The Journal of San Diego History
June 1965, Volume 11, Number 3
Ray Brandes, Managing Editor

By Reverend Valentine John Healy, O. F. M.

Images from this article

We can justly call Father Joseph Jeremias O’Keefe, O.F.M., the second builder, or rebuilder, of San Luis Rey Mission. For the Irishborn, Spanish-speaking member of a “German” Franciscan Province is the person immediately responsible for putting a top and a bottom on Mission San Luis Rey: literally, a roof and a floor. At the turn of this century he reclaimed the eighteenth of the California missions and began a program that is still underway.

Father O’Keefe came to San Luis Rey to serve a handful of refugee Mexican Franciscans as an English-speaking liaison with the community surrounding the Mission. He began officially in 1892 as supervisor of temporalities. Before long, in April 1893, he introduced the teaching of English and Latin to the Mexican Franciscan students. In the next two years he served under three different Mexican superiors before he himself was appointed superior pro tem of the Mission. The temporary appointment of 6 June 1895 was made permanent in 1899 and continued until he left San Luis Rey in 1912. Primary responsibility for the Catholics in the area also belonged to Father O’Keefe.1

The exiled Mexican Franciscans who found their way into the San Luis Rey valley in 1892 were the first Franciscans to reside at the Mission in the 46 years since the death of Fray Jose Maria Zalvidea. They came to establish at the Mission the novitiate and apostolic college of Our Lady of Zacatecas because they were convinced the anti-religious laws of the Mexican Republic precluded continued existence of such training schools for Franciscans in their native land.2

By coincidence, these Mexican friars came from one of the apostolic colleges that had supplied missionaries to California in days gone by. But much had happened to the ” King of the Missions” since the death of Father Zalvidea. The Mission had on 18 May of that very year been sold by Governor Pio Pico to Jose A. Pico and Jose A. Cota for $2000 cash and $437.50 in grain. American soldiers had used it as an operational base between 1847 and 1857. The land had been incorporated into the United States of America in 1850 as California, the 34th State. The U.S. Land Commission voided Governor Pico’s sale and a patent restoring the Mission church and adjacent lands (about 53 acres in all) to the Roman Catholic bishop was signed by President Lincoln on 18 March 1865.

While acknowledging that on occasion after 1846 the Mission church was used for religious service, it is not far from the truth to say the place was virtually abandoned. Visitors to the valley have recorded their impressions of the once imposing structure in oils, in water colors, in words, and in photographs. Some essayed explanations for what they found; some tried to assess responsibility. For purposes of this brief paper it is enough to acknowledge that the photographs, paintings, and word pictures validate the judgment of Father O’Keefe:

The houses were unroofed for the tiles and rafters; the beautiful arches were blown down with powder to get down the brick; doors and windows were appropriated; and finally, the bare walls were left standing exposed to all changes of the weather and erosions of storm and rains…. there were no roofs on any part of San Luis Rey except the church and even that was gone in large part. 3

Small wonder that he was not overly optimistic about the repair and restoration work he faced. ” This Mission church and buildings were in such a state of utter ruin, that I almost despaired of being able to do enough to put them in a habitable condition again; . . . 4 But optimistic or not, Father O’Keefe began his work.

His first task was to prepare living quarters for the Mexican refugee priests, brothers, and students. Although the local newspaper wrote of one hundred Franciscans who were to be directly transferred from a Mission in Mexico and of others to be added from the States,5 the Mexican Franciscans at San Luis Rey seem never to have been more than twenty-five, and generally were fewer.6 Most were students for the priesthood, some were brothers, a couple were priests. All needed rooms in which to sleep, to eat, to learn and to worship. It was Father O’Keefe’s task to provide these at once.

Because the church stood practically alone,7 he decided to construct hi front of the Mission church a frame building as temporary housing. The temporary structure became in time a group of buildings. The first building measured 40′ x 20′ the bottom floor of adobe served as kitchen and dining room, the second story of frame construction was the chapel. The second building, also two storys, measured 85′ x 35′, and provided living rooms, a classroom, and a library. Some time later a storeroom was built west of the kitchen. This third structure was one story and measured 39′ x 24′. Labor and materials for these structures totalled $6,619.28.

Then to the repair of the church itself. Two decisions were made, so the photographs tell us. First, because its roof and small dome had caved in and covered the floor with three feet of dirt, repair of the side chapel to the east of the nave of the church (the so-called “mortuary chaper, “Sacred Heart chapel”, and today’s “Madonna chapel”) was postponed. The entrance to this side chapel from the church was bricked up. Restoration of the chapel would not begin until August 1913. At the moment there was enough to do in the church itself.

The second decision was to wall up temporarily the central portion of the church sanctuary (the north end of the building) and to install an altar in front of this wall;8 then to put up a false ceiling, supported by open planking beneath the original ceiling. Thus the church was usable during the time that more extensive repairs were made in the sanctuary and on the roof and the church dome. Further, it permitted the rededication of the Mission church to religious service on 12 May, 1893, by Bishop Mora. Three hundred attended the rededication ceremony and the inauguration of the Apostolic College of Our Lady of Zacatecas, at San Luis Rey. 9

By the end of 1893, part at least of the Mission church could be used and temporary quarters had been provided the exiled Mexican friars. A beginning had been made.

Father O’Keefe had begun his role as rebuilder of San Luis Rey. In judging his work we do well to remember that his interest in the project was not that of a museum keeper, much less that of an antiquarian. Building was not for its own sake nor directly to preserve the monument of the past. Conscious as he was of the historical importance of the Mission, Father O’Keefe’s chief concern was to provide for current needs of a group of religious men and for Catholics in the area. His mission would not simply tell of history; it would make it.10

The work he accomplished between 1892 and 1912 divides itself into two phases. The first began in October 1892 and continued to about 1900. Except for the temporary living quarters mentioned above, the work had to do chiefly with repairing the Old Mission church. The second phase which began in 1903 and continued through 1912 had as its object the rebuilding of permanent living quarters on the foundations of the old Mission quadrangle.

In the first phase the Mission church was given new doors; a cement floor was poured over the original adobes; 11 holes were filled in the brick walls and in the arch supporting the dome; 12 the dome itself was rebuilt and given a new cupola or lantern,13 and by 1899 a new wooden beam ceiling replaced the false ceiling of 1892 – 1893.14 The redecoration of the interior waited until 1910-1911.15 Bells were obtained in 1896 and 1901,16 and a new main altar in 1911.17 Apparently the stairways from the church to the belfry and choir had been filled in with adobe brick.18 Although no express mention is made, repairs on the roof must have been high on the agenda of Father O’Keefe.19 Whether any cement and plaster had been put on the facade of the church is uncertain.20

The second phase, the rebuilding of the Mission quadrangle, began on 5 March 1903. Father O’Keefe devoted the remainder of the year to clearing debris and preparing foundations. In keeping with the actual and projected needs of the religious community, the plan called for only partial restoration. The rebuilt quadrangle equals approximately onefourth to one-third of the original. The four sides each would measure 168 feet. The building would be two storys, the walls of adobe construction, the flooring cement (first floor) and wood (second floor). The bulk of the work-to judge by extant photographs-was done by Franciscan brothers under the supervision of a midwestern Franciscan Brother Leonard. An account book in Father O’Keefe’s hand evidences employment of local labor; not the Indians he had hoped for (see note 10) but rather Spanish-speaking workmen, perhaps to avoid the fate of the Tower of Babel. Besides living rooms, the new quarters included a carpenter shop, dining room, kitchen and cellar.21

Although the new quadrangle was by no means complete,22 in 1904 or 1906 the Franciscan community moved in. The community at the time numbered 5 priests, 5 brothers, 1 student-cleric, 1 novice cleric, and 1 candidate for the brotherhood.23

By a strange turn of affairs, just at this time steps toward a reorganization of the Franciscan Order within Mexico were being taken. Their finalization on 19 March 1903 meant the abandonment of San Luis Rey as a novitiate or station of first-training for Mexican Franciscans. Consequently the number of Mexican Franciscans at the Mission continued to dwindle and Father O’Keefe sought to interest other Franciscan groups in staffing the Mission.24

Finally in 1912 the midwestern, German-originated, Franciscan Province of the Sacred Heart (headquarters in St. Louis, Missouri)- — to which Father O’Keefe himself belonged — accepted care of the Mission.25 But Father O’Keefe’s stay was drawing to a close. Age and sickness were taking a toll.26 He asked to be relieved of the burdens he had carried for nineteen years at San Luis Rey so he might spend his last days at Mission Santa Barbara, where he hadfirst joined the Franciscans fifty-three years earlier. His reasonable request was granted and he left San Luis Rey on 19 September 1912.27 He died on 13 August 1915.

Surely some questions we would like to answer are, “Did Father O’Keefe finance the construction work during these nineteen years? How much did it cost to repair the church building? How much the rebuilt quadrangle? Whence came the funds? Are there any outstanding benefactors to be recognized?”

Existing archival records permit a general accounting from 1892 to 1905, and from 1911 through September 1912. From time to time reports on specific projects are made. For example, by 1899 he had spent on labor and materials $15,056.78, and on the new quadrangle, in 1903, $2054.43, and through 1905, $6,677.84. But it is not easy to isolate building expenses because the most complete cash books on hand in the archives do not make distinctions of this kind.28 We do well to settle for the round figure given by Father O’Keefe in 1912: $24,000 for materials and hired labor. This was about 90% of the total income.

Similarly, the account of cash receipt does not afford many details. A few benefactors are named but the contributions are not in large sums.29

There is every reason to scotch the rumor that Father O’Keefe ever had $40,000 on hand in 1893-1894.30 For during the most active building years, 1892-1905, the balance remaining after expenses only twice reached the $2000 range and twice the $1000 range. The day-to-day accounts kept carefully by Father in notebooks-for he was timekeeper and paymaster in addition to his other duties-show the touch-and-go financial basis of the whole repair and rebuilding operation.

The pastoral work among Catholics of the area was not a source of substantial monetary help. The amount collected in 1900, for example, ($205.89) simply confirms Father O’Keefe’s remark:

You might imagine that I would get something on account of our spiritual work; the people are poor and what little they can give does not always defray the expenses of the priest in his administration; no, a priest must not hope for any surplus of filthy luchre (sic) in this district.

There was practical wisdom evident in his conclusion, “I would rely on some persons outside of this district fairly well-to-do, and I am sure they would contribute to the work when they saw it going.”31

A substantial portion of the total funds received is listed as “from Mexico”; $27,858.09. Surely some of this was contributed for the upkeep of the priests, brothers, and novices, and the operation of their training program.32 Exactly how much cannot be discovered from the materials on hand. What is noticeable is the pattern of contributions “from Mexico”; $22,174.94 between 1892 and 1899; only $5,728.15 for the next six-year period. We might generalize to the effect that a chief support for the repair of the church was money from Mexico; for the building of the quadrangle, funds from the States.

In the States there seems to have been some organized effort at fund raising. The official newspaper of the Monterey-Los Angeles diocese refers to:

the Old Mission Restoration society, with headquarters in Los Angeles (which) was looked upon as a powerful auxiliary. This society has, no doubt, done all in its power in that direction. The business and financial depressions that have been intensifying ever since the work was begun, have of course prevented many persons from doing as they would otherwise have done in aid of it.33

The degree of involvement in this and similar societies by Charles Lummis of the Landmarks Association and Mr. and Mrs. A. S. Forbes of the El Camino Real Association is not known.34

In the overview, then, the financing of the repair and building was something Father O’Keefe could never take for granted. Economy, hard work, begging-these were necessities; most of all, patience and determination. Considering what he had to work with — the Old Mission as he found it in 1892, the uncertainty of funds, and the needs of the Mexican Franciscans and the Catholics of the area — he did well. Ten weeks after his death a completely native American Franciscan jurisdiction was to center in California. Within a few years this new Franciscan Province of St. Barbara assumed responsibility for Mission San Luis Rey and carried forward the maintaining of the eighteenth of California’s Old Missions. But Joseph Jeremias O’Keefe, O.F.M. in a most unlikely and unpropitious set of circumstances, had begun work that still goes on. For this reason we call him the Rebuilder of Mission San Luis Rey.


1. The only biographies of O’Keefe are articles by Maynard Geiger, O.F.M.: “Life Sketch of Very Reverend Joseph Jeremias O’Keefe, O. F. M., 1842-1915”, “Provincial Annals of the Province of St. Barbara III, (October 1940) 2-11; and “A Friendly Gael in a Spanish Cloister”, Academy Scrapbook (Fresno) I (November 1950), 129-134.

2. Joseph Ascensio, “Origen de los Colegios Apostolicos,” Ideales Franciscanos, November 1947, p. 19, attributes the opinion to seek a foreign site to the then superior of the College of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Zacatecas, Mexico, to Father Guadalupe de Jesus Alva. The latter conducted the negotiations for the use of Mission San Luis Rey with Bishop Francisco Mora of Monterey and Los Angeles, and became by 12 July 1893 Commissary General of the Franciscans, in Mexico. Division of opinion existed among the Mexican Franciscans (ibid) and sites in Texas had been under consideration (The Monitor, San Francisco, 6 July 1906).

3. The Oceanside Blade, X, #3 (1 January 1898), pp. 3, 12. The article is by O’Keefe himself.

4. An undated letter in O’Keefe’s handwriting to an unidentified person.

5. The Oceanside Blade, X, #9 (4 March 1892), p. 2.

6. This is based upon examination of the lists of personnel and the photographs of the Franciscans at the Mission. In addition to the Mexican Franciscans, the Mission housed three seminarians of the Los Angeles diocese who had been studying at St. Patrick’s Seminary, Menlo Park, at the time of the San Francisco earthquake and fire. The three were John J. Lucey, James F. X. Mitchell, and Bernardino Schiaparelli (The Monitor, 7 July 1906). The length of their stay is not known.

7. Photographs in the San Luis Rey Mission archives show that only a few arches remained of the north side of the quadrangle; a dozen or so of the west side (these were incorporated into the 1949-1950 restoration); and about half a dozen next to the church building on the south side.

8. A certain C. E. P. wrote in 1868 that at the Mass he attended the priest used a temporary altar set up about in the middle of the Mission church. Even at that time the large dome connecting the transept and the main aisle of the church was in an unsafe condition (an unidentified clipping in the scrapbook collection of the Los Angeles Public Library).

9. Zephyrin Engelhardt, O. F. M., San Luis Rey Mission (San Francisco; The James Barry Co., 1921), pp. 241, 243, describes the rededication ceremonies.

10. An instance of this attitude is O’Keefe’s effort to involve Indians in the reconstruction work. He was not looking for a publicity gimmick; his vision went beyond even the skill of the Indians in making and laying adobes “even better than the white man.” He was vitally interested in an existing problem. “I have had a scheme for some time back by which I could assist these Indians very effectively, but I cannot do it alone without means. I will unfold it to you. . . The greater number or bulk of these Indians live a long distance from this Mission . . . It is simply impossible for me to visit them and remain as long as I would like in order to instruct them as they should be instructed. I have no missionary priests with me at present, and even if I had, everyone is not in love with this kind of work. If I could by any means get the men both young and middle-aged, or at least the working part of those who have families to come here and live during some months of the year, at least, and meanwhile do some work on this Mission. I know I could if I would offer them work to be paid for in money. I could at the same time give them instructions every evening after their work is over, by which they would be immensely benefited. At the same time they could help their families with the wages they would receive for their work and be able to help and strengthen them and others in the faith through their instructions.” – An undated letter of Father O’Keefe, probably to Mother Katherine Drexel of Philadelphia, well-known for her interest in the Indians’ welfare.

11. A San Bernardino firm did the cement work. Cf. Oceanside Blade, VIII, #8, (22 February 1896), p. 1; ibid., VIII, #9, (29 February 1896), p. 1. Tile was added only in 1931.

12. Mr. Kavanaugh contracted for this work and employed ten men.

13. The wooden, saucer-topped cupola-lantern was not an exact reproduction of the original. A closer approximation, the present one, dates from after 1912.

14. The plain white finish given the ceiling and dome by Tertiary Brother, Abbo

Stokes, has been criticized as unauthentic restoration. The present ceiling decorated in Indian and Moorish style was putinplace between December 1924 and summer 1927. Termites had rendered the earlier one unsafe.

15. Oceanside Blade, XXII, #5 (4 February 1911), p. 3.

16. One bell cast by G. H. Holbrook in 1828 was obtained from Medford, Mass. (ibid, VIII, #30, 25 July 1896, p. 2). The second, weighing 1000 pounds, was cast in San Diego (ibid, XIII, #16, 20 April 1901, p. 3).

17. Ibid., XXII, #5 (4 February 1911), p. 3. This slab of serpentine was promised by “a Los Angeles friend. . . . and it is expected that this will be put in place in a short time.”

18. Removal of these bricks and restoration of the stairways was one of the first tasks undertaken in December 1912 by Fr. O’Keefe’s successor, Fr. Peter Wallischeck, O. F. M. The stairway from the church to the belfry leads also to the choir loft. Another stairway on the west is outside the church walls. At some time this was bricked up with adobe and a portrait of Our Lady of Guadalupe painted in the alcove where the stairway enters the quadrangle building. The bricks and painting were removed in 1962 and the stairway is again in use.

19. A completely new roof was put on the church which, along with the new quadrangle, was retiled in summer 1930. The architects were Lescher and Mahoney from Phoenix, Arizona.

20. An article in the Los Angeles Times (21 April 1913) refers to the “absence of the cement coating in many places” as being of several years’ duration. The cement coating was “restored” at the time the article was published.

21. The carpenter shop was on the east side, adjacent to the church. It is now a library. The kitchen facilities (replaced by the present ones in 1931) are on the north. The number and use of the other rooms is not certain. An unsigned pencil sketch in 1922 purports to give number and usage but mixes projected with actual usage.

22. Only in 1914 were the arches cement-coated and plastered (Los Angeles Tirnes, 21 April 1913). Most of the second-story rooms and corridors waited until 1924 for this treatment and for electricity. Cement storm gutters were poured in the small courtyard within the quadrangle in 1924. It is not certain when the tile parapet on the front (south) wing of the quadrangle was finished. Further, a letter dated 28 December 1921 from the governing council (Definitory) of the St. Barbara Province to the Minister General of the Franciscan Order in Rome observes that of 39 living rooms only 10 were habitable. Cement floors were poured “for the recently added portions. . . . Gates Bros. & Poling of Escondido are doing the work.” (cf. Oceanside Blade, XVIII, #32, p. 1, 11 August 1906). A news item in the Oceanside Blade, XXII, #5 (4 February 1911), p. 3, states, “With the exception of one small corner of one of the corridors, the building is now complete, and the brick have been burned for this and will be put in place in a short time.” There is mention, however, in the San Luis Rey Chronicle, that the north and east sides of the quadrangle building were joined only after 8 December 1924 and before summer 1927.

23. Provincial Annals, XVII (1954-55) 99. The five brothers seem to have been members of the Sacred Heart (St. Louis, Mo.) Franciscan Province; the others, excepting Fr. O’Keefe, Mexican Franciscans.

24. Fr. O’Keefe himself wrote to Most Reverend David Fleming, O.F.M., an advisor to the Franciscan Superiors in Rome, already on 19 May 1905, seeking a more permanent Franciscan community than the Mexican. A few years later a spokesman for the Mission is reported as denying that care of the Mission was to be given over to English-speaking Jesuits. Cf. Oceanside Blade, XXII, #5 (4 February 1911), p.3.

25. Provincial Annals, XVII (1954-55) 103.

26. Oceanside Blade, XXI, #49 (4 December 1909); XXII, #32 (6 August 1910), p.3.

27. Rest was not to be his, for on 25 October of that year he was sent to St. Francis Orphanage near Watsonville because a Spanish-speaking priest was needed there. He remained at the orphanage until shortly before his death. Internment was in the Friars’ Vault in the Santa Barbara Mission cemetery.

28. Thus the ordinary living expenses of the Franciscans, including school costs, are not given a separate category; nor the expense of travel to and from Mexico; nor the expenses incurred in providing spiritual ministry to Catholics, Indian and not, at the Mission, Pala, Oceanside, Vista and Fallbrook. Then, too, adequate distinction is not made between the cost of construction and upkeep of the temporary quarters and the cost of the permanent buildings. Of course, the idea of the “contributed services” of the Franciscans and others, and of giving money value to donated materials received no attention whatever.

29. There exists a thank-you letter to Mother Katherine Drexel, 30 January 1901, for $166.67 for food and clothing for the Indians. The Oceanside Blade, Vll, (18 May 1895) p. 1, refers to an entertainment in the Oceanside Opera House in June to gain funds to put flooring in the Mission; and an illustrated benefit lecture on Babylonia by a Dr. John Sundberg (XVIII, #45, p. 1, 10 November 1906). Fr. O’Keefe himself refers to “some persons outside of this district fairly well-to-do”, and “some people of means in different parts of Mexico”.

30. Oceanside Blade, VI, #5 (3 February 1894), p. 3.

31. From an undated letter in Fr. O’Keefe’s handwriting.

32. Ibid. This same letter makes such a distinction by acknowledging that funds from some wealthy Mexicans made possible the repair of the church and by adding “All I (now) receive from Mexico goes to support this community of 25 novices and clerical students, and so I have nothing with which to improve or rebuild.”

33. The Tidings (Los Angeles), 13 July 1895.

34. Mr. Forbes was in Oceanside to urge the town and/or private citizens to purchase five El Camino Real bells at an estimated cost of $100 to be set up between Oceanside and San Luis Rey. Cf. The Oceanside Record, 1, #26 (30 October 1913), p. 6. Notice that the bells were installed was given in ibid., 1 #31 (4 December 1913), p. 6.

Reverend Valentine John Healy, O. F. M., was born in Oakland, California. He entered the Novitiate of the Order of Friars Minor, Mission San Miguel, California in 1945. He received his A. B. at San Luis Rey College in 1949, and until 1953 undertook Theological studies at Mission Santa Barbara.

In 1952 he was ordained to the Priesthood and the following year was Lector of History and Government at San Luis Rey College. Between 1955 and 1961 he studied at Saint Louis University where he received his A. M., and his doctorate of Philosophy in history.

Since 1957 Reverend Healy has served as President of San Luis Rey College. He has published in the Historical Bulletin, Pacific Philosophy Forum, Catholic Historical Review and Way — Catholic Viewpoints. His paper on “Father O’Keefe, Rebuilder of Mission San Luis Rey” was read at the First Annual San Diego County Historical Convention held in San Diego in March, 1965.