And so we met the kindly old Irishman who has done so much for the
restoration of the California missions. He was of portly stature,
unshaven for several days and clad in the brown robes of his order. He
came to San Luis Rey in 1902 from Santa Barbara and all the restoration
had been done since then. He had raised and expended more than twenty
thousand dollars in the work, besides the labor of the monks themselves,
who receive no pay.
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"I will accept your contribution," said Father O'Keefe, "for this work;
the Franciscan fathers take nothing for themselves; and will you write
your name in our visitors' book?" I did as requested and Father O'Keefe
declared, "That name looks good anywhere-it has a genuine flavor of the
Ould Sod about it."
And we fell to talking of the Emerald Isle, which the kindly old priest
never expected to see again. He was greatly interested when he learned
that we had made a recent motor tour through the hills and vales of the
Ould Countrie, which he still loves as a loyal son. He bade us adieu and
before departing we paused on the cloistered porch to admire the beauty
of the scene before us. The mission overlooks a pleasant green vale
shut in on every hand by low hills, through which we caught a fleeting
glimpse of the sea. It was a prosperous scene-as it no doubt was in the
days of old-with ranch-houses, cattle, and cultivated fields-another
instance of the unerring eye of the early monk in choosing a site for
his mission home.
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San Luis Rey was one of the later foundations, dating from June 13,
1798. From the very start the mission was prosperous. In 1800 there were
three hundred and thirty-seven neophytes, and twenty-six years later
it had reached its zenith with twenty-eight hundred and sixty-nine.
It had then great holdings of live stock and harvested a crop of over
twelve thousand bushels of grain. From this time it began to decline and
at its secularization in 1834 its net worth was but a fraction of its
former wealth. So indignant were the Indians over the decree that, it
is recorded, they slaughtered twenty thousand head of cattle to prevent
them from falling into the hands of the Mexicans. In 1843 the property
was restored to the church, but its spoilation had been accomplished and
barely four hundred poverty-stricken Indians remained. In 1847 General
Fremont took possession and later the building and site were returned
to the church.
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Beyond Oceanside there was much fine scenery along the road and
everything was at its best on this glorious May afternoon. It was a
clear, lucent day, with only a slight purplish haze in the far distance.
The sea was as transcendently beautiful as this warm soft southern sea
can be in its loveliest mood-a deep, dark, solid blue flecked with
purple seaweed and shading to pale green near the shore, upon which
the long white line of the breakers swept incessantly. At times we
ran at the foot of desert hills covered with cacti and scrub cedars,
but relieved from monotony by the orange flame of the poppies. Again
we passed through wide meadows starred with wild flowers-the delicate
daturas, dahlias, poppies, and a hundred others spangled the hillsides
everywhere. Along the beaches gleamed the pink verbenas and yellow
sand-flowers. Birds were numerous; the clear, melodious note of the
meadow lark and the warble of the mocking bird were heard on every hand.
In places we ran along the shore on a headland high above the sea and
again we dropped down to a sandy beach. Much of the road was dusty,
rough, and poor-sand and adobe that must have been well-nigh impassable
in wet weather. Need I say that it has been improved since the new state
highway follows the course of El Camino Real south of Los Angeles?
After closely following the beach for many miles the road rounds a
huge cliff and turns sharply inland-we saw no more of the ocean. Dana
mentions the coast just above the point in "Two Years Before the Mast,"
as a spot where the ship's people landed to trade with the natives,
whose merchandise consisted chiefly of skins and furs. Climbing to the
summit of a pass through the hills, we caught a distant glimpse of the
crumbling walls and red tiles of another of the old-time retreats of
the fathers of St. Francis.
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I find in my "Log-Book of a Motor Car," set down on the spot,
"Capistrano is really the most picturesque of all the missions we have
seen"-a judgment which I am still willing to let stand after having
visited every link in the ancient chain. Perhaps this impression is
partly due to the fact that the restorer's hand has so far dealt lightly
with San Juan Mission and partly because the town of Capistrano itself
is so redolent of ancient California. Indeed, this scattered hamlet must
have looked very much the same fifty years ago as it does to-day, and
as yet it shows little sign of waking from its somnolence and catching
step with the rapid march of California's progress. The population is
mostly Mexican and half-breed-a dreaming, easy-going community that
seems quite content with its humdrum life and obvious poverty. There
is a good-sized wooden hotel which in numerous roadside signs makes an
earnest bid for the patronage of motorists, and looks as if it might be
fairly comfortable for a brief sojourn.
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To see Capistrano, the motor which takes you away when you are ready
to go, is the means par excellence. The charm of the place is the
mission, which you can see to your satisfaction in an hour or two,
though you will doubtless desire to come again. It stands at the edge
of the village in the luxuriant green valley, guarded by the encircling
hills so omnipresent in California. Someone has styled it the Melrose
Abbey of the west, but it is quite as different from Melrose Abbey as
California is unlike Scotland. We enter the grounds and look about some
time for a guide, but find no one save a dark-eyed slip of a girl in a
broad sombrero, placing flowers on the altar of the diminutive chapel.
She leads us to the quarters of the padre and we hear him chanting a
Latin prayer as we approach. He is a tall, dark, ascetic-looking young
fellow, who greets us warmly and asks us to step into his study until
he is ready to go with us. It is a bare, uncomfortable-looking room,
which from the outside we would never have suspected to be occupied. He
is Father St. John O'Sullivan, a young Kentuckian of Irish descent and
one can soon see that he is at San Juan Capistrano because his heart
is in his work. He tells us little of the story of the mission, for
he has written a booklet covering that-which we gladly purchase, and
also a number of the beautiful photographs which he himself has taken.
Like every other mission priest whom we met, his heart is set on the
restoration and preservation of his charge and every dollar that he gets
by contribution or the sale of his pictures or souvenirs is hoarded for