Father Uria’s Saints

“Therefore I went to Father Uria and told him your story. He was very kind, and bade me write to you that you might trust him to find you something to do if you should decide to come here. Have no fear; there are not enough men at San Buenaventura to prevent a single man from having all the work he may wish. Make haste and come. Do not delay. Diego.” The reader finished the letter, and there was a silence of some minutes between the two, reader and listener. The former, a young man, not much more than twenty-five years of age, had a moody expression on his dark face. After reading the letter he waited for his companion to speak. But Maria, his wife, appeared not to notice this and remained silent. The two were sitting on the porch of a little adobe house on the outskirts of the presidio town of Tubac, Mexico, a few, miles from the coast of the Gulf of California. This had been the home of Benito’s parents, and since their death three years before, that of himself and his wife. For a time they had been happy in their hard-working life, for love lightened their toil; but toward the close of the second year in their home they had suffered a series of reverses that sadly crippled Benito’s resources. First there had been a season of such heat and drought that all their labor in the dozen acres which Benito cultivated came to naught, and they gathered hardly more than enough to keep them from starving before the next year’s harvest. Then one of Benito’s horses, of which he had three, and fine ones they were, had been taken sick and died just at the time when it was most needed, during the early summer plowing – both Benito’s and his neighbors’; for after the work on his own land was done, Benito worked for others, thus adding something toward their income. The death of his horse was a severe blow to him, not only because he loved his horses, but because his income was greatly curtailed in consequence. With three horses Benito could use a pair every day, and yet allow each horse to rest one day out of three; but with two, it could be done only by losing a day’s work out of every three; and this was the plan Benito had followed, for he could not bring himself to use his good steeds every day. This had occurred in the spring following the poor harvest.

Some weeks later, about six months before our story opens, another disaster befell these two unfortunate ones. One night, Benito and Maria had been awakened by a terrible uproar in their chicken house. Benito rushed out to find it in flames. Some traveler passing, after smoking a cigarette, had, most likely, carelessly thrown the burning stub among the inflammable boards and loose stuff of the enclosure. Benito did what he could to rescue the hens and chickens, but of all of his flock, he saved a mere score. This last calamity was almost more than Maria could bear. The hens had been her especial care. She had, under her skillful tending, seen the flock increase from the small nucleus of a dozen, which Benito had bought and given her on her coming to his home, a few days after they were married, to over one hundred. These hens had been the source of no small profit, and by their means Benito was able to put aside a little nest egg each year. And now they must begin again! It was hard, and both felt there was no relief for them. The little they had saved during the first few years had to be used for the summer sowing, and for food until they could gather a harvest. Here, again, Benito found there would not he more than sufficient for their wants, and that, when the next sowing time came, they would be in a worse condition than at present for continuing the struggle for existence. Altogether Benito and Maria were on the edge of despair.

Shortly after the death of Benito’s parents, his elder brother had made one of a band of artisans, laborers and soldiers, in company with two Franciscan priests, to the province of Nueva California. Diego, who was of a roving disposition, had wandered off to the south, working at his trade of carpentry as the mood seized him, or the state of his pocket forced him, now here, now there, until finally he found himself in the coast town of San Blas. This was the point from which many of the expeditions to the northern province set sail; and the busy preparations for departure, which Diego witnessed, fired his desire to join a company about to leave for the remote, half-mythical region in the north. This he did, and, some weeks later, landed at Monterey, whence, in the course of the next year, he worked his way south until he reached Mission San Buenaventura. Here he settled down permanently, having grown tired of his aimless life, and became an active and useful man to the Father. Communication between the two countries in those days was infrequent, and Benito had heard his brother was settled at San Buenaventura only after he had been there nearly a year. Diego described, in glowing terms, the advantages of the province – the fine climate, exceeding fertility of the soil, land to be had for the asking, where everything necessary and desired could be grown, and his own content, far away, though he was, from his old home. This letter had reached Benito when he was at the lowest ebb of his fortunes. The glowing language of his brother’s description of Nueva California awakened an intense longing in his heart to go there and make a new beginning, under more favorable influences. He said nothing to Maria, but wrote a letter to Diego, telling of his troubles, and asking if there were room for himself and wife in that new land. This he sent off by a friend to San Blas, where it was given over to a priest who, in turn, was to deliver it into the charge of the next expedition to be sent out. Benito had written nearly six months before, and had about given up looking for an answer, when a neighbor, returning home from the town, handed him a letter as he passed by. His brother gave him encouraging news and advised him to come, ending with the words quoted above. After reading it, Benito hastened to find Maria, and with her by his side on the little porch he read it again to her.

At last Maria broke the silence:

“Benito, I am glad you wrote to Diego, and I feel sure the best thing for us to do is to go. How can we keep on in the way we have been doing the last two years? I am tired and disheartened, and I know you are too; but there, in the new land, we could make another start with better courage. Let us go.” Maria looked up at Benito, smiling brightly, but with tears in her eyes.

Benito lost no time in carrying out his plan, and at the end of a few weeks he had sold his house and land, and all his furniture and farming tools, reserving only his horses. These, with a few clothes, and two hundred dollars in gold in his pocket, made up the entire wealth of this poor couple. As Benito wished to keep his horses, he decided to go to the new country overland by way of the Colorado River, and across the desert to Mission San Gabriel. This had been the regular route of the land expeditions of the early days of mission history, and was still used, although less frequently. Benito and Maria had not long to wait when a company was formed to start out on the long journey of seven hundred miles to Mission San Buenaventura.

At the time of the setting out of our friends in the year 1830, traveling overland from Mexico to California was an easy thing, compared to the hardship and dangers of fifty years earlier. Then, the way, through the desert around the mouth of the Colorado River, was beset by the fierce and powerful Yuma Indians, and unless the band of travelers were large and well armed, it would suffer severely at their hands. But the Yumas had become subdued with time, and traveling made safe. The company with which Benito and Maria journeyed had no mishap, and after four weeks passed on the way, they arrived, one evening late in October, at Mission San Buenaventura, just as the bells of the mission church were pealing out their evening burden.

What a charming place Mission San Buenaventura was in those days! Situated on the coast, it stood not a half-mile from the water, which it faced, while behind, and close to it, was a line of hills running off into the distance until they disappeared on the horizon. At the time of year our pilgrims first saw it, there was little remaining of the verdant freshness of spring and early summer. But if Nature refuses to permit southern California to wear her mantle of green later than May or June, she has bestowed on her a wealth of warm yellow, red and brown, which, to some, is even more pleasing. The bare ground takes on a vividness of glowing color that is almost incredible, while the hills in the distance run through another gamut of color – from yellow through all the shades of orange to an almost pure pink, with pale blue shadows, changing at sunset to intensest purple. Color is rife in California.

The mission consisted of a large white adobe church, a long line of buildings adjoining in which lived the padre and the Mexicans, and a number of little houses and cabins, some of adobe, but the greater number of straw and rushes, which sheltered the Indians. These little huts were scattered around irregularly on all sides; and to them the inmates were wending their way from their daily toil in the fields and among the horses and cattle, and from all the occupations of a pastoral life. Nothing more beautiful could well be imagined than the picture the mission made in the rosy light of sunset – crowds of savages, children of nature gathered together to receive the rich blessings bestowed on them by the fathers, deriving their authority from the Church whose symbol, the great white building, towering above all else of man’s work, stood like a sentinel guarding the religious life of the mission.

Father Uria had been pacing to and fro in front of the mission for more than an hour, waiting impatiently for the expedition from Mexico, which had been expected two days before, its regular time of arrival. It was not at all unusual for these bands to be delayed three or four days, and that without meeting with any accident on the way; but news from home was infrequent to a degree that made an expedition to the province awaited with almost unreasonable impatience. Mail, as well as everything else, came usually by sea; but to send letters by the desert route was by no means rare.

Father Uria was known to all his fraternity in the country for his eccentricity. He was a small, rather stout man, about sixty years of age, every one of which had left its mark upon him; for his had been a life of toil surpassed by but few, even among those self-denying workers in the Lord’s vineyard. But the hardships of his life had not quenched his jovial spirits, which were, indeed, irrepressible. A laughing greeting for every one he met, Mexican or Indian, was his habit, one that might have begotten a measure of contempt in the beholder, had the Father not possessed a sternness, latent for the most part, it is true, but which could, on occasion, be evoked to prop up the apparently tottering respect due him. Father Uria was fond, too, of company, not only for its own sake, but because it gave him an excuse for the pleasures of the table, and, in especial, for enjoying the delights of the wine made at Mission San Gabriel, and which was in demand by all the missions. This was a weakness seldom indulged in, for the Father cared not for imbibing this delectable liquid unless assisted by pleasant company; and occasions when this could be had were rare. Let not the reader infer from this that our respected fraile was guilty of drinking more than was good or seemly for him. There had been a whisper one time, going the rounds of the missions, that he had been uproariously drunk on some occasion in the past; one slanderous tongue said the priest had been reprimanded by President Sanchez, but we do not believe a word of this. And who would grudge him all the pleasure he might get from the good San Gabriel wine? Think of the poor padre, expatriated for the rest of his days, and in a land that wanted much to make life seem worth the living! Our hearts go out to the Father, as to all the other good men who had done likewise, in deepest sympathy.

It is not our intention to enumerate all the peculiarities of Father Uria. But there was one, before which all the rest sank into insignificance, and that was his excessive fondness for cats. The love of cats is more particularly a feminine trait; and this, together with his strength of mind, marked though it was usually by his geniality, makes it the more surprising in Father Uria’s case. Yet such was the fact, and as such was it recognized by all with whom he came in contact; for in this instance it was “love me love my” – cats! This hobby of the friar was one he had had from childhood; but gaining man’s estate, he had kept it in subjection (fearing it was not in accord with the strictest propriety, especially after taking orders) until he came to California. Here he had found a life of such loneliness, that, as a refuge from almost unbearable ennui, he had gone back to his youthful feline love with more than youthful ardor. When he came to take charge of the Mission, San Buenaventura, three years before, he had brought with him, carefully watched over, four immense cats, which had long been his pets. These he still had, and in their companionship he found his greatest solace for a life of solitude.

Father Uria continued his walking to and fro, gazing off to the east along the road which the expedition from Mexico must traverse on its way to Monterey. Behind him, almost at his heels, trotted one of his pets, seeming to be perfectly content to follow the footsteps of her master, and showing unbounded joy, when he stopped for a moment to pet and speak to her.

“Well! gatita mia, you are the only one to stay with your old master. Where are the others? Off hunting for gophers, I suppose. But here are the travelers at last,” and he hurried down the road toward the approaching train, the cat bounding along at his side, or running off every few feet, now this way, now that, to chase a butterfly or mosquito hawk. Once, in her haste to overtake her master, she encountered a horned toad. With a spring to one side, and a loud “spst!” she passed it, for this pet of Father Uria was acquainted with these hated objects, but could never overcome her intense horror of them. We are much afraid this puss is a sad coward.

The Father reached the band of travelers, and he received from the commander the packet of letters destined for the mission. Then, with a few words of welcome to all, he bade them follow him to the mission, where they would find refreshment and shelter for the night. On the way, singling out Benito and Maria (the former from his resemblance to Diego) Father Uria questioned them as to their journey, and plans for their future home at his mission. Benito related his story, and hopes of finding some occupation.

“Diego tells me you are skilled in gardening,” said the Father. “Would you like to take charge of my garden and orchard? My gardener is growing too old for work, and I have long had thoughts of retiring him. I have waited only to find some one to take his place, and when Diego told me of you, I thought you might be the one I want. What say you?”

“I thank you heartily, my Father,” replied Benito. “I should, indeed, be happy and proud to do that, if I can prove worthy.”

They reached the mission, and there Benito found Diego waiting to welcome him. After bidding Benito to come and see him in the morning, as Diego led them away to his own little home, the Father went in, his cat following. Leaving her in the house, the Father passed on to the church, where he performed the usual short evening service of the rosario, after which he returned to his habitation. No sooner was he in the house, than he was fairly bombarded by a small army of cats, or so it seemed; for although there were only four, including the one with whom we are already acquainted, one might have thought, from the noise and confusion they made, trying to get at their dear master, that there were a dozen at least.

“Now, my cats, you really must behave yourselves a little better than this,” said the Father, with a tone of sternness, which, however, had not the slightest effect, since he began at once to pet them, first one and then another, as they crowded around him. “I know you are hungry, but that is no excuse for making such a disturbance. Come, we shall have supper,” and with these words he went into his dining-room, the cats trooping after him.

Father Uria always had his table set with as much variety and luxury as his meagre salary, and the resources of the mission, allowed. He was not a hearty eater, nor, as we have said, did he drink largely of wine, unless he had the support of congenial company, but he insisted on variety. His vegetable garden was his pride, and the object of extremist solicitude. In it he had, in flourishing condition, every sort of edible, including, as well, the fruits especially adapted to that climate. As he was seldom favored with guests, he had made it a custom to have his pet cats bear him company at his meals; and he had trained them so well that they were, in general, as perfectly behaved, in their limited capacity, as the best mannered human being; only occasionally, when hunger gained the upper hand, did they break the bounds of cat-decorum. They had their places opposite the Father, in two chairs, two cats, side by side, in each chair; and there they would sit, looking with meek but hungry eyes, first at the Father, then at the meat and cream destined for their repast.

But it is time these cats were introduced to the reader, for such intimate and (if we may be permitted to use the word) personal friends of the priest should have a regular introduction. Let us begin then, with the first, and, as it happens, the oldest and most sedate one. His name is San Francisco, a solemn-looking beast, large and handsome; he is a maltese, and is admired by all who have seen him. The cat sitting quietly by his side in the same chair is Santa B?rbara, a maltese like her companion, but younger and not so handsome, only because not so large. Next comes, in the second chair, the cat whose acquaintance we have already made, Santa Clara, the Father’s usual companion at all times, for she has less roving blood in her veins, and prefers remaining with her master to hunting and other feline diversions. She, too, is maltese, but has white paws, the only deviation from pure blood that any of the four cats show. The last, the youngest and smallest cat (although she can boast of five years of age, and, in any company but the present, would be considered a fine large animal), is Santa Inés, the daughter of Santa Barbara. She is the one to get into all the mischief of which cats are capable; to run away and lead every one a lively chase until she is found, for the Father (let us whisper it under our breath) would feel nearly as much sorrow at the loss of one of his cats, as he would at losing the soul of one of his neophytes.

We fear much that our reader will be ready to set Father Uria down as a mere fool, or a half-crazy old man, and to sneer at him and his precious cats. But are not we all crazy on some subject; has not each one of us some hobby or idiosyncrasy which makes us appear more or less demented to our neighbors? And just because the twist in our poor Father’s mind takes the particular form of a love for cats: why should we, how dare we, say he is crazy? No, he was no more crazy than are we; and perhaps his beautiful cats kept him from becoming so, in very sooth, forced to live in the wilderness, if we may call it that, deprived of all the happiness of his native land, and of the friends for whom these cats make a poor substitute at the best.

But there is one point on which we cannot find excuse for the Father, that is, in giving his cats the names of some of the most respected and venerated saints among the Franciscans; going so far, indeed, as to bestow upon his finest cat the name of Saint Francis himself, the founder of the order. It is difficult to conceive of such irreverence in a priest, himself a member of that great order in the Catholic Church; and it is this, if anything, which would show a weakness of the mind. But even here, let us say, not as excuse, but in mitigation of his offense, that only from inadvertence did the Father speak to, or of, his cats by these names in any one’s hearing; and there were only two or three people at the mission who knew after what august personages they were called. Besides, their full title was usually reserved for occasions of reprimand, and with these well-mannered creatures such occasions were rare indeed.

“Well,” said the Father, beginning his own supper, after having given the cats each their portion of meat in a large deep plate, flanked by a saucer brimming full of sweet cream, “aren’t you pretty cats to go off and leave me the whole afternoon? Clara was the only one to keep me company. What is the use in having four cats to amuse me, if you mean to run off whenever the notion seizes you? I want you cats to be home all the time. You, San Francisco, should have stayed here with Clara as you are the largest. I think I shall have to tie you up to-morrow. No, I believe I’ll punish you now by taking away your supper,” saying which, the Father reached across the table and removed the plate of meat and the cream from in front of Francisco, who had just begun to devour his repast. “Miou! Miou!” said Francisco, piteously, looking after his supper, which the priest put down on the table near his own. It was too much: Francisco forgot his manners and with one bound he leaped across the table, snatched up a piece of meat, and, with a growl of defiance, began chewing it vigorously. The Father laughed and returned the cat’s supper. “I am afraid, Francisco, you did not catch much in your hunt this afternoon, for you appear to be as hungry as usual. So I won’t punish you by depriving you of your supper. Go back to your place.”

After supper, the Father, accompanied by his friends, made a tour of the mission to see that everything was safe for the night; then, returning to his house by the church, he spent the evening reading the letters and messages brought to him that day, and in studying for an hour or so by the help of the few theological books his library boasted. Father Uria was an intelligent and well-educated man, and took delight in the investigation of the abstruse subjects and doctrines his Church afforded. He did this from natural inclination, and not from any practical use to be made of such study in his capacity as head of the mission. People in Nueva California, in those days, not only the Indians, but the Mexicans and Spaniards, were of the utmost simplicity of mind, entirely unable to grasp anything beyond the rudiments of their faith.

Early the next morning Benito made his appearance. The Father conducted him out to his garden, and showed him the method he had pursued in bringing everything to a high state of cultivation. Irrigation was not absolutely essential, as at many of the other missions; but, notwithstanding, Father Uria had evolved a miniature system in his garden by means of a spring in the foot-hills, half a mile away, from which water was brought in a narrow flume. This had long been in use for the general needs of the mission; but it was reserved for Father Uria to apply some of the surplus water to the garden. Father Uria had once visited the garden at Mission San Gabriel which had been the special pride and comfort of Father Zalvidea; and it was with complacent satisfaction that, in comparing it with his own, he saw the latter suffered no disparagement. His was in fully as flourishing condition, but the element of picturesque beauty was lacking; his needs for a garden were entirely utilitarian, while Father Zalvidea required beauty quite as much as use. The two gardens were typical of the two men. So Benito was installed as his gardener.

While the Father was showing Benito the garden, and explaining to him about the plants, the cats which, as usual, had followed him, employed the time in roaming around among the bushes, searching intently for anything alive which might make fair game. They scattered in all directions, one after a humming-bird, another chasing a butterfly; the third wandered off lazily to a big patch of catnip for a sniff of its delightful aroma; while the fourth began to career to and fro after a dragon-fly, in the wildest fashion. The priest and Benito had moved off to an asparagus bed, to consult about the best treatment to give it, for the plants were slowly dying, and the Father was in a quandary. The dragon-fly alighted to rest on his broad-brimmed hat. All unconscious of its presence, he talked on with Benito, expounding his theory of the proper treatment for the asparagus, when, suddenly, as he bent over a plant to look at it more closely, with a blow that almost knocked him down, his hat went flying from his head, and fell to the ground several yards away, while at his feet dropped the venturesome Inés. She was up in an instant, looking for her prey, but it was out of sight.

With an exclamation rather stronger than was quite proper in one of his cloth, the Father turned to the cat.

“What is the meaning of this business, Inés? Really, you are getting to be insufferable. I cannot allow you to come out with me if you carry on in this way.” Benito had run to pick up his hat, and offered it to him, his eyes dancing with merriment, and the corners of his mouth twitching. The Father took it, and noting the gleam in his eyes, smiled himself. “These cats of mine will be the death of me some day, I expect,” he said, laughing. “Go along, Inés, and remember to show a little more respect for your master another time.”

These saints of Father Uria were given the run of the entire mission, and were known to all its inhabitants. Although every one was kind to them, the cats were dignified and distant toward all but the Father and Benito, after the latter had lived there a few months. It had gradually become one of Benito’s duties to keep an eye on them; shut them up when the Father did not wish them around; and when, as occasionally happened, they ran away, to search for them. Usually they would return of their own accord the second day, if not found the night before; but the Father could not sleep unless he knew his precious animals were housed safely, and an effort was always made to find the truants before night set in.

From the time Benito and Maria made San Buenaventura their home, Fortune again turned her face toward them. Benito, with steady employment as the Father’s gardener and trusted servant, was prosperous and happy; while Maria once more had her chickens, although the demand for her poultry and eggs was smaller than she had found in her former home in Mexico. She seldom missed her old associates, busy as she was, and content with her simple tasks the whole day long. What a quiet, peaceful life was that at the California missions in the old days! Perhaps, reader, you think humdrum would be the more appropriate adjective to use than peaceful or even quiet. And to one like our Father Uria, thousands of miles from his early home, cut off from all the pleasures and advantages of ordinary social intercourse, it was, as we have seen, more, much more, than humdrum. But for Maria, the life at the mission was not unlike that they had been accustomed to in their former Mexican home. California was Mexico in those days, and the life greatly similar.

About two years after Benito’s arrival at San Buenaventura, a dreadful misfortune befell Father Uria, in the death of his largest and finest cat – San Francisco. This saint had always manifested a most singular and inveterate propensity, to hunt tarantulas. More than once he had been discovered when just on the point of beginning a battle with one of those monsters, and had been stopped in the nick of time. With almost constant watchfulness, the Father had succeeded in preserving the life of his cat for many years; but the reader has already guessed what the end was to be. After an absence of three whole days, during which the Father was almost distracted, Benito found the saint dead on the plain, fully a mile from the mission. On one paw, which was slightly swollen, a minute wound was discovered, supposed to have been the bite of the venomous spider, although the Father could not tell positively. Poor Father Uria was inconsolable, and from that day his health, which had been deserting him for many months, yet so gradually as to be hardly perceptible, took a sudden change for the worse, and with the long years of toil he had lived, soon made great inroads on his strength. Less than a year after this dire event, he became so feeble that, at his own request, he was relieved. The last thing he did before leaving San Buenaventura was to give his three remaining friends into the charge of Benito, who promised to care for them faithfully, so long as they lived. Much the Father would have liked to take them with him, but he was growing too feeble to care for them; and once retired from his position as head of the mission, he would not have enough power and authority to be able to treat them as such old and dear friends should be treated. We shall not attempt to depict the sorrowful parting between the Father and his cats – it would need the master hand of a Dickens to keep the comic element in the pathetic scene within due bounds. The Father, poor old man, felt no further interest in life, broken down in health and obliged to give up his companions, his only comfort being the thought that his remaining days were few, and would soon pass.

He removed to Mission Santa Barbara, and there, some months later, at the close of the year 1834, he died, worn out in the cause of his Master.

Note. – This story of Father Uria and his oddities is not wholly fanciful. In an early book on California occurs the following: “At dinner the fare was sumptuous, and I was much amused at the eccentricities of the old Padre [Father Uria], who kept constantly annoying four large cats, his daily companions; or with a long stick thumped upon the heads of his Indian boys, and seemed delighted thus to gratify his singular propensities.” Alfred Robinson: Life in California, New York, 1846, Chap. IV, page 50.

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