Herbert Howe Bancroft: “There is no evidence that Father José Maria de Zalvidea ever had an enemy or said an unkind word to any man…. He was doubtless a model missionary, and then later regarded by the common people as a saint.”
Robert M. Senkewicz: “All authors agree that, as a Spanish missionary, he was very successful. However…he also tended to personify some of the worst aspects of the mission system. He [treated] the Indians as children, who, if they were to be truly converted, needed to be appropriately punished.”
William Heath Davis (1844)
After a visit to San Diego, William Heath Davis and James McKinley stopped at Mission San Luis Rey, where Davis encountered “the strangest man” he’d ever seen.
A tall, ancient Franciscan, burly and light-complexioned, paced from one end of the plaza to the other. Stooped over, bobbing his head, prayer book in hand, he looked lost in thought — or just lost.
He wore thick leather shoes, not the friars’ traditional sandals, and walked in a cautious, tiptoed motion, as if each step would bring pain. He sucked air in brief, asthmatic fits.
When he approached Davis, the friar gave him a sideways glance — “around the corner, as it were” — and a nod. Then he said, “Vamos, si señor... vamos, si señor... vamos, si señor” and retraced his pensive path across the plaza.
A woman came up carrying a gift. As if waking from a trance, the friar turned his back to her but reached out his free hand. He accepted the gift, said “Vamos, si señor” several times, and trundled on.
A former hide-and-tallow trader, Davis had seen much of the world and would eventually try to build a New San Diego eight miles south of Old Town. But the priest’s eccentricity astonished him.
Suddenly the friar snapped his fingers in a “spasmodic motion” and roared, “Vete, Satana!” (“Get away, Satan!”).
Surely, Davis told McKinley, the old padre’s “demented.”
“Oh, no,” said the trader from Scotland, who’d known Zalvidea for ten years. “His mind is perfectly clear and unimpaired.” He has given “his whole life to religion” and doesn’t “hold any intercourse with the world.”
At the afternoon meal, the friar frantically scraped vegetables, tortillas, beef, pudding, even a pie into a single wooden bowl. “An act of penance,” someone whispered to the visitors. “He does not care to enjoy his meals, and so makes them distasteful.”
Davis and McKinley stayed a day and a night. During that time, Davis tried to learn all he could about the old gray relic from a bygone era.
Born at Vizcaya, a Basque region of Spain, Zalvidea had been a missionary for almost 40 years: briefly at San Fernando Rey; at San Gabriel from 1806 to 1826, which he helped become the most productive mission of the chain; then, after exhaustion and possibly a breakdown, at San Juan Capistrano until 1842; finally, at San Luis Rey. Now in his mid 60s, Zalvidea had lived through the rise of the mission system and the long years of its decline and secularization.
Davis also learned that, like Father Junípero Serra when he gave a sermon, there were rumors that Zalvidea scourged himself with a disciplina — a short whip — to “scour” away his sins.
Davis knew that the most ascetic friars inflicted self-punishment to imitate the sufferings of Christ. And he left San Luis Rey, the stately white “king of the missions,” convinced that Zalvidea was “a saint on earth on account of the purity and excellence of his character.”
Father José Maria de Zalvidea (1814)
In 1814, Fathers Zalvidea and Gil wrote a report about Mission San Gabriel. Authorship is usually credited to Zalvidea.
For the Franciscan friars, “Christian time” was a clock. Each hour had appointed duties: matins, meals, work, rest. Even after eight years at San Gabriel, Zalvidea was still struck by the natives’ inability to organize themselves around clock-time.
“They have never used a calendar,” he wrote. “Nor do they regulate their days by hours. When they feel like it they go out to hunt and return towards evening, and if not, spend the whole day in idleness.”
The friars arranged specific workdays: “five hours a day in winter, six to seven in summer.” Rather than labor for free at the mission, many natives would sneak off to one of the four nearby ranchos. They’d work as cooks or water carriers or till the fields.
The practice, Zalvidea complained, “is one of the most potent causes why the [Spanish rancheros] are given to so much idleness.”
“In the service of their masters,” Zalvidea wrote of the natives, “they live according to their pagan notions and practices,” which “inspires them with a great disaffection for Christianity.”
Most natives and even many converts, the report admits, still practiced “idolatry.” Zalvidea said he could stop the practice by separating children from the older generation, “the ones who mislead the young.”
The report notes that native husbands gave their wives “whacks on the head by means of sticks and slaps to the stomach even when they are with child.”
And non-Christian women could divorce their husbands — at will. There was no “indissoluble bond” of marriage.
To keep their flock “decently covered,” the friars insisted they wear a coton — a short tunic — and a narrow cloth for men’s genitals. The coarse tunics, which caused frequent itching, didn’t stop the natives from “unchastity.” According to the report, they “mated like animals,” which “has permeated them to the very marrow with venereal disease.”
Zalvidea was one of the first Franciscans not to blame the natives such diseases. Spanish soldiers brought the “putrid and contagious malady” in 1774, when de Anza’s first exploratory expedition came to Alta California. By 1814, the disease had “spread among the Indians here to such an extent that as soon as a child is born it already has in itself this contagion.”
Of every four children born, three died within two years from “dysentery of the blood,” the report says. And “those who survive do not reach the age of twenty-five.”
The Life and Times of Father Zalvidea, Part Two