December 12, 2008

La Beata, Guardian of Christmas Angels

By Albert Simonson

The queen of saintliness in Hispanic California was Apolinaria “The Blessed,” so called for her selfless devotion to those less gifted or resourceful than herself, especially children, missionaries and Indian novices of the missions.

Her life did not begin auspiciously. Her mother left her behind in San Diego to follow her new husband to a new but short life. Known to townsfolk as “the foundling,” Apolinaria Lorenzana was, in 1800, but seven or eight years old. She never again saw her mother, and from the age of twelve she depended more on herself than on the famed kindness of Californios. As she later recalled, “I taught myself to write. I grasped every book I found and imitated the writing in them. I wrote on empty cigarette cartons or any paper I found on the ground.” Soon, she was teaching other girls to write, and so her guardian opened a school for girls and Apolinaria proved so adept that she took over the school while her guardian devoted herself instead to the kitchen garden.

She was struck down early by serious illness, but this merely provided an opportunity to learn the skills of nursing, which she put to good use throughout her life at the mission hospital. As she recalled, “Very often I would take the sick men and women of the mission to the hot springs (later called Warner Hot Springs). There I would remain for two months bathing and caring for them.”

A Traveling Troupe of Angels

Proposals of marriage received only fleeting attention from this self-sufficient and busy young lady. She had a full life, anyway. At every Christmas, plays were put on at the old mission theater and elsewhere. It is no surprise that Apolinaria was always in charge of the angels, and was entrusted with chaperoning the girls offstage. She reckoned herself to have some 100 to 200 godchildren.

In her memoirs, she recalled, “I had the satisfaction of being well loved by all who met me. Perhaps it was because of my desire to share my good humor with everyone I knew. Whenever there was a play, they would call me to organize the various female roles, particularly those of the angels. I was in charge of everything, even preparing the costumes. I had to chaperon the shepherdesses and the angels. Since I had no daughters of my own, I was always in charge of everyone else’s.”

These plays were interspersed with lengthy dialogues, songs and dramatic incidents. Christmas Eve began with pre-dawn fireworks and bell ringing, followed by mass. After mass, the strumming of a guitar was the signal for the assembled crowd to clear a way for Apolinaria’s celestial choir in procession. With banners held high, her shepherdesses passed, along with Lucifer, archangel Gabriel and a lazy vagabond named Bartolo. Biblical scenes were re-enacted while Lucifer tried to disturb the blessed proceedings. In the end, Lucifer always submitted to the inspired exhortations of the archangel, and everyone rejoiced. Throughout the Christmas season, these plays were repeated in different places along the coast.

The “Foundling” Found Her Way

At the time, there were few career opportunities for single women, but Apolinaria made a living as a seamstress and from teaching her skills to others. Most of her work was on special order: embroidered shirts, vests, scarves, and also the bespangled, embroidered chamois boots that the dandies of the day just had to have.

In the 1820’s, missionaries were urged by the Spanish viceroy to comply with their original assignment, by moving inland from the safe and comfortable coastal strip and getting on with the business of saving souls in the mountains and inland valleys. The missionaries never quite got around to venturing much toward that dangerous frontier, but they did see to it that someone else did. Apolinaria was granted two frontier ranches on conditions of habitation and use.

Santa Clara de Jamachá comprised over 8000 acres around the present Rancho San Diego golf course. Her house and corral were just northwest of Jamacha Road, east of San Diego, and her grain fields were on both sides of the Sweetwater River.

Rancho Buena Esperanza de los Coches (High Hopes of the Hogs) was just a little place to raise hogs for meat and candle tallow. It was located near Interstate 8 where Old Highway 80 crosses Los Coches Creek. She purchased a third rancho, Capistrano de Secuán, which probably include the Sweetwater River bottom land between Jamacha and the pagan village of Secuán where the Sycuan Reservation presently is. The Secuán ranch house, according to an old photograph, stood in the present center lane of Willow Glen Road, exactly one mile south of Dehesa Road. The word “dehesa,” as it was used at that time, denoted outlying mission commons land for pasture. This is now another golf course.

As an important ranchera, Apolinaria could have influenced Indians to adopt her faith, but she did not resort to coercion. Her own servants and ranch hands were free to retain their ancient faiths. Thus, she was able to live among pagan Indians in an atmosphere of mutual respect. The neighborliness of the pagan Secuán Indians was proved when marauding Indians sacked and burned nearby Jamul Rancho, killing ranch workers and kidnapping the girls Tomasa and Ramona. Apolinaria prepared for an expected attack on Jamachá with extra gunpowder and balls, and her pagan neighbors came to defend her with their bows and arrows. The attack never came, although the uprising led to many killings in the hinterlands of San Diego. One of the girls was sighted years later by a good friend of Apolinaria, but neither girl was ever rescued from the rebel Indians.

End of An Era

It seems fitting that Apolinaria La Beata was at the bedside of the last mission padre when he died while staying at San Juan Capistrano Mission on New Year’s Day, 1847. The missions, which had always been so central in her life, were no longer relevant in the new order of American California. She had always been present to care for the needy or sickly, whether of her own race or not. She was also present when the American troops under Stockton and Kearny marched into Los Angeles. An era had ended; her era had ended. After that, as she laconically put it, “nothing more worth mentioning occurred.” From a certain point of view, that was true. She was reluctant to talk about bad things, or even to think about them.

Apolinaria lived into old age, blind, impoverished, and dependent on charity of friends at Santa Barbara. Her memory was still excellent in 1878, when she dictated memoirs of her long years of service in and around all the missions of Southern California, from San Diego to Santa Ines.

Was she a woman of the past? Certainly, but in her heart and mind she was more a woman of a still-distant future. People did not speak in those days of self-motivation, career tradeoffs, or women’s lib. But it seems that she grasped the essence of some pretty modern thinking, enough to be a role model, a kind of patron saint, to disadvantaged young women of her time and ours. May this noble soul, our blessed guardian of Christmas angels, be in your thoughts this Christmas.

Main source: “Memories of La Beata,” Bancroft Library, Berkeley

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