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Fr. Serra’s prayers, perseverance helped keep missionary expedition afloat during plight
By Jan Siegel
I have said time and time again in these columns that almost everything has a San Juan Capistrano connection. I love it when history comes together for our town.
We all know that the first Mission was established in San Diego in 1769. It was almost the last. Fr. Serra wrote of the plight of the missionaries in 1770 that almost ended his stay in Alta California. In his radio address in 1931, Fr. St. John O’Sullivan recounted the following event.
“In January 1770, Gaspar de Portola and his men were exhausted from their trip to search for Monterey. When Portola returned to San Diego, he found that not one conversion of an Indian had taken place. He found the provisions almost exhausted and no word from the San Antonio, the ship which had gone to Mexico for help. He therefore announced to Fr. Serra that they must prepare to abandon the whole enterprise and to go back to Mexico. When Fr. Serra protested, he reminded the missionary that he did not bring his men to California to die of hunger and that if the ship San Antonio failed to arrive by March 19, he would then begin his return journey to Mexico—words that pierced the very soul of Fr. Serra.
“This was the beginning of March. Everyone in the expedition knew of the proposed return to Mexico and all were glad of it except Fr. Serra and Fr. Crespi, who mutually agreed to remain together in California in case the rest returned to Mexico.
“On March 11, Fr. Serra announced that a novena, or nine days of prayer, would begin for the safe and speedy return of the ship San Antonio with its supplies. Every day he went to the top of presidio hill, overlooking the bay, and watched the entrance between Point Loma and North Island, and, at the time, like Moses on the mountain top, prayed for his people. Daily he besieged the gates of heaven with his petitions for God to send the ship and prosper the work of the California Missions, which had just started but now seemed on the point of failure. For nine days he continued his prayerful watch.
“It was on the ninth and last day of the novena, March 19, as the feast of St. Joseph was drawing to a close, when his prayers and perseverance were rewarded by the appearance of a sail at sea. He caught just a sight of it through the narrow entrance of the bay as it passed by, far out on the surface of the ocean.
“While it was only a little glimpse of a sail at sea, still it meant everything to Fr. Serra and to California, and to us it meant that we should fall heirs to the most colorful, humane and romantic history that has been handed down by any state of the Union. Fr. Serra instantly announced his discovery to Portola, who gave orders to stop preparations for the return to Mexico. The missionaries rejoiced, the soldiers began to encourage one another, and the spirits of all were revived.
“Four days later, the ship sailed into port. It had not been on its way to San Diego, but to Monterey where it expected to find Portola; however, upon losing an anchor, it returned to San Diego in search of another and thus, in this unusual way, it brought the supplies to the point at which they were needed to save the whole expedition from the failure, which a few days before seemed inevitable.”
For the rest of his life, Fr. Serra always said a special prayer to St. Joseph on March 19.
For those of us in San Juan Capistrano, this date has even more significance—March 19 is also the day we celebrate the return of the swallows to San Juan Capistrano. Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction.
Spend a “Moment in Time” enjoying the Swallows Day Parade and festivities March 12, as well as St. Joseph’s Day and the Return of the Swallows on March 19. Think about St. Serra and his vision for California, and how all this led to the founding of the Mission and our town.
Jan Siegel is a 27-year resident of San Juan Capistrano. She served on the city’s Cultural Heritage Commission for 13 years and has been a volunteer guide for the San Juan Capistrano Friends of the Library’s architectural walking tour for 17 years. She was named Woman of the Year by the Chamber of Commerce in 2005, Volunteer of the Year in 2011 and was inducted into the city’s Wall of Recognition in 2007.