As young Santiago entered the dark room, morning sunlight speared the old, crippled padre on the cot. He lay on his back where, to himself, he’d performed nightly baptisms, heard confessions, joined neophytes in wedlock — and wrestled with Satan. Splotches of drying blood on his tattered gray habit testified to yet another struggle.
But this was different. A crucifix glinted from his closed hands. His opened prayer book spread across his chest. Neither moved up and down. The old padre was dead.
Must tell the Señora, thought Santiago, the sacristan and cook at Mission San Luis Rey. Felipa Osuna was one of the few who knew the weapons Father José Maria de Zalvidea used in battle. She needed to know, before anyone else, he had fought his last.
The first time Felipa came to the friar’s aid, his condition horrified her. He had no toes, and half a foot was gone. By a special dispensation from his superiors, he was the only Franciscan in Alta California allowed to wear shoes, not sandals. He wore them to conceal his feet.
Zalvidea called himself “the good soldier.” His wounds, he said, were the cost of waging war. “Come on now, Señora,” he told Felipa as she gently scrubbed the caked blood and grime from his stumps that first time, “Come on now, that’s nothing.”
By 1846, the bedridden friar had been a missionary in Alta California for 40 years. He’d become such a legend, there were conflicting accounts of his exploits — and his sanity.
Many years later, Felipa recalled the time Don José Ortega, a local ranchero, drove a herd of cattle to Mission San Juan Capistrano, where Zalvidea served from 1826 to 1842. The father liked to pace and read his prayer book in a garden between the church and the corral. A young bull broke away and raced toward him, horns lowered.
“Everybody was yelling at the father to flee,” recalled Felipa, “but all he did was kneel down and say, in a tone of great satisfaction, ‘Come on now, yes sir, don’t worry, don’t worry.’
The bull walked right by him without touching him.”
In another version, the bull kicked dirt on Zalvidea’s breviary. He dusted it off and said, “Well, well, don’t throw dirt on me!”
Victor E.A. Janssens, a Belgian who worked side-by-side with Zalvidea for a year at San Juan Capistrano, dismissed the tall tales: “He was a man of great talent and saintly repute because of his upright virtue; many of these reports were exaggerated, or never happened.” Still, Janssens adds, he “has been a great figure in the historic scene of California.”
Even though “no one ever saw him touch money,” said Felipa, he could always tell when something was stolen. At San Juan Capistrano, he became convinced Don Ortega had been pilfering “tables, plank benches, and everything else in the storehouse.” Zalvidea often reprimanded him “on no uncertain terms.” Even when alone, the friar would “burst forth with those denunciations of Ortega.”
In turn, Don José and others spread the word that the doddering old padre who walked with a limp was “loco.”
“There were those who tried to brand him insane,” said Felipa. “They were just reacting to the Father’s habit of telling them the bitter truth about their abuses and disorderliness.”
But there were rumors of cruelty. In 1840, Zalvidea declared that Magdalena, a widow with six children (the youngest two months old), had been leading a “dissolute life” with Silverio, a married man. The friar said he tried every means of reforming her. And even though she was an emancipated native — no longer under his jurisdiction — Zalvidea had her locked up at the mission, “on account of misdemeanors.”
In June, her brother Dionisio, also emancipated, demanded her freedom. Zalvidea refused. Finally, the Prefect of Los Angeles ordered the woman released and never to return to Mission San Juan Capistrano.
Julio Cesar, a Native American born at San Luis Rey in 1824, worked in the fields, sang in the choir, and, when a teenager, groomed Ortega’s horses: “When I was a boy, the way the Indians were treated was not good at all. They didn’t pay us anything…. They did, however, give us plenty of whippings for any wrongdoing. I knew Fr. Zalvidea very well and I served him as a singer. He was a very good man, but he was already very sick.”
In June 1842, Zalvidea wrote to Father Narcisco Duran, president of the missions: “I am enfeebled with ailments…. I am here without chocolate. This mission has no wheat, no wine, nor brandy. The circumstances of my debility require strengthening nourishment. Therefore the Sindico will please furnish those necessaries.”
When none came, a worried Zalvidea wrote again: for bread, alcohol, and smoking tobacco. “I am sure,” he concluded with a self-defensive note, “that when there were liquors [at a meal], those in attendance would not have been able to prove that I exceeded the bounds of sobriety and temperance.”
Toward the end of 1842, fearing a total breakdown, Father Duran transferred Zalvidea to Mission San Luis Rey. In the years that followed, as he hobbled across the plaza, mumbling words from a prayer book, he’d stomp a foot, whirl, and shout, “Go away, Satan! You are not going to upset me! YOU CANNOT HAVE POWER OVER ME!”
“This went on continuously, day and night,” says Felipa. “He would have moments of spiritual intensity,” then “could be heard speaking to the devil.”
When William Heath Davis and James McKinley visited San Luis Rey in 1844, Davis assumed the “strangest man” he’d ever seen must be demented. Oh no, said McKinley, “his mind is perfectly clear.”
In the spring of 1846, when he could no longer walk without help, Zalvidea refused to have anyone watch over him at night. Or even stand outside his small, cell-like room near the church. On one occasion Santiago came in the morning to find the mattress, blankets, and pillow had been set on fire.
“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.
- 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.”
- 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