The Jesuits in La Baja California

The first Jesuit priest to tread Lower California soil was Father Roque de Vega, chaplain to Francisco de Ortega, on that worthy’s third survey. Ortega, on this voyage, on January 14, or 15, 1636, anchored his vessel of seventy tons’ burden in the bay called Playa Honda, eleven miles south of La Paz. A terrible storm, lasting eleven days, wrecked the ship and drove it ashore, the men escaping to the land on fragments of the vessel. There drifted also -miraculously, thought the forlorn, castaway explorers enough vessels of the church service to enable Father Vega to say mass regularly. These were the first Christian ministrations in the Californias. They were followed by the good father’s baptizing several dying natives at La Paz, whither the party went, in a boat constructed from the fragments of the wreck. The second Jesuit priest in California was Father Jacinto Cortez, who in 1642 accompanied Luis Cestin de Callas to the country for which his order was destined to do so much in the future.

From the epoch of Cortez to that of Otondo 1535 to 1683 so expensive and so fruitless had been the many efforts to occupy the western peninsula, that the government had determined to equip no more such expeditions. Yet it was most desirable, because of the important geographical position of the territory, that it should be under Spanish dominion. Therefore, counting on the steadfastness of the missionary spirit, the council convened to consider this question, offered to the Company of Jesus a subsidy of $40,000 per year as an inducement to undertake the California mission. The order declined the offer on the ground of unwillingness to participate in the temporal concerns involved in the enterprise.

Father Eusebio Kino (also written Kuhn), one of the priests who had accompanied Otondo on the expedition that colonized La Paz in 1683, had vowed his life to the work of sending missionaries to the Californias. Obtaining his transfer to the Sonora missions, he met there the Visitador, the devoted Father Juan Maria Salvatierra, who became as great an enthusiast as Kino, and thenceforth these two labored unceasingly in behalf of California. In 1697 they were joined by Father Juan Ugarte, of the Jesuit College in Mexico, a man of strong powers, natural and circumstantial, who soon developed as much zeal as his coadjutors. After a long period of seemingly hopeless efforts, the cause began to gain ground. Contributions of money ranging from $2,000 to $20,000 began to come in from church guilds, and from individuals, thus beginning the famous ” Pious Fund of the Californias.” Pressure was produced to annul the royal cedula forbidding expeditions to California, and on February 5, 1697, the vice-regal license was given. It authorized Salvatierra and Kino to undertake the conversion of the Californians, to enlist and pay soldiers for the enterprise, to appoint or remove officials, in short, to direct and dispose entirely in the matter, on two conditions, that all should be done at their own expense, and that possession should be taken of the countries to be subjugated, in the name of the King of Spain.

It must be admitted by an impartial reader, without regard to race or religious prejudice, that these Jesuit fathers were impelled by the purest of motives, with great generosity and singleness of purpose, in this undertaking. They went at their own risk and at their own cost. The experiences of previous movers in the same direction had declared the country to be unattractive, indeed, repellant, and without elements of riches; and that its conquest was dangerous, and doubtful of achievement. It must be remembered, also, that during their sway, the missionaries sternly forbade the fomenting of the resources of the pearl-fisheries, by whose rich potency they might have mitigated the asperity of their conflict, while the opposition they offered to working the pearl-beds gave rise to many of the most serious obstacles they en-countered. It has been the fashion of many writers to asperse the motives of these devoted men, and that is obviously an injustice.

After many wearisome preliminaries and vexatious delays, Salvatierra landed on the peninsula, on October 16, 1697, with a strangely assorted escort of six soldiers, comprising a Spaniard, a Portuguese, a Mexican Creole, a Maltese, a Sicilian and a Peruvian mulatto.

On October 25, in a tent that had been prepared as a church, with a cross set up, and the venerated image of Our Lady of Loreto, mass was said, and formal possession taken of the country in the name of the King of Spain. This, the first mission founded in California, was called Loreto Concho, for the patroness whose image they honored on their altar, and from the native name of the site.

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