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Ghosts of early California

Every mission in California is said to be haunted—here are their tales

Then the sad souls, long years buried, from their lowly graves arise, and, as if doom’s trump has sounded, each assumes his mortal guise; and they come from San Juan’s Mission, from St. Francis by the bay, from Mission San Diego, and the Mission San Jose, with their gaudy painted banners, and their flambeaux burning bright, in a long procession come they, through the darkness and the night: singing hymns and swinging censers, dead folks’ ghosts they onward pass, to the ivy-covered ruins, to be present at the mass … -Richard Edward White, "The Midnight Mass"

In the summer of 1769, Father Junipero Serra, a small man already well into his fifties, founded Mission San Diego, inaugurating the era of Spanish rule in what we now call California. Over the next 54 years, 20 more missions, stretching from San Diego to Sonoma, were built along the El Camino Real. The purpose of these missions was to Westernize, Christianize, and otherwise control the diverse native population who had called the land home for centuries. At their best, missions were centers of learning, commerce, and farming; at their worst, they were little more than brutal slave plantations. Although their reign was brief—coming to an end in the 1830s with the secularization of the missions by the new Mexican government—their impact on California was enormous.

By the time of the Gold Rush of 1848, which flooded California with Americans in search of a quick fortune, many of the once all-powerful missions were already slowly falling into ruin. Legends began to spring up about Spanish and Native Californian life at the missions—stories of a romanticized, violent, and passionate time. One American writer, visiting Mission San Fernando for the Los Angeles Times in 1897, described what it had become:

San Fernando, rapidly passing from the face of the earth and the minds of men, has come to ignoble uses in these utilitarian days. Its roofless chapel let in the sun and rain, and at night the white moonlight makes dark shadows over a half-filled pit, where, so say the predatory small boys, who delve about the ruins for Indian beads and other curiosities, a skeleton priest was once dug up, holding in his arms a skeleton babe. The only tenant in this old chapel is an armless saint, to whom none pays homage, and who is bound, sooner or later, to become a prize to a relic hunter, and the only sacred vessel is an old battered holy-water font, lying amid the fallen adobe and broken tiles.

Can it be any surprise that ruins like these, along with oral histories told by the last remaining survivors of the Mission period, inspired tales of ghosts and ghouls haunting the grounds? Every single California mission has been reported to have at least one ghost in residence. Even today, when many of the mission buildings are recreated or heavily restored tourist attractions, sightings of ghosts and otherworldly phenomena are frequent. Join us as we take a tour of some of the California missions and meet some of the spooky spirits that supposedly reside therein.

Murder at the Missions

Our first tale not only supplied California with its first Catholic martyr, it also supplied it with one of its first reported ghosts.

It was a dark night in 1775 at the Mission San Diego, the flagship "mother" of the missions. The mission was flourishing under the ambitious leadership of its two young padres, Father Luis Jayme and Father Vincent Fuster. Together, they had baptized hundreds of Native Californians. But the men seem to have been unaware or unworried about the growing discontent of the locals, who were increasingly being subjugated by Spanish authorities. On November 4, 1775, when the mission bells struck midnight, 800 or so Native Californian warriors attacked the mission, killing a blacksmith and a carpenter. Father Jayme and Father Fuster awoke to find buildings already in flames. According to one version of the story:

Father Jayme rushed into the howling mob—believing them to be his own baptized neophytes. "Amar a Dios, mis hijos," "Love God, my children"—he saluted them with his customary greeting. His answer was a cruel shower of arrows, clubs and stones. Like any martyr of Pre-Christian Rome, he fell asleep with a prayer on his lips.

Father Fuster rallied Mission Indians (native Californians who worked and lived on lands claimed by the Mission) and Spanish soldiers to defend the mission, and survived. His recounting of Father Jayme’s heroic death led to the young padre receiving the status of martyr in the Catholic Church. In 1937, the Los Angeles Times reported that he still roamed the grounds:

Today the spirit of the murdered priest still lives, it is said. Many bear witness that the white-robed vision can be seen, with lighted candle and cross in hand, moving about the ruins of the old church. And sometimes a faint whisper can be heard on the night winds, "Amar a Dios, mis hijos."

Sightings of a priestly apparition continue to this day. "A woman visiting the mission saw a gray robed form standing near the altar rail inside the church," ghost-hunter Richard Senate writes in Ghosts of the California Missions. "He smiled at her. She was horrified to see red blotches appearing on his robe as he slowly faded away."

A woman visiting the mission saw a gray robed form standing near the altar rail inside the church. He smiled at her. She was horrified to see red blotches appearing on his robe as he slowly faded away.

Padres at the missions were not always so passive and beatific. The Mission Santa Cruz, the twelfth mission on the El Camino Real, was founded by Father Fermin Lasuen in 1791. During the 1810s, it was under the charge of Padre Andres Quintana, a former military man known for whipping neophytes with wire, among other abuses. Two weeks after a whipping that nearly killed a Mission Indian, a group formed to stop Quintana’s violent reign. On the night of October 12, 1892, Quintana was kidnapped after venturing outside the mission compound. Knowing the end was near, he is said to have asked, "What have I done to you children for which you would kill me?"

"Because you have made a horsewhip tipped with iron," his captors replied.

Quintana was killed, and then his body was carefully positioned in his bed to make it look like he had died of natural causes. However, rumors about his death quickly began to circulate, and his body was exhumed and autopsied—the first recorded autopsy in Spanish California. His killers were captured, flogged, and then released, with the court finding, patronizingly, that the "priest was at fault for failing to teach his charges right from wrong."

Unsurprisingly, a ghost monk that many believe to be Quintana has been seen walking outside the mission and in the adjoining Casa Adobe, which is now a museum.

Violence continued to be a mainstay of California as it transitioned from Spanish to Mexican and then American rule. Many of the secularized mission lands became part of privately owned ranchos, while some mission buildings were used as homes or inns. During the Victorian era, sightings of a bloodied woman in white floating among the buildings of the Mission San Miguel in San Luis Obispo County were linked to the horrific massacre that occurred there in 1848.

In the late 1840s, William and Maria Reed lived at the old mission with their four-year-old son and assorted family members and employees. On the evening of December 5, 1848, the entire household was murdered by five desperados who believed that Spanish gold and other valuables had been buried at the mission. The brutal murders, committed with axes and knives, sent shockwaves throughout rough-and-tumble California. Over the years, there have been reports that claim this horrific night is played out over and over by a cavalcade of ghosts:

The old timers say that if by chance on certain dark nights, you are unfortunate or foolish enough to find yourself alone in the rooms of the oldest part of the Mission, you will hear the muffled screams of a young woman followed by noises of the ghosts of the murderers running and rummaging through the old Mission, forever doomed to search for the hidden gold … The old timers warn … if your legs can move ... you must run as fast as you can out of the old Mission, but beware! Because outside the Mission, the ghostly white figure of Mrs. Reed covered in blood wanders the old Mission grounds, crying and searching for her murdered children …

The Ghostly Girls of Mission San Juan Capistrano

Today, Mission San Juan Capistrano, nestled in the center of the picturesque town of San Juan Capistrano, in Orange County, is one of the loveliest mission properties. Founded by Junipero Serra in 1776, the seventh California mission is known for the legend of the swallows, the Serra Chapel (the only extant chapel where Father Serra is known to have performed Mass), and the picturesque ruins of the Great Stone Church, finished in 1806. The 1812 earthquake destroyed the church, killing many worshipers, including a Native Californian convert some say was named Magdalena.

According to the early 20th century folklorist Joseph Smeaton Chase, Magdalena was a beautiful adolescent girl. She fell passionately in love with a traveling artist named Teofilo, who had been hired to paint frescoes in the Great Stone Church. Magdalena’s soldier father forbade her to see the young man, but she disobeyed his wishes and secretly met with her love. After her father caught the two lovebirds together, Magdalena was forced to confess to the priest at the mission. According to Chase, she was punished and instructed to perform an act of penance:

As part of her punishment, she was to walk in front of the congregation holding a penitent’s candle. The day she was to do this was December 8th, 1812. At the early morning mass, she went inside the Great Stone Church and lit her candle. As she carried the candle up the aisle toward the priest to say her penance, the earth began to shake. A large earthquake struck. It is estimated that it was a 6.9 magnitude earthquake. The bell tower swayed and fell on top of the church. People screamed trying to make it toward the door, but unfortunately, the door was jammed. Forty people were buried alive under the rubble. It took months for the rubble to be cleared and the bodies to be buried. Among the dead was a young girl, Magdalena, with a candle still in her hand.

Over the years, there have been many sightings of a white-robed Magdalena (or just her candle) moving along the Great Stone Church’s towering retaining wall. It is also said you can see her candle and her face in the lone remaining window of the ruined stone church—but only on nights when the moon is half full.

Even the priests talk about it. Everyone I know is afraid of that place — you don't want to be caught there [at night].

From Magdalena we move on to Matilda, the living ghost of Mission San Juan Capistrano. According to Charles Francis Saunders and Father St. John O’Sullivan (then the pastor of the mission), the authors of the 1930s tome Capistrano Nights, Matilda was a young girl who lived in an adobe across the street from the mission. She worked for the padre, doing the wash and ironing the altar linens:

One morning while the good father was saying mass he saw Matilda peeking into the church through a little window at the back. Several of the women in the front rows also saw her. When the priest returned to his quarters he met her in the kitchen and scolded her. She replied that she had not been outside the house all morning!

A short while later, Matilda’s brother-in-law spied her walking the mission grounds. He called out to her, but she ignored him. When he confronted her about this slight at home later that day, she again told him that she had been home all day long.

Only a few days later the church bells rang out a mourning sequence, but no one had been assigned to ring them. When inspected, the bell ropes were neatly coiled and still. Soon, news spread around the mission that Matilda had suddenly died. This led to rumors about the strange sightings of Matilda before her death:

It was whispered that the person seen looking in the window and lurking in the corridors of Serra Chapel had not been Matilda but her spirit, which was walking around while she lived–a sure sign of her impending death.

Other ghosts are said to frequent the mission grounds—there is a faceless monk, and a headless soldier. In fact, the whole town of San Juan Capistrano is considered to be the most haunted in the OC. "Most of the ghosts are around the mission," a man told a reporter in 2003. "Even the priests talk about it. Everyone I know is afraid of that place — you don't want to be caught there [at night]."

Ghost Cats!

During the Spanish and Mexican periods, life at many of the missions was a lonely existence; humans were usually greatly outnumbered by livestock and other animals. At Solvang’s Mission Saint Ines, founded in 1804, it is said that a strange vampire sucks the blood of anyone who sleeps in the chapel and takes off their shoes. Richard Senate theorizes that this legend may have originated in the minds of residents who feared the staring eyes of owls perched on the church in the pitch-black night.

But for many who lived at the missions, animals were a comfort rather than a nightmare.

Located in Ventura County, Mission San Buenaventura was founded on Easter Sunday, 1782. During the early 19th century, it was under the care of Father Francisco Uria, an affable man who enjoyed a glass of sociable wine here and there. But more than anything, he loved his four cats, whom the Victorian author Charles Franklin Carter claimed were named San Francisco, Santa Clara, Santa Barbara, and Santa Ines. According to one version of the story published in 1937:

A strange companionship grew up between the priest and the cats. All five ate together at the same table, walked through the mission grounds together and slept in the same bed. At last came the hour for the padre to lay down his earthly burdens. When Father Uria gasped out his last breath, it is told, the four cats solemnly marched to the chapel. Leaping to the rope of the chapel bell, they swung it back and forth, tolling out the mournful message that the padre was dead. Sometimes, on stormy nights, the sound of padding feet can be heard about the old mission and the spectral wailing of the four cats can be faintly heard.

The Midnight Mass

The list of mission ghosts is long. There is the faceless monk of Mission San Luis Rey, the Spanish soldier of Mission San Jose, the bloodied monk of Mission Santa Barbara, the headless horsewoman at Mission Antonio de Padua. And then there is the legend of the ghostly Mass, when specters from all walks of mission life come back to celebrate and take communion. According to Richard Senate, these ghostly Masses are said to have been sighted at Mission San Carlos Borromeo, Mission San Buenaventura, and Mission Santa Barbara. At Mission Carmel, legend has it that Junipero Serra himself returns on the feast day of San Carlos to say Mass. In his poem "The Midnight Mass," 19th century poet Richard Edward White imagines this ghostly scene:

In the church now all are gathered,

And not long have they to wait;

From his grave the Padre rises,

Midnight Mass to celebrate.


"Ite, missa est," is spoken

At the dawning of the day,

And the pageant strangely passes

From the ruins sere and gray;

And Junipero the Padre,

Lying down, resumes his sleep,

And the tar-weeds, rank and noisome,

O’er his grave luxuriant creep.

And the lights upon the altar

And the torches cease to burn,

And the vestments and the banners

Into dust and ashes turn;

And the ghostly congregation

Cross themselves, and, one by one,

Into thin air swiftly vanish,

And the midnight Mass is done.

As long as the missions survive—as working parishes, as historical monuments, or both—there is little doubt that their ghosts will abide. "The history of California is that we went through a lot of transitions in a relative heartbeat. The missions seem haunted because we have an understanding of the wrenching nature of those transitions," historian William Deverell explained to reporter James Ricci. "They weren't easy. They were violent. They could be heartbreaking. The missions deserve meditation. They echo."

Editor: Adrian Glick Kudler

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