The Journal of San Diego History
SAN DIEGO HISTORICAL SOCIETY QUARTERLY
Spring 1973, Volume 19, Number 2
James E. Moss, Editor
David J. Weber, Book Review Editor
Francisco García Diego, California’s Transition Bishop. By Francis J. Weber. Los Angeles: Dawson’s Book Shop, 1972. Appendix. Illustrations. Notes. 63 pages.
John Joseph Cantwell, His Excellency of Los Angeles. By Francis J. Weber. Hong Kong: Cathay Press, 1971. Illustrations. Notes. 177 pages.
Reviewed by Manuel P. Servin, Professor of History and Co-ordinator of American Studies at Arizona State University, Tempe. A graduate of Loyola University of Los Angeles, he received an M.S.W. degree from Boston College, and the A.M. and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Southern California. He is the former editor of the California Historical Society Quarterly.
Father Francis J. Weber, distinguished archivist of the archdiocese of Los Angeles and prolific chronicler of California’s Catholic history, is well-known for his sympathetic biographies of Southern California bishops. His previous biographical works have studied the episcopacies of such neglected ordinaries as Tadeo Amat, Francisco Mora, and Thomas J. Conaty and have contributed to greater understanding of California’s history. Now, Father Weber has directed his historical efforts to two of California’s most debatable ecclesiastical administrators — Francisco García Diego and John Joseph Cantwell. The Mexican-born García Diego was California’s first bishop; the Irish-born John Joseph Cantwell, the first Archbishop of Los Angeles.
Of the two volumes, Francisco García Diego, although consisting of only sixty-three pages, appears to be the better historical work. Francisco García Diego was a member of a distinguished Mexican family, studied at the Conciliar Seminary of San José at Guadalajara, and entered the Franciscan Apostolic (Missionary) College of Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe at Zacatecas. Possessing a fine mind, a strong devotion, and apparently a will to succeed, García Diego advanced methodically up the ecclesiastical ladder. In 1816 he became novice master for the college; in 1820, at the age of thirty-four professor of philosophy; in 1828 comissary prefect of the college’s missions; and in 1832 vice-guardian of the college. He then journeyed to California, as superior of the Zacatecan missionaries who had received the less prosperous northern California, Fernandino missions. Remaining in California until 1835, he returned to Mexico to present plans for the establishment of a bishopic for the province. He was amply successful in his endeavor. Not only was a diocese established, but he was appointed California’s first bishop in April 1840 — a post he held until his death in 1846.
In delineating García Diego’s career in California, both as superior and as bishop, Father Weber has been more understanding and perceptive than most historians. While the bishop’s failures and problems have received ample publicity, little has been said of his achievements and his projects. García Diego, as Weber states, did abolish corporal punishment for the mission Indians, did establish a seminary in hopes of securing native clergy, and most importantly did obtain diocesan status for the Californian. That he was frustrated in his efforts to save the mission properties, to obtain financial support, and to secure the respect of the Californians, cannot be denied. But, as Weber intimates, García Diego cannot be held totally responsible for these failures that resulted respectively from the unlawful actions of Governor Pío Pico, from the illegal seizure of the Pious Fund by Antonio López de Santa Ana, and from “a certain degree of prejudice by both the neophytes and Californians.”
Father Weber must be complimented for collecting the original documents, especially letters, pertaining to Frey Francisco García Diego; for recognizing that the success-seeking pseudo-Spanish Californios were anti-Mexican; and for delineating the problems that the Mexican government, the Californian authorities, and the bleached Californios posed to the prelate. This brief study perhaps may have been strengthened if it had been enlarged (1) to rely more on non-ecclesiastical documents, (2) to delve with greater depth into the relations between García Diego and the Mexican government, (3) to investigate whether the Fernandino and Spanish friars of the same period were really any better trained or more disciplined than the Zacatecans, and (4) to include a detailed analysis of the relationship between the bishop and the Franciscans at Santa Bárbara mission.
Not as historically strong as the above-reviewed volume is Father Weber’s biography of John Cantwell, ordinary of Los Angeles from 1914 to 1947. In this well-researched, but eulogistic, volume the events erections, and developments that occurred in Cantwell’s term as bishop and archbishop are chronicled.
Cantwell, an Irish-born and educated secular priest, immigrated to the Archdiocese of San Francisco where he rose rapidly — with less than a minimum of parish work — to the position of the archbishop’s secretary and vicar general. After the death of Thomas J. Conaty, the former inept rector of the Catholic University and ineffective bishop of the Monterey-Los Angeles Diocese, Cantwell’s selection for the Los Angeles see was championed by Edward J. Hanna, Auxiliary Bishop of San Francisco. Because Apostolic Delegate Giovanni “Bonzano, would not overlook the fact that Father Cantwell is Irish as are many of the priests of that diocese whose many abuses will need to be corrected,” Cantwell’s appointment in 1917 had been delayed just over two years. In the meantime, there occurred some rather unedifying ecclesiastical politics that led at least three Irish-surnamed bishops not to accept the post. Although the volume leads the reader to believe that Cantwell did overcome his personal and national sympathies, eyewitnesses of non-Irish descent, such as I, find such an assumption rotundly unacceptable.
As ordinary of the Monterey-Los Angeles Diocese and later of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, Cantwell, according to Weber, “was able to satisfy the consequent exigencies of those hectic decades while, at times, bringing his diocese into the mainstream of American Catholicism . . .” His achievements in the internal development of the diocese included calling a diocesan synod (some ten years after taking possession of the bishopric), turning over the restoration
of missions to the Landmarks Club (which had started this work when Cantwell was a priest in San Francisco), having four fulltime and four part-time priests working among the southern California Indians, renovating St. Vibiana’s Cathedral and raising money to build a new one in the wealthy section of town, postponing taking over the Doheney property on Chester Place, reorganizing the Catholic Charities under Irish-surnamed and Irish-born priests, encouraging Catholic lay organization (including the Ancient Order of Hibernians and Friends of Irish Freedom), and participating in the 1931 Fiesta de Los Angeles and the 1940 Centennial Anniversary of the establishment of the Diocese of Both Californias.
Cantwell’s other achievements, enumerated in the study, include recommending Irish-surnamed and Irish-born priests as his auxiliary bishops; purchasing The Tidings and appointing Irish-named priests as editors; supporting the work of the Legion of Decency; and being responsible for the erection of parishes, schools, seminaries and colleges for his rapidly growing flock. Especially emphasized is the prelate’s alleged role as one of the outstanding leaders working in behalf of the Mexican immigrants to California. Frankly, Father Weber’s statement that “In addition to providing for the spiritual needs of the thousands of [Mexican] immigrants flocking to Southern California, the Irish-born prelate was a vigorous supporter of measures aimed at reforming the social and economic conditions among the exiles,” is an overstatement that does not appear to be supported even from his church-drawn documents. Furthermore, the growth of Protestantism among the Spanish-speaking in Southern California, and also in Texas, concretely poses a picture of spiritual and social neglect not only by Cantwell but also by other Southwestern members of the hierarchy.
Despite the fact that Archbishop Cantwell has been overrated and overly praised in this pioneering volume, credit must be given to author Weber for shedding light upon an unexplored fact of California’s history.