.
For Anderson -- cf. WDA XIII:2 (A) (B), containing his journal and other contemporary documents. Also, Fr. Hess's essay on Anderson in Anderson's file, supplemented by Fr. Reginald Coffey, O.P., The American Dominicans..., pp. 262-267.

[2] Ray Allen Billington, The Far Western Frontier, 1830-1860 (New York, 1956), pp. 219-220, quoted by John Tracy Ellis in his forward to John McGloin's California's First Archbishop... p. 10.

[3] Joseph Venisse, Annales de l'Association de la Propagation de la Foi, XXIV (Novembre, 1852), p. 412, again as quoted by John Tracy Ellis, Ibid. Ellis has "little gold, much bad." I have changed this to "little good, much bad," which seems more likely to have been the thought of Venisse if not the word he used.

[4] Alemany had recent and proximate precedent for asking to be provincial, and Gigli in granting his request. In 1828, the Dominican generalate in Rome made Bishop Edward Fenwick, who in 1807 as a simple Dominican had established the first Dominican province in the U.S., "commissary general" of the province -- whatever any bull of Benedict XIII or other legislation may have said to the contrary. Cf. Loretta Petit, O.P., Friar in the Wilderness..., p. 23.

[5] Nieser, op. cit., ch. 1, pp. 1-19, summarizes the story of the first Dominicans in the New World up until their entrance into Baja. In his subsequent chapters he treats specifically and in detail the Dominican Baja mission itself.

[6] As quoted by Nieser, pp. 51-52

[7] as quoted by Engelhardt, p. 555. Both Peveril Meigs and Albert Nieser are not so negative as Bancroft and Engelhardt with regard to Dominican documentation on Baja. They draw on a wealth of information left behind by the missionaries and, as noted above, Nieser devotes seventeen pages (pp. 330-346) to a listing of pertinent documents and their library locations.


Mission West: The Western Dominican Province 1850-1966
All rights reserved, copyright © 1995
Western Dominican Province
Oakland, California
No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher:

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