Richard H. Peterson, Book Review Editor
California Catholicity By Msgr. Francis J. Weber. Hong Kong: Libra Press Limited, 1979. Index. 207 pages. $13.00.
Reviewed by Donald A. Nuttall, Professor of History, Whittier College, and author of articles on Spanish California.
On April 5, 1963, Francis J. Weber, archivist for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, began, under the masthead “California’s Catholic Heritage,” a series of articles for The Tidings, the weekly archdiocesan newspaper. One hundred and twenty of those essays, augmented, modified, re-edited, and in some cases corrected, comprise the contents of this volume.
The writings fall within six sections. “People of God” focuses primarily upon California Catholic lay individuals whose lives exemplified the principles and ideals of their faith. Those treated in “Friars and Priests” span from Junípero Serra to recently deceased Maynard Geiger, Mission Santa Barbara archivist and eminent scholar of California Franciscan history. “Missionary Era” deals with the various aspects of the mission system, such as the estancias, as well as mission restoration efforts and other post-secularization subjects. “The Hierarchy” traces the careers of members of Roman Catholic Church officialdom, California born or who have served within the State. “Reminiscences” is made up of recollections of and reflections upon the missions, rancho life and other aspects of Hispanic Californa. “Pastoral Life” contains a miscellany of topics ranging from an explanation as to how buttons originally intended for Napoleonic army uniforms found their way to Carmel’s Mission San Carlos Borromeo to efforts made to obtain issuance of a United States postage stamp bearing Father Serra’s likeness.
Recognizing the difficulty involved, it might simply be noted without criticism that there is some blurring of section boundaries. Several essays, for example, which appear in “Friars and Priests” and in “Reminiscences” just as appropriately could have been placed in “Missionary Era.”
The essays essentially are intended for the inspiration and edification of a Roman Catholic audience. With the possible exception, however, of those appearing in “The Hierarchy,” the comfortable reading of which requires a knowledge of the Roman Catholic church’s structure not possessed by many, they can be read profitably and with interest by the general reader and by students of California history, both ecclesiastical and secular.
Potential readers should, however, be aware of certain historical interpretations they will encounter which may be, and indeed have been challenged. Weber and authors of the writings and speeches from which he frequently draws, uniformly treat the mission system in an uncritical, laudatory manner. While not disputing the dedication and commendable objectives of the Franciscans, the system’s efficacy in raising the Indians to a state of alleged civilized self-sufficiency might be questioned. Also present is the traditional tendency to denigrate with negative stereotypes the California Indians and their cultural level prior to the Spaniards’ arrival. One reads, for example, that they were “degraded” (p. 23), “unenlightened and unlettered” (p. 87), and that they lived in a state of “barbarism” (p. 35). For a quite different viewpoint, one might read Jack D. Forbes, “The Native American Experience in California,” California Historical Quarterly (Volume L, No. 3, September, 1971). And those articles which treat the subject definitely reinforce what Carey McWilliams has labeled the “Fantasy Heritage” of the Southwest by overly romanticizing California’s Hispanic period. One finds, for example, reference to the “luxurious civilization of Spanish life in Southern California” (p. 6) and to “the dreamy Spanish time” (p. 156). Also present is the “Day of the Spanish Dons” syndrome, as, for example, one reads that the Californios were “descended from the best families of Spain” (p. 137). In reality, most were mestizos, or of mixed blood.
One also finds occasional factual errors, particularly in those essays dealing with secular matters. For example, the Confederation Congress, not the Continental (p. 6) was meeting in Philadelphia in 1785; Stephen W. Kearny was not the first military governor of California (p. 165), since he followed Sloat, Stockton and Fremont; and it is very unlikely that all of the Franciscans in California were master mechanics (p. 87).
In sum, however, the discriminating reader can gain much from Weber’s works. This definitely was true of this reviewer, and he is more than happy that the volume now is included amongst his works on California’s past.