(Unpublished essay, early 90’s, updated later…though it’s strange reading stuff from maybe two decades ago….guess I’ve written maybe a million words since then and this stuff seems like it was written by somebody else. Somebody with better manners and terribly serious about being a writer.)
About midway between Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay area lies Mission San Miguel. Only yards away traffic speeds between the two metropolises; only a few cars pull off the highway and stop at the old mission. The parking area is dirt, the grounds old and a handful of chickens strut about. There is a well with a busted pump, indeed lots of machinery, piles of it back in the plaza and the surrounding storerooms, where the evidence of the factory nature of the place lies about in broken abundance. A dusty diorama recreates the extent of the mission and surrounding acreage of vines and orchards and grain and pastures. The local Salinan indians were impressed as laborers. They lived in barrack conditions; so too did the clergy and garrison. Little San Miguel, just a speck on the highway, had once been an outpost on the frontier of the Spanish empire. A garrison town, it brought together soldiers and the no less military Jesuit order [though I think San Miguel was a Franciscan mission] to hold sway over the native population, convert them to into loyal and productive subjects of the Bourbon kings. Crops were raised to support the mission and its populace, as well as to trade with the other portions of the empire. The authority of Spain was represented here in the Church, whose building is quite a spectacle. Much, much larger than one would expect from the term “chapel”, it is a building designed to hold a couple of hundred worshippers within its imposing walls. It is a living church, serving the local Roman Catholics, and votive candles flicker in the dim light and missals lay scattered about the pews. But the presence of powers past is strongly present in the extraordinary paintings gracing every surface in the most vivid hues. The artist had come from Spain, though materials were scarce and he used Indian apprentices and local materials to make the paints. Thus many of the images are through the eyes of a Spaniard, the hues the choice of an Indian; whiles others are by the hand of an Indian directed by a Spaniard. It’s an extraordinary mixture. In the little museum in the gift shop (for that’s what San Miguel is, a small diocese with a gift shop) stands an imposing statue of Saint Michael himself, in Spanish armor, holding an immense sword to the throat of a prostrate Lucifer. Where they saw this Lucifer we can only imagine, but Lilies of the Field the Mission San Miguel was not.
Spanish power ebbed away with the 18th century, Madrid ceased to care about its outer works in far flung territories and San Miguel languished in obscurity. That’s what the mission is now. An abandoned outpost of a long gone civilization. The outer edges of empires always end like this, sometimes dead, sometimes alive but barely. The change here was brutal….California became a U.S. state, a protestant land, English speaking. The Indians disappeared, nearly wiped out in the decades after the Gold Rush. The descendants of the Spanish Empire were reduced to peasants. The mission itself became a whorehouse for drunken white men. That was shut down, eventually, and the place sat empty. Then a century ago the chapel sprang to life again, a small parish, for the local peasants and sundry Catholics. The terrifying sword wielding San Miguel of the conquistadores was long gone, though, just a statue in the museum. This was the home of Jesus and Maria and a simpler, more forgiving San Miguel. A saint of the underclass. The new occupants refurbished the place, cleaned it up, touched up the walls, held services. We showed up during mass. I watched from outside the door. The candles glowed red, the people murmured their prayers, the priest went through the timeless motions, some in English, some Spanish, some Latin. He blessed them, sprinkled holy water, and mass ended. When the parishioners had filed out and the padre disappeared into his chambers we slipped in to look around. The walls and ceiling were beautiful, the still vibrant colors, European imagery rendered by an Indian hand. I went up into the balcony where the choir sat for big events, Christmas and Easter. It was dusty and a sparrow lay on the window sill, limp, dead, its neck broken, fooled by all that blue sky beyond the glass.