History of La Soledad

The founding of Nuestra Señora de la Soledad on October 9, 1791, coincided with the beginning of the “Golden Age” of California’s missions. The site selected for the new mission had been discovered by Portolá who also gave it the name of Soledad. During the encampment of his expedition, an Indian who approached the explorers responded to questions with just one word which he repeated again and again. The Indian’s expression, which sounded like the Spanish word for solitude, “Soledad,” seemed to them very appropriate to the location, and Portolá so marked the site on the maps of the expedition. When the mission was placed there by Fr. Lasuén in 1791, it was natural for the Franciscans to name it in honor of Our Lady of Solitude.

The Convento of Nuestra Señora de la Soledad

Everything seemed to promise immediate success for the mission establishment in the Salinas Valley. The rolling hills and valley lands that surrounded the site offered the prospect of a limitless bounty. Yet, from the very beginning, the name it had received from a long forgotten Indian was to be a far more accurate appraisal of its ultimate future than the optimistic aspirations of its founders.

Before Soledad was founded, the royal gifts which were to equip the mission somehow went astray, and once more Fr. Lasuén was forced to appeal to the other Franciscan settlements for the needed articles. The brushwood shelter which he dedicated in 1791 was not replaced by adobe until six years later. When permanent buildings were finally erected, they exhibited a remarkable tendency to disintegrate under the extreme climatic changes. As an instance, the church, which was reported as completely repaired in 1824, collapsed in 1832 as a consequence of severe winter weather. All winter long the attendant padres were subject to cold and dampness that the feeble warmth of the few fireplaces could not begin to dispel. Those assigned to Soledad were soon familiar with the crippling effects of rheumatism, and were forced to ask for transfer to more temperate locations.

The Chapel of Nuestra Señora de La Soledad

The notable exception in a history of rapid administrative changes was Father Florencio Ibañez, who devoted more than 15 years of service to the lonely settlement. He is the only Franciscan buried at the site, although the next grave is that of a fellow Spaniard, José Arrillaga, the governor whom the Franciscans so much admired. Arrillaga, long beset by illness, seemed to have a premonition of his approaching death. Being unmarried and without family, he moved to Soledad in order that his last days might be spent in the presence of his old friend, Father Ibañez, who buried him on July 24, 1814. Four years later, a new grave was dug in the stubborn soil of the lonely mission and Father Ibañez was laid to rest beside his friend.

The padres of Soledad seemed to find misfortune waiting in every field of effort. The Indians, for whose conversion they labored so strenuously, were not numerous in the area and the maximum neophyte population of less than 700 was achieved at the end of 15 years. After 1805, the population at Soledad began a rapid decline. One of the causes which contributed to the Franciscans’ difficulty was a serious epidemic, which visited the establishment in 1802. The plague carried off many of the faithful and drove off many more, who attributed the mysterious malady to their acceptance of the new religion.

The secularization decrees in 1834 removed Soledad’s name from the mission rolls and such records and materials as remained were transferred to San Antonio. In 1846, the site was sold by Governor Pio Pico for $800. By the time the mission was returned to the Church by the United States, the property was in such a complete ruin that it was never reoccupied. All semblance of human habitation disappeared and adobe walls melted into stubs of earth. Talk of one day rebuilding finally culminated in completion of the chapel, with other restoration in progress.

Robbed of any singular physical achievement by misfortune and a hostile climate, Soledad managed to win a place in California history as the scene on which one of the most sublime and two of the basest Franciscan characters played their parts. The former was Fr. Vicente Sarría, whose story is the story of Soledad’s last days, and the latter were two who appeared fairly early in the mission’s life and conducted themselves in such an extraordinary manner that historians have never failed to wonder at their presence in the Franciscan Order.

Farming in the Salinas Valley

The story of Fr. Marino Rubi and Fr. Bartólome Gili begins in the College of San Fernando to which all California Franciscans belonged. The two friars arrived at the college in Mexico City in 1788, and proceeded to indulge in a series of escapades that are usually associated with the legendary undergraduates of some of our modern universities. The record indicates that they were a constant source of alarm and discomfort to their fellows and the charges against them range from robbing the storeroom of the community chocolate to rolling balls through the college dormitory after midnight. It was their habit to sleep during the day when they should have been at their duties, and quite often they would elect to scale the walls of the college and spend the night in town.

Just why they were tolerated at San Fernando is perhaps explained by the fact that the Franciscans were too embarrassed by their unconventional companions to make it a public matter, and that Fr. Palou who headed the College at that time was too old and ill to be aware of the actual situation. At any rate, the malcontents, who were clamoring for transfer, were finally sent to California. Fr. Rubi arrived in 1790 and Fr. Gili the following year.

A year after Fr. Rubi’s arrival at Soledad, his companion padre very happily exchanged places with Fr. Gili, who had just come to San Antonio. Once together, the two soon made a reputation for outrageous behavior and their complaints were unceasing. They devoted themselves to demands that they be returned to Mexico. They wailed of the discomforts of Soledad, worst of which seemed to be the constant shortage of altar wine.

It did not take Fr. Lasuén long to agree that they would be better off in another place, but the viceroy who had just approved their transfer to California was reluctant to have them return to Mexico. The padres’ claims of illness were examined by the royal surgeon and Fr. Rubi was found to have a definite disability and allowed to depart in 1793. A year later, Fr. Lasuén received permission for Fr. Gili’s transfer and they gladly saw him off on a boat whose captain, whether by design or not, refused to allow the padre ashore at Loreto and carried him away to the Philippines.

At the opposite range of human behavior stands the figure of Fr. Vicente Francisco de Sarria, last Franciscan padre at Soledad. On occasions, Fr. Sarría had served both as presidente and prefect of the missions during the years before secularization. The disturbances in Mexico and growing hostility of the Californians put an end to the arrival of new friars, and when he found that it was not possible to find another padre for Soledad, he decided to take the post himself.

The fortunes of Soledad ebbed even lower and Fr. Sarría, alone at the mission, carried on his work among the Indians until May, 1835, when his worn and emaciated body was found at the foot of the altar. With his death, Soledad died also, and a few days later the last of his loyal Indian followers carried his body over the hills to Mission San Antonio de Padua, leaving behind a lonely group of structures which slowly melted away.

The last loyal Indian followers carried the body of Fr. Sarría over the hills

When the reconstruction finally began at the Soledad Mission only stubs of adobe walls marked the location of the old quadrangle. Today, the chapel and the monastery wing have been rebuilt. Loving care has made the area a garden spot.