History of San Antonio de Padua

Early in July, 1771, a little party of Spanish missionaries, headed by three Franciscan padres, walked into a beautiful, oak-mantled valley near the coastal region of central California. Here they pitched their camp and, as was their custom, began to prepare for the devotional services to be performed before the day was done. A large bronze bell was lifted from its place upon a mule-pack and secured to a lower branch of one of the nearby trees. The Franciscan fathers were more than usually carefully in their preparations, for this was no mere overnight camp site. This was to be the site of a new mission named in honor of Saint Anthony of Padua.

San Antonio de Padua

As they waited for the approach of the vesper hour, the new arrivals seemed to fall beneath the spell of their surroundings. For a while no one spoke. Then, suddenly, the oldest padre leaped to his feet and ran forward to the bell. With all his energy, he rung the heavy clapper to and fro. The woodland silence shattered into a thousand clashing echoes, but the old man rang on even louder. In a strong, clear voice that matched the fervor of the bell, he called to the empty wilderness about him: “Oh, ye gentiles! Come, come to the holy Church! Come to receive the faith of Jesus Christ.”

His two companions seemed abashed at the old one’s uncontrolled emotion but they said nothing. The aged Franciscan was their leader, Father Junípero Serra, Presidente of the Franciscan missionaries, who first set the Christian faith upon the shores of California. Finally, the youngest, Father Miguel, grew alarmed for the well-being of his superior and said, “Why, Father, do you tire yourself? There is not a single gentile in the whole vicinity. It is useless to ring the bell.”

Father Junípero Serra

Fr. Serra turned to him and said, “Father, let me give vent to my heart which desires that this bell might be heard around the world.” Later, Fr. Serra was happy to learn that his impassioned supplication had reached the ears of at least one Indian “gentile” on that July day, although his message did not go around the world just then. In 1771, even Fr. Serra would hardly have expected such a miracle. Thus it was, however, that Mission San Antonio de Padua was officially dedicated on July 14, 1771.

The first written record in 1774 shows San Antonio doing moderately well. There were, besides some 178 Indian neophytes, 68 cattle and 7 horses, a number of new buildings and a modest harvest of corn and wheat. A little later, in 1776, the mission was host to de Anza on the occasion of that intrepid voyager’s second journey overland from Mexico to California. With him was the Franciscan Father Pedro Font whose minutely detailed diary gives a clear picture of the daily life within the religious settlement. It was obvious that Father Font had no strong love for the native neophytes of San Antonio whom he found to be “dirty, not pleasantly formed, and embarrassingly primitive in their mode of dress.” Their language, which was carefully translated into a written form by Father Sitjar, seemed nothing more than a series of guttural ejaculations to the civilized Spanish listener.

The padres at San Antonio pushed building operations from the start. During the year 1776, the church was roofed with mortar and tiles and a street lined with adobe dwellings for the Indians was completed. Storerooms, barracks, warehouses and shops were erected, and irrigation ditches were dug to carry water to the fields from the San Antonio River.

A building 133 feet long for the church and sacristy was started in 1779 and finished the following year. Old records reveal steady progress in building through the years. A new church was completed in 1813 and long before that, a water power mill for grinding grain had been erected. The Indian community grew steadily. Wells were dug and a reservoir and aqueduct built. Heavy rains fell in the San Antonio district in 1825, causing the collapse of a number of structures, but these were replaced by larger and stronger buildings.

As Mission San Antonio grew wealthy and generally improved, so did the appearance of the neophytes. By 1782, the usually irascible Pedro Fages, back in California for another term as governor, was moved to comment on the industry of the mission and the good manners of its converts. A half century later, in 1830, the valley contained over 8,000 cattle and 12,000 sheep. Its harvests were large and wine and basket making were thriving industries, yet the number of Indians had been declining each year as the result of disease.

Padres Serra, Píeras and Sitjar hung the bell on the branches of an oak tree

After 1834, the mission rapidly disintegrated under the impact of secularization. President Abraham Lincoln signed a patent in 1862 which finally restored the extensive structure to the Church but after 1882, when the last resident priest died, the building was left to the mercy of the elements. Nor did the elements fail to receive a helping hand for as recently as 1949 it was discovered that a rancho style railroad station many miles away had been completely roofed with tiles from the mission. The tiles had been sold to the railroad by an enterprising antique dealer and purchased in good faith.

In 1903, under the leadership of Joseph R. Knowland of Oakland, efforts were started to save the fading structure. Considerable progress was made until the great earthquake of 1906 damaged most of it beyond repair. Soon, only the front section of the church and a few arches remained.

Present reconstruction did not get under way until 1948 when the mission received a grant of $50,000 from the half-million dollar fund established by the William Randolph Hearst Foundation for mission restoration . As a consequence, Mission San Antonio today is largely a reconstruction rather than a preserved ruin. The little hills of earth that once had formed the adobe brick of the original walls were carefully reformed in the same simple fashion practiced by the padres and their neophytes 150 years before. Every piece of timber in the new structure was carefully cut and surfaced with the same type of tools the first woodcutters had used. Modern conveniences remain perfectly concealed and, from the exterior, it could be the same humble structure the followers of Fr. Serra knew so well. The darkness and cold are gone, dispelled by electric light and radiant heating.

The importance of the restoration of San Antonio de Padua extends beyond the mere physical re-establishment of the buildings. It is the only mission whose surroundings remain as they were originally. The oak-mantled valley is still unspoiled and there is little visible habitation; nothing but the parked cars of the visitors suggests the modern world.

June 4, 1950, has become an important date in California mission history. California Mission Trails Association, because of the nature of the organization and its place in the life of the California missions, was called upon to organize and present a fitting program celebrating the completion of what will become an important living landmark. High officials from all over California joined with thousands of visitors in honoring the first mission to Saint Anthony of Padua on the Pacific Coast.

Mission San Antonio's water power mill

The very remoteness of what was redone at San Antonio by the Franciscans presents problems for visitors of today. Leaving the little town of Jolon, one must drive several miles through the Hunter Liggett Military Reservation, and past the imposing headquarters building formally a Hearst hacienda which has been mistaken time and time again for the mission. The actual old mission is still out of sight and a mile beyond.