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On July 29, 1848, the USS Cyane navigated through the thick kelp outside Point Loma and entered San Diego Bay. The sloop of war unloaded a ragtag 120-man army at La Playa: 39 regulars, plus deerskin-clad Tennessee backwoodsmen, Delaware Indian scouts, and, an observer wrote, “loafers picked up lately whose morals had better not be too closely examined.” Most were seasick during the three-day voyage from Monterey, including Kit Carson, who swore he’d never board another ship. At 5:00 p.m., soldiers raised the Stars and Stripes unopposed in San Diego plaza. The “American Invasion” of Southern California had begun.

Captain Samuel F. DuPont, a portly man whose walrus mustache flared into thick muttonchops, found the small population quiet and orderly. After he shored up the Presidio and renamed it Fort DuPont, the captain visited Mission San Diego. Though olive and date trees still flourished, the gardens and vineyards had gone to seed. The church, surrounded by wigwams made of thatch, was “dilapidated,” its paintings “tattered.” The natives wore few, if any, clothes. “A more miserable and naked sight I never saw.”

The mission’s only priest, Father Vicente Oliva, was a “perfect Friar Tuck, who was what sailors term ‘two sheets in the wind.’ ” A troubled, deeply melancholic man, Oliva had been at the mission for 26 years and watched its slow decline. A month earlier, he’d buried his dear friend Father José María Zalvidea at San Luis Rey, which made the despondent Oliva one of the last Franciscans in the region.

DuPont doesn’t mention the 53-year-old woman caring for the friar. Apolinaria Lorenzana was probably either running the daily affairs of the mission or at one of her three ranchos. When Oliva arrived in 1820, she was already hailed as la beata, the blessed one, for her piety. By the time DuPont arrived, the mission had become so “destroyed,” she said, it was “very hard to provide Father Oliva with food.”

Rumors strafed San Diego: the haughty Americans were here to stay (their leader, John C. Fremont, wore an elegant blouse, leggings, and a felt hat and was obviously a man of reason, but his volunteers dressed and acted like rabid curs); no, the mongrels were headed to Los Angeles to battle Californio forces amassing there. More rumors: Americans, joined by native tribes, were burning ranchos; the oldest families in town were taking sides, turning against each other; worse, bands of Sonorans were coming up from Mexico to wipe out the invaders, the Indians, and every Californio who supported the takeover. Things changed so rapidly, no news was new.

When Oliva buried Father Zalvidea, he promised he’d return to celebrate the Feast Day of San Luis on August 25. Lorenzana encouraged the old friar to make the bumpy trek in a carreta. They could gather much-needed corn and seeds, she said, since “there was nobody at San Diego to do the planting, or for that matter, anything else.”

As they headed north, on a dirt trail often just six feet across, Lorenzana and the friar looked far ahead and behind: every rider could be a foe; every sky-high cloud of dust an army come to pillage. They stopped at Juan Marrón’s rancho, Agua Hedionda (at Carlsbad, from the ocean east to Vista). To their surprise, he was home.

Marrón had been administrator of Mission San Luis Rey. But when Fremont’s army went through on August 9, he evicted Marrón from office. Now that the Americans were here, Fremont told him in Castilian Spanish, natives wanted the land the friars had promised.

Marrón’s wife Felipa said she feared the Indians and the American troops “because they were undisciplined.” Soon she would also fear Californios, who accused her husband of spying for the Americans, which she denied.

That foreigners could invade Mission San Luis Rey — and enter the sanctuary armed — horrified Lorenzana: such an unthinkable violation. The stately church, which gleamed like a dove in bright sunshine, had been her second home. From 1821 to 1830, she’d nursed countless patients and been godmother to dozens of children at the mission. If the enemy could invade sacred ground so freely, so brutally, where could God reside?

Lorenzana was born uprooted. Shortly after her birth, in 1793, someone left her at the Mexico City orphanage. She came to Alta California as part of an experiment. In 1800, New Spain promised 20 orphans they’d have parents and families in the colonies. But Lorenzana never married and found her home in the church. She taught herself to write on scrap paper, became a curandera (a healer using traditional and native remedies) and a teacher. Although everyone called her la beata, she rejected talk of sainthood and preferred the title la cuña (the foundling). She performed so many services for so many years that historian Father Zephyrin Englehardt wrote, “Miss Lorenzana deserves to be classed among the Franciscan missionaries of California.”

At first, Father Oliva refused to celebrate the Feast Day because enemies occupied the mission. But Oliva assented when an emissary in deerskin, Alexis Godey, promised the padre he’d be unharmed. (Lorenzana often reads a person’s temperature: she called Godey, Kit Carson’s great rival, “a very good and tranquil man.”)

After the ceremony, Lorenzana wanted to go north, to San Juan Capistrano, rather than home. She was “very sad because of the American takeover of the country and did not want to return to San Diego.”

The 66-year-old Oliva, whose life work was in Mission Valley, said, “If you’re going to San Juan, then I’m going too. What would I do all by myself in San Diego?”

On their way, Lorenzana left Oliva at Rancho Santa Margarita (now Camp Pendleton) and continued on. For one of the few times in her life, she had no strength to share. “I was furious about the situation with the Americans. I thought, if I leave, then the Americans will leave too.”

When she reached San Juan Capistrano, word came that war had erupted in Los Angeles. She returned to San Luis Rey with Oliva. Godey was gone. Five Americans said, go to San Diego. Then one said, no, he’d ride there first to see if it was safe. That night, the man headed to San Diego. Lorenzana never saw him again.

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