• Story alerts
  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it

Adobe Chapel

3963 Conde Street, Old Town

Saturday, February 15, the Save Our Heritage Organization offers two screenings of D. W. Griffith’s silent film, Ramona.

Griffith based the 1910 movie on Helen Hunt Jackson’s best seller about star-crossed lovers in 1850, the year California became a state. It’s a time of transition for Californios who began to lose their large ranchos and for Native Americans pushed farther and farther inland from their homes.

Ramona, daughter of Scots-Native American parents, was an orphan raised by the Morenos. Ramona’s foster mother, Señora Moreno, does not like her. When Ramona falls in love with Alessandro, a Native-American sheepherder from Temecula, Señora Moreno forbids the wedding.

Aided by Father Gaspara, who performed the ceremony, Ramona and Alessandro elope, have a daughter, and seek a safe haven from American land-grabbers. Alessandro confesses that he took Ramona away from comfort and has only given her “bootless wandering.” Incessant assaults on their right to exist drive him mad.

Jackson wrote the book in 1884. It drew comparisons with Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) and became a bestseller.

But for the wrong reasons. In 1881, Hunt published A Century of Dishonor, a non-fiction account of crimes against Native Americans across the country. She wrote to change a government policy that made all Native Americans “wards” of the U.S.

For obvious reasons, Century was not well received (she was reviled in some circles as a “rabble-rouser” and in others as “sentimental”).

To give the injustices an emotional context, Jackson wrote Ramona as fictional sequel to Century. The book became hugely popular, not for the plight of the natives, but for the love story and the bucolic portrayal of Californio society.

The movie is of interest for many reasons. D.W. Griffith directed. Mary Pickford plays Ramona (an early case of “colorblind” casting?). And Mack Sennett appears briefly as a Yankee exploiter.

The acting fascinates: how they work with such a relatively new medium — eyes always come first, then the hands — and how they must perform not for a packed house, just a black circle with a lens usually pointed at their heads.

Also of interest: the film was shot only 26 years after the book was published. The backgrounds provide a priceless, time-capsule glimpse of Southern California in 1910.

The film will be shown at the Adobe Chapel in Old Town, itself a historical landmark. John Brown, a Connecticutt Yankee, built it around 1850. He boasted that his home had the first wooden floors in San Diego.

In 1858, Don Jose Antonio Aguirre, a wealthy landowner, got in a sticky lawsuit. If he won it, Aguirre vowed to give San Diego the town’s first church.

Aguirre won and kept his promise. He bought Brown’s property (for around $350.00) and converted the adobe house into a church. It opened November 21, 1858.

Today’s chapel was rebuilt in 1937, and stands just a few feet away from where the original stood.

Another connection: in 1866, the legendary Father Antonio Ubach came to San Diego. The bearded priest took charge of the chapel and the Catholic parish until his death in 1907.

Father Ubach admitted that Helen Hunt Jackson based the character of “Father Gaspara” on him. For decades he was one of San Diego’s biggest tourist attractions.

He refused to talk about the book or the wedding of Ramona and Alessandro that “Father Gaspara” performed.

Until June 25, 1905, when he told a Union reporter: “Although it took place forty years ago, I remember very well — how the couple came to me and asked me to marry them, and how I was impressed with them.”

Unlike the reigning theory, that he married the couple at the large Estudillo home, Ubach said the ceremony took place “in the little church” — i.e. the adobe chapel.

He also told the reporter that Alessandro and Ramona weren’t their real names.

“I know what their right names were, but I don’t care to tell. Mrs. Jackson suppressed them because she did not care to subject the families to the notoriety they would be sure to get from the publication of the book. They were native families who lived in the country, and I was well acquainted with them.

“I have never mentioned the names to anyone and of course I don’t want to do so now.”

  • Story alerts
  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it

More from SDReader


Ken Harrison Feb. 12, 2014 @ 5:31 a.m.

I remember when one of the buildings in Old Town, for years, incorrectly advertised itself as "The Birthplace of Ramona." For those interested in Calif. history, I also highly recommend the play put in every year in Hemet.


Scott Marks Feb. 12, 2014 @ 4:01 p.m.

Just picked up the Pickford Blu-ray set. Narratively strong, amazing to look at, and historically essential. Even on a weekend that offered strong commercial competition there'd be no better way to spend 17 minutes in a movie theatre than this.


Sign in to comment

Win a $25 Gift Card to
The Broken Yolk Cafe

Join our newsletter list

Each newsletter subscription means another chance to win!