As young Santiago entered the dark room, morning sunlight speared the old, crippled padre on the cot. He lay on his back where, to himself, he’d performed nightly baptisms, heard confessions, joined neophytes in wedlock — and wrestled with Satan. Splotches of drying blood on his tattered gray habit testified to yet another struggle.
But this was different. A crucifix glinted from his closed hands. His opened prayer book spread across his chest. Neither moved up and down. The old padre was dead.
Must tell the Señora, thought Santiago, the sacristan and cook at Mission San Luis Rey. Felipa Osuna was one of the few who knew the weapons Father José Maria de Zalvidea used in battle. She needed to know, before anyone else, he had fought his last.
The first time Felipa came to the friar’s aid, his condition horrified her. He had no toes, and half a foot was gone. By a special dispensation from his superiors, he was the only Franciscan in Alta California allowed to wear shoes, not sandals. He wore them to conceal his feet.
Zalvidea called himself “the good soldier.” His wounds, he said, were the cost of waging war. “Come on now, Señora,” he told Felipa as she gently scrubbed the caked blood and grime from his stumps that first time, “Come on now, that’s nothing.”
By 1846, the bedridden friar had been a missionary in Alta California for 40 years. He’d become such a legend, there were conflicting accounts of his exploits — and his sanity.
Many years later, Felipa recalled the time Don José Ortega, a local ranchero, drove a herd of cattle to Mission San Juan Capistrano, where Zalvidea served from 1826 to 1842. The father liked to pace and read his prayer book in a garden between the church and the corral. A young bull broke away and raced toward him, horns lowered.
“Everybody was yelling at the father to flee,” recalled Felipa, “but all he did was kneel down and say, in a tone of great satisfaction, ‘Come on now, yes sir, don’t worry, don’t worry.’
The bull walked right by him without touching him.”
In another version, the bull kicked dirt on Zalvidea’s breviary. He dusted it off and said, “Well, well, don’t throw dirt on me!”
Victor E.A. Janssens, a Belgian who worked side-by-side with Zalvidea for a year at San Juan Capistrano, dismissed the tall tales: “He was a man of great talent and saintly repute because of his upright virtue; many of these reports were exaggerated, or never happened.” Still, Janssens adds, he “has been a great figure in the historic scene of California.”
Even though “no one ever saw him touch money,” said Felipa, he could always tell when something was stolen. At San Juan Capistrano, he became convinced Don Ortega had been pilfering “tables, plank benches, and everything else in the storehouse.” Zalvidea often reprimanded him “on no uncertain terms.” Even when alone, the friar would “burst forth with those denunciations of Ortega.”
In turn, Don José and others spread the word that the doddering old padre who walked with a limp was “loco.”
“There were those who tried to brand him insane,” said Felipa. “They were just reacting to the Father’s habit of telling them the bitter truth about their abuses and disorderliness.”
But there were rumors of cruelty. In 1840, Zalvidea declared that Magdalena, a widow with six children (the youngest two months old), had been leading a “dissolute life” with Silverio, a married man. The friar said he tried every means of reforming her. And even though she was an emancipated native — no longer under his jurisdiction — Zalvidea had her locked up at the mission, “on account of misdemeanors.”
In June, her brother Dionisio, also emancipated, demanded her freedom. Zalvidea refused. Finally, the Prefect of Los Angeles ordered the woman released and never to return to Mission San Juan Capistrano.
Julio Cesar, a Native American born at San Luis Rey in 1824, worked in the fields, sang in the choir, and, when a teenager, groomed Ortega’s horses: “When I was a boy, the way the Indians were treated was not good at all. They didn’t pay us anything…. They did, however, give us plenty of whippings for any wrongdoing. I knew Fr. Zalvidea very well and I served him as a singer. He was a very good man, but he was already very sick.”
In June 1842, Zalvidea wrote to Father Narcisco Duran, president of the missions: “I am enfeebled with ailments…. I am here without chocolate. This mission has no wheat, no wine, nor brandy. The circumstances of my debility require strengthening nourishment. Therefore the Sindico will please furnish those necessaries.”
When none came, a worried Zalvidea wrote again: for bread, alcohol, and smoking tobacco. “I am sure,” he concluded with a self-defensive note, “that when there were liquors [at a meal], those in attendance would not have been able to prove that I exceeded the bounds of sobriety and temperance.”
Toward the end of 1842, fearing a total breakdown, Father Duran transferred Zalvidea to Mission San Luis Rey. In the years that followed, as he hobbled across the plaza, mumbling words from a prayer book, he’d stomp a foot, whirl, and shout, “Go away, Satan! You are not going to upset me! YOU CANNOT HAVE POWER OVER ME!”
“This went on continuously, day and night,” says Felipa. “He would have moments of spiritual intensity,” then “could be heard speaking to the devil.”
When William Heath Davis and James McKinley visited San Luis Rey in 1844, Davis assumed the “strangest man” he’d ever seen must be demented. Oh no, said McKinley, “his mind is perfectly clear.”
In the spring of 1846, when he could no longer walk without help, Zalvidea refused to have anyone watch over him at night. Or even stand outside his small, cell-like room near the church. On one occasion Santiago came in the morning to find the mattress, blankets, and pillow had been set on fire.
The Life and Times of Father Zalvidea, Part One