And perhaps the most glorious and long-lasting of the many contributions associated with the disciples of Saint Francis is the distinction of having provided the proto-martyrs for such areas of the New World as Mexico, Canada and the United States.
In North America alone, no fewer than 115 friars willingly underwent the supreme sacrifice in a saga of dauntless courage, inspiring heroism and wholehearted devotion unparalleled in ecclesiastical annals.
The Franciscans were especially lavish in bestowing their blood and virtue on the Church in California. Prominently etched onto the Golden State’s martyrology are the names of six outstanding friars whose testimony for Christ is forever a monument to Christian endurance and bravery.
On the eve of the nation’s bicentennial, the People of God gather at San Diego to honor the memory of Fray Luís Jayme, a cherished member of that Seraphic contingency who effected the initial triumph of religion and civilization in what was to become the thirty-first commonwealth of these United States. It was just two hundred years ago that the soil of the Pacific Slope was reddened by the blood of that youthful friar.
Sixteen of the Franciscans who carried the banner of Christ along El Camino Real hailed from Mallorca, the largest of the Balearic Islands, off the Spanish coast. Luís Jayme was one of those who bore in his temperament and exemplified in his demeanor the charm of that picturesque isle which writers have long referred to as the “spiritual god-mother” of California.
Melchor Jayme was born in the tranquil farming village of San Juan, about six miles west of Petra, on October 18, 1740. His earliest schooling was acquired from the local parish priest. When their son reached his fifteenth birthday, the elder Jaymes brought him to Petra, the capital city of Mallorca, and enrolled him at the convent school of San Bernardino, where the famed Fray Junípero Serra had studied earlier.
On September 27, 1760, Melchor Jayme was invested with the Franciscan habit, in the Convento de Santa Maria de los Angeles de Jesus. Following a year of strict seclusion and rigorous discipline, Jayme solemnly promised to observe the rule of the Friars Minor for the rest of his earthly lifespan. From then onwards, he was known as Fray Luis. The friar made his theological studies at the Convento de San Francisco, which then served as the motherhouse for the Franciscan Province of Mallorca. He was ordained to the priesthood on December 22, 1764. Upon completion of his courses, Fray Luís was appointed Lector of Philosophy, a position he occupied at San Francisco from 1765 to 1770.
It was during the year of Spanish penetration into Alta California that Luís Jayme determined to spend his remaining years as a missionary in the New World. He wrote for permission to the Commissary General of the Indies and was assigned to Mexico City’s Apostolic College of San Fernando.
After a farewell visit to his native village of San Juan, Fray Luís left Palma early in 1770 for Cádiz. There an official for the Board of Trade provided the only extant description of the friar, recording that he was a “person with well proportioned physique, somewhat thin, and of a darkish complexion.”
Jayme arrived in New Spain after a long and arduous trans-Atlantic voyage. There he began the special training course wherein soldiers of the Cross were conditioned to the privation, fatigue, mortification and penance encountered on the missionary frontier.
Finally, in October, Fray Luís and nine other priests set out for California, where they had volunteered to spend a minimum of ten years in winning over the hearts and souls of the primitive peoples then inhabiting the outer rim of the Spanish realm.
Jayme was happy when Fray Junípero Serra, the Presidente of the California Missions, appointed him to what would be his first and last assignment, Mission San Diego de Alcald. That assignment had special significance for Fray Luis, since it was there that it had all begun for Christ in Alta California.
The Yuman Indians at San Diego were the most treacherous and uncooperative of all the tribes in the coastal areas. Generally described with such words as thievish, egocentric and untrustworthy, they consistently provided a formidable challenge to the evangelization endeavors of the Spanish missionaries.
A clever and talented friar, Jayme’s earliest efforts at San Diego were devoted to mastering the complexities of the local native language. Once he had gained a facility with its vocabulary, he was able to compile a polyglot Christian catechism.
The extreme scarcity of water, combined with the proximity of the military personnel, induced Fray Luís to ask for and receive permission to move the mission from its original site, atop Presidio Hill, to the valley where it is presently situated.
The new location proved eminently more practical. Almost immediately there was a notable upsurge in the number of conversions which, by 1775, numbered 431. Such success obviously infuriated the devil who seems to have held the natives in bondage during aboriginal times. In any event, a plan was hatched by a handful of pagan sorcerers and others to rid the area of all traces of Hispanic influence.
At about 1:30, on the brilliantly-lit night of November 4, 1775, 600 or more warriors from some forty rancherias silently crept into the mission compound. After quietly plundering the chapel, they set fire to the other buildings. The crackling of flames soon awakened the two missionaries, the guards and the Christian neophytes.
Instead of running for shelter to the stockhold, Fray Luís Jayme resolutely walked toward the howling band of natives, uttering the traditional Franciscan greeting: “Amur a Dios, hijos!”
In a frenzied orgy of cruelty, the Indians seized him, stripped off his garments, shot eighteen arrows into his body and then pulverized his face with clubs and stones.
The attack on the mission was terminated when a well-aimed shot from a musket unnerved the Indians and caused them to flee in panic. Early the next morning, the body of the thirty-five year old missionary was recovered in the dry bed of a nearby creek. His face was so disfigured that he could only be recognized by the whiteness of his flesh under a thick crust of congealed blood.
The friar’s mangled body was initially buried in the presidio chapel. When the new church at the mission was completed, it was re-interred in the sanctuary. There it rested until November 12, 1813, when it was transferred to the third and final church. Today the remains of Fray Luís Jayme repose in a common vault between the main and side altar.
The reaction of the Franciscan Presidente to the news of his confrere’s death speaks volumes about the attitude of the early friars. Far from being saddened or disappointed, Fray Junípero Serra said: “Thanks be to God; now that the terrain has been watered by blood, the conversion of the San Diego Indians will take place.” That proved to be a prophetic statement too, for by 1834, the number of baptisms at the mission reached 6,638.
Little else can be said about Fray Luís Jayme. There is a trinity of physical reminders of the Mallorcan friar: a concrete cross beside the arroyo where he died, a stone monument above the city hall of the village where he was born and a painting in the sacristy of the church where he was baptized.
It was only the mortal body of Fray Luís that was consumed in that November massacre two hundred years ago. His spirit and influence were born into eternity on that winter’s night.
Fray Luís Jayme lives on in the affections of latter-day Californians as a noble pioneer who mortgaged his lifeblood to implant the principles of Christianity into California’s landscape.
Through the centuries, martyrs have been regarded as objects of veneration, models of perfection and friends of God. Martyrdom was and is a praiseworthy ideal of all dedicated followers of the Nazarene for it is the ultimate proof of love and dedication to the Christian lifestyle.
Yet, two hundred years after the death of California’s proto-martyr, those who trek along El Camino Real are reminded that death by the shedding of blood is far from being the only way whereby a Christian is transformed into the likeness of the Savior.
And were Fray Luis Jayme alive today, one strongly suspects that his message to the Christians of 1975 would echo the observation of Horace Mann that “it is often more difficult and calls for higher energies of soul, to live a martyr than to die one.”
Reverend Francis J. Weber is a noted Catholic scholar and an Honorary Chaplain to His Holiness. Monsignor Weber is Archivist for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. He has published A Select Bibliography To California Catholic Literature, 1856-1974 which lists 500 writings, 22 of them by Father Weber himself. His article entitled “John Steven McGroarty: From the Green Verdugo Hills,” was published in this journal in the Fall, 1974, issue. His article published here is based on an address given on November 5, 1975, at Mission San Diego de Alcala.