David J. Weber, Book Review Editor
Joseph Sadoc Alemany: Harbinger of a New Era. By Francis J. Weber. Los Angeles: Dawson’s Bookshop, 1973. Illustrations. Notes. 70 pages. No price listed.
Reviewed by Harold A. Whelan, Ph.D., Provincial Superior of the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts, Western U.S. Province (formally known as the Picpus Fathers), part-time professor at California State University at Los Angeles and author of articles on the Picpus Fathers in the 1850’s.
Although of admittedly modest proportions, in his preface the author states that the “spelling out” of his subject’s “significant contributions doesn’t necessarily demand any great quantity of words.” In spite of its brevity, the author does serve the reader with a brief, well-documented history of California’s mid-nineteenth century transitional period from mission to diocese. Much of the material has been seen in print before, but as the author states, this collector’s item of seventy pages “completes a vital phase in the overall attempt at recording the Catholic heritage of Southern California.” Father Weber leaves to other historians the task of compiling all of his brief biographies into a complete and larger history of California’s early religious history. This is the seventh of such biographical offerings and, together with Weber’s other source material publications, the scholar or writer should take advantage of Father Weber’s groundwork.
Using “meticulous research,” Weber takes us from Alemany’s origins in Spain to his elevation to the Archbishopric in 1853; he considers the aftermath to be adequately covered by other authors. Perhaps one item has been omitted from Weber’s careful research. He fails to mention that although Oregon and Hawaii were concerned with the crisis the Gold Rush had created in the California Church, John Mary Odin, Bishop of distant Galveston, Texas, was permitted to extend his powers over the vacant diocese of both Californian, belying the Cardinal Prefect’s ignorance of the geographical situation. Some confusion is created on pages 23 and 25 between the official positions of Giacomo Cardinal Franzoni and Allessandro Barnabo. The former was the prefect of the Congregation of the Propagation of the Faith, who was forced to move from the Vatican with Pope Pius IX and his Curia during the civil strife that hit Rome in November 1848 and become a government in exile in Naples. Barnabo, the secretary of the Congregation, remained as liason in Rome. By the time Alemany came to Rome in 1850, the Papal government resided in Rome once more.
The author has thought fit to give Alemany the title of “Harbinger of a New Era” and rightly so. To California’s first archbishop goes credit for establishing this new diocese of the thirty-first state on a firm footing. Starting with a mere handful of priests and some ruined missions, he diligently recruited talented priests and sisters to serve the spiritual, intellectual, and physical well-being of the people of California. Evidence of Weber’s discovery and use of Alemany’s “long lost diary” and his exhaustive research into the litigation over the Pious Fund should entice the reader to hunger for more information. But it is in the Appendix, consisting of twenty-four fully documented pages, that we come across something that is new, but unrelated to the primary objective of the author. Relating previous unsuccessful attempts to have the deceased Archbishop’s body returned to San Francisco, Weber manifests his dedication and perseverance which finally culminated in the transferral of Almany’s body from Vich, Spain, to his final resting place with his episcopal successors.
It is with regret that this reader finished this book. So much information has been conveyed in its pages and footnotes, but one still thirsts for more. Understandably, as archivist for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, Weber maintains a first class repository of historical manuscripts and that demands most of his time. This monograph is but another evidence of his dedication to the preservation and dissemination of the treasures of California’s past. Because of the book’s brevity, the index is hardly missed and Weber’s accurate and copious footnotes more than compensate for the lack of a bibliography. Along with Father Weber’s other works, this book will add further stature to the libraries of discerning readers and students of early California history.