Barn on the site of asistencia Santa Margarita de Cortona
Between 1769 and 1823, Franciscan padres, Spanish soldiers, and Native Americans built an astonishing chain of settlements — 21 missions and four smaller asistencias — between San Diego and Sonoma. The money to start them came from a church endowment called the Pious Fund, but the money — and will — to preserve them through the year 2000 has come from more eclectic sources.
Mervyn’s California, for instance, started the Mission Garden Restoration Fund in 1997. And ad-agency president Terry Ruscin, a Wisconsin native who has lived in San Diego for 18 years, read more than 150 books about the missions and shot more than 500 rolls of film on their grounds before publishing Mission Memoirs: A Collection of Photographs, Illustrations, and Late Twentieth-Century Reflections on California’s Past (Sunbelt Publications, 1999).
Interior walls of Santa Margarita de Cortona under barn covering
What Ruscin discovered during his travels was that the missions are still in need of benefactors and that those who would now qualify as contributors to the Pious Fund are not the Catholic Church nor the State of California (which helps to support only the four missions that are also state historical parks), but tourists, private foundations, and those who leave money to the missions in their wills.
He also discovered that the survival of the missions has always been dicey.
A pirate named Hippolyte de Bouchard threatened Mission San Carlos in 1818 (residents fled to an inland asistencia), and when the missions were secularized during the early 1830s, Ruscin says, “These places were basically free for the taking.” Looters sold silver monstrances, chalices, and candlesticks and used religious statues for target practice.
“Many of the indigenous people, thank goodness, rescued these, and over time they eventually came back to the missions,” Ruscin says. “That’s why some of the very fragile items such as polychrome wooden statues and fabric and things of that nature actually exist for our study today — because they were rescued by Indians.”
Then came well-meaning but destructive renovations. “There was a far less purist era in this country,”
Ruscin says, “when we were starting to preserve and resurrect our historic monuments, and people were sort of doing it by guess and by gosh.”
During the Victorian era, for example, La Misi6n de San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, “was completely covered over with clapboard and what I would call an East Coast-style bell tower.”
Fortunately, a fire in 1947 destroyed the wood and revealed the original plaster and distemper paintings.
Ruscin credits the survival of San Antonio de Pala, an assistant mission near Fallbrook, not to natural disaster but to an entrepreneur, author, historian, librarian, and archaeologist named Charles Fletcher Lummis, who was bom in 1859. “Had it not been for this fellow from the Northeast, who literally walked to California.... Pala would have probably disappeared, because it was very much in ruin when he found it”
Like many missions, Pala has suffered earthquake damage and a bad restoration — archetypal paintings were whitewashed in 1903. But the original murals were later replicated by an Indian artist, and the asistencia’s museum displays worm and termite- eaten but intact statues carved by the ancestors of the Luisefto and Cupefto people who live and worship there.
But perhaps the most endangered ruin is the most obscure of the four asistencias — Santa Margarita de Cortona, ten miles northeast of San Luis Obispo. Santa Margarita, selected during Junfpero Serra’s travels up the coast in 1772 and possibly named for Serra’s mother, was once an agricultural outpost of San Luis Obispo’s mission. The stone, brick, and mortar ruins of a church, granary, priest’s quarters, and six one-room apartments are extant and exquisite, Ruscin says, but unless you’re as determined and informed as Ruscin, you’re unlikely to see them any time soon.
That’s because the main building was not only “renovated” with sledgehammers (in the early 1900s, Ruscin says, the owners knocked down all of the interior walls) but topped with wooden beams and corrugated tin. The resulting barn and 13,960 of the original 17,734 acres are now the property of a Texas oil family that pays a local caretaker to keep pilgrims, trespassers, and academics off the grounds.
Ruscin, however, wanted his book about the missions to be complete, and he persisted until he found someone — an ex-town commissioner who dabbles in archaeology — who would give him the caretaker’s name and phone number. After many requests, he was finally permitted to bring his camera past the “no trespassing” signs, and the result is a glimpse of a half-forgotten but still astonishing sanctuary.
To see these and other unusual views of the California missions, join Terry Ruscin at the San Diego Natural History Museum next Thursday evening, when he will show slides, talk about the missions, and sign copies of his book.
- Lecture & Slide Show by Terry Ruscin
- Thursday, February 24, 7:00 p.m.
- San Diego Natural History Museum Balboa Park
- Members, seniors, students, military, and children 6-17: $4; Nonmembers: $6
- Info: 619-232-3821