THE Mission of ” Our Lady of Solitude ” has only brief record in written history ; but the little that is known and the present condition of the ruins suggest much that has never been recorded.
Early in 1791 Padre Lasuen, who was searching for suit-able locations for two new Missions, arrived at a point midway between San Antonio and Santa Clara. With quick perception he recognized the advantages of Soledad, known to the Indians as Chuttusgelis. The name of this region, bestowed by Crespi years previous, was suggestive of its solitude and dreariness ; but the wide, vacant fields indicated good pasturage in seasons favored with much rain, and the possibility of securing water for irrigation promised crops from the arid lands. Lasuen immediately selected the most advantageous site for the new Mission, but several months elapsed before circumstances permitted the erection of the first rude structures.
On October 9 he returned, attended by Lieutenant Arguello and the guards, two priests, and a few Indians. It would not require a very vivid imagination to conceive that the inauguration ceremonies of ushering into existence the thirteenth Franciscan Mission were most impressive, the little band assembled being the only visible occupants of thousands of acres, bare and brown, stretching away on every side in undisturbed silence. Little did the venerable padre dream of the pathetic scenes to be enacted in that quiet spot, or of the fragments that a century later would mark the place consecrated by him, as with placid face and hopeful heart he planted the Mission cross in the stillness of that peaceful day.
There were comparatively few Indians in that immediate region, and only eleven converts were reported as the result of the efforts of the first year. There was ample room for flocks and herds, and although the soil was not of the best and much irrigation was necessary to produce good crops, the padres with their persistent labors gradually increased their possessions and the number of their neophytes. At the close of the ninth year there were 512 Indians living at the Mission, and their property included a thousand cattle, several thousand sheep, and a good supply of horses. Five years later (in 1805) there were 727 neophytes, in spite of the fact that a severe epidemic a few years previous had reduced their numbers and caused many to flee from the Mission in fear. A new church was begun in 1808.
On the 24th of July, 1814, Governor Arrillaga, who had been taken seriously ill while on a tour of inspection, and had hurried to Soledad to be under the care of his old friend, Padre Ibanez, died there, and was buried, July 26, under the centre of the church.
Being inland, Soledad was named as the place of refuge during the alarm caused by the appearance of Bouchard ; and while there is little of definite record, there is no doubt but that several bands of families from the different Missions did rendezvous here.
For about forty years priests and natives lived a quiet, peaceful life in this secluded valley, with an abundance of food and comfortable shelter. That they were blessed with plenty and prosperity is evidenced by the record that in 1829 they furnished $1150 to the Monterey presidio. At one time they possessed over 6000 cattle; and in 1821 the number of cattle, sheep, horses, and other animals was estimated at over 16,000. One writer credits them with having an aqueduct fifteen miles long, supplying water for irrigating thousands of acres ; but I have not made careful enough examination to know whether this statement has any foundation in fact.
After the changes brought about by political administration the number of Indians rapidly decreased, and the property acquired by their united toil quickly dwindled away, until little was left but poverty and suffering.
At the time secularization was effected in 1835, according to the inventory made, the estate, aside from church property, was valued at $36,000. Six years after secular authorities took charge only about 70 Indians remained, with 45 cattle, 25 horses, and 865 sheep, and a large debt had been incurred. On the 4th of June, 1846, the Soledad Mission was sold to Feliciano Soberanes for $800.
One of the pitiful cases that occurred during the decline of the Missions was the death of Padre Sarria, which took place at Soledad in 1835, or, as some authorities state, in 1838. This venerable priest had been very prominent in missionary labors, having occupied the position of commisario prefecto during many years. He was also the president for several years. As a loyal Spaniard he declined to take the oath of allegiance to the Mexican Republic, and was nominally under arrest for about five years, or subject to exile ; but so greatly was he revered and trusted as a man of integrity and great ability as a business manager that the order of exile was never enforced. The last years of his life were spent at the Mission of Our Lady of Solitude. When devastation began and the temporal prosperity of the Mission quickly declined, this faithful pastor of a fast thinning flock refused to leave the few poverty-stricken Indians who still sought to prolong life in their old home. One Sunday morning, while saying mass in the little church, the enfeebled and aged padre fell before the altar and immediately expired. As it had been reported that he was ” leading a hermit’s life and destitute of means,” it was commonly believed that this worthy and devoted missionary was exhausted from lack of proper food, and in reality died of starvation.
There were still a few Indians at Soledad in 1850, their scattered huts being all that remained of the once large rancherias that existed here.
The ruins of Soledad are about four miles from the station of the Southern Pacific of that name. The church itself is at the southwest corner of a mass of ruins. These are all of adobe, though the foundations are of rough rock. Flint pebbles have been mixed with the adobe of the church walls. They were originally about three feet thick, and plastered. A little of the plaster still remains.
In 1904 there was but one circular arch remaining in all the ruins; everything else has fallen in. The roof fell in thirty years ago. At the eastern end, where the arch is, there are three or four rotten beams still in place; and on the south side of the ruins, where one line of corridors ran, a few poles are still in place. Heaps of ruined tiles lie here and there, just as they fell when the supporting poles rotted and gave way.
It is claimed by the Soberanes family in Soledad that the present ruins of the church are of the building erected about 1850 by their grandfather. The family lived in a house just southwest of the Mission, and there this grand-father was born. He was baptized, confirmed, and married in the old church, and when, after secularization, the Mission property was offered for sale he purchased it. As the church in the years of pitiful struggle for possession of its temporalities had been allowed to go to ruin, this true son of the church erected the building, the ruins of which now bring sadness to the hearts of all who care.
Over the entrance is a niche in which a statue of Our Lady of Solitude La Soledad used to stand. Me-thinks that if the ghosts of things that were exist, surely a weeping ghost of the Lady of Solitude haunts these deserted and forlorn ruins.
Weep ! weep ! for the church of Our Lady of Solitude. It is entirely in ruins. The adobe walls are rapidly melting away. For years it has stood exposed to the weather, nothing whatever being done to preserve it. It is roofless and unprotected. The winds howl around it, the rains beat upon it, the fierce sun shines upon it, and all do their part to aid in its more speedy dissolution. It is not demolition ; that could better be borne than this heartless abandonment, this careless indifference, this hateful casting aside of a once noble building, dedicated to high and blessed purposes, sanctified by the earnest labors of devoted men. It seems as if the building itself felt its desertion, though smiling fields of wheat and barley surround it. Nay, these evidences of material prosperity so close at hand only serve to accentuate the devastation of the old Mission.
The visitor to Soledad at the present day will find satisfaction in a few minutes spent at the parish church of the new railway town. In the sacristy the Rev. Andrew Garriga, the present priest, carefully treasures a chasuble said to be over a hundred years old, which was worn by the officiating padres at Old Soledad Mission. It is in perfect condition. Father Garriga also has a painting of Our Lady of Solitude that differs in spirit from any I have ever seen. As a rule, pictures of the Virgin Mother after her Son had ascended show her clad in mourning, with swords in her heart, the former symbolic of her desolation, and the latter of the sorrow that had pierced her soul. ” But,” says Father Garriga, ” may it not be possible that this is an erroneous conception. Can it be thought possible that the Holy Virgin was not conscious of some of the wonderful meaning of the resurrection of her Divine Son? So, while she is alone, the Lady of Solitude, she is yet filled with unspeakable joy at the great work accomplished in her son; and that is just beginning for the human race.” With these thoughts in mind he found an artist in a Mr. Downing, of San Francisco, who, in 1903, painted the picture that now hangs in the little chapel.