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“I ran to the room,” writes Felipa, “and sure enough everything was burned, except for the place his body had been.”

She also tried to hide the father’s “disciplines” — instruments of self-punishment — “far away from his room. But somehow, the next morning I would find them on his bed covered with blood. How he was able to find them…was incomprehensible to me. To this day I still cannot explain it.”

In late June 1846, Zalvidea requested Father Vicente Oliva of Mission San Diego to hear his last confession. Other friends arrived, among them Apollinaria Lorenzana. Known as “La Beata” (the “holy one”) she came to Alta California six years before Zalvidea and lived through the rise and decline of the missions. She and Father Oliva decided to take the dying padre to Mission San Juan Capistrano, where he could receive better care.

“Come on now, come on now!” Zalvidea steamed when hearing the news. “Yes lord, they are coming for me, but I cannot go because I am dying like a good soldier. I hear confessions and baptize here. What will this place be like without a father?”

“For your own good,” said Lorenzana. “It’s not possible for you to stay here.” When he seemed to assent, she noted that his eyes enlivened and “he did not look like a man about to die.” She and Felipa ordered a carreta, a wooden cart for hauling hides, to transport the father. They softened the vehicle, known for wobbly wheels and bumpy rides, with thick blankets over straw. A slow caravan would head north in the morning.

That evening, as Santiago led the friar to his cell, Zalvidea said he “might go” that night, since “he would be called when wanted.”

At sunrise, Santiago found the father lying face up on his cot, a crucifix in his hands, an opened prayer book across his chest.

Word of his death spread quickly. People came from all over to pay respects. One by one they entered the cell for a private moment with the padre. And one by one they took a relic: a piece of his habit, or an inch from the cord.

They began at the bottom, snipping a scrap at a time. Each mourner shortened his habit.

Just above the knees, they discovered a rope-like cincture of horsehair, used as a symbol of chastity and to practice mortification, since the thick hairs pierced his flesh.

Around his waist, another cincture. Iron points on the inside had poked a ring of punctures.

As the habit slowly disappeared, bruises, welts, and wounds appeared beneath his linen undergarment. Like other Christian ascetics, Zalvidea heeded the words of St. Paul — “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you” — and used his “disciplines” liberally.

Felipa: “His whole body was scarred by the silicio” — pieces of flint — “and streaked by the disciplina,” a short whip. “He whipped himself while shouting at Satan to scare him off. His feet were in miserable condition because he had buried nails in them.”

Julio Cesar: “He battled constantly with the devil, whom he accused of threatening to conquer him. He gave himself many beatings using silicios. He drove nails into his feet. In short, he tormented himself in the cruelest manner.”

The body was buried in the church, under the choir loft in front of the bapistry. Father Vicente Oliva conducted the ceremony.

In the fall of 1884, Father Antonio Ubach, the “Last of the Padres,” and several others wanted to move Zalvidea’s coffin to a more prominent place in the sanctuary.

Joined by Fathers Mut and Mora, Silvestre Marron, Mrs. Maria Gonzalez, and others, Father Ubach led a processional to Zalvidea’s gravesite. As two natives slid it out, onlookers were surprised to see the coffin was in such good condition — and when they pried it open, Father Ubach claimed, they were astonished to see that after 38 years, Zalvidea’s body had not decomposed.

They lowered it into a new coffin and, in a candlelit ceremony, interred it on the left, Epistle side of the main altar, where it lies today.

QUOTATIONS:

  • 1. Felipa Osuna: “Although he demonstrated good common sense in his conversations, he behaved like a child with regard to some things.”
  • 2. Zalvidea, letter to Governor Echeandia, 1832: “Although ill and burdened with so many sick, I… desire nothing more than to be relieved of the temporal government of the Indians, because it has become very repugnant to [me].”
  • 3. Eulalia Perez: “Father Zalvidea was very sick and, truth be told, had not been in his right mind since they took him from San Gabriel.”

SOURCES:

  • Bancroft, Herbert Howe, History of California (San Francisco, 1884–1890).
  • Bebe, Rose Marie, and Robert M. Senkewicz, Testimonios: Early California through the Eyes of Women, 1815–1848 (Berkeley, 2006); Lands of Promise and Despair (Berkeley, 2001).
  • Engelhardt, Fr. Zephyrin, San Luis Rey Mission (San Francisco, 1921); San Juan Capistrano Mission (Los Angeles, 1922).
  • Geiger, Maynard, O.F.M., Franciscan Missionaries in Hispanic California, 1769–1848 (San Marino, 1969).
  • Janssens, Don Augustin, The Life and Adventures in California of Don Augustin Janssens, 1834–1856 (San Marino, 1953).
  • Sandos, James A., Converting California: Indians and Franciscans in the Missions (New Haven, 2004).
  • Shipek, Florence Connolly, “Saints or Oppressors: The Franciscan Missionaries of California,” in The Missions of California: A Legacy of Genocide (San Francisco, 1987).

The Life and Times of Father Zalvidea, Part One

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