The Bicentennial Anniversary of the Asistencia Santa Ysabel

By Iris Engstrand

On September 20, 1818, in the hills 60 miles east of Mission San Diego de Alcalá, a small church—an Asistencia—was founded at Santa Ysabel in answer to the call of 250 natives unable to make the long journey west to attend mass at California’s first Franciscan establishment in Alta California. The Asistencia’s original floor tiles laid by padres and Indians in 1818 can still be seen. The presentday church built in 1924 and dedicated to St. John the Baptist (San Juan Bautista) is a reminder of the historic significance of this region to all who pass by.

Father Juan Mariner first made contact with the Indians at Santa Ysabel in 1795. Although Father Mariner and other padres from Mission San Diego periodically visited the area, they maintained that the Indians should be granted their request to have an Asistencia or sub-mission to meet their needs.1 Accordingly the padres petitioned Governor Pablo Vicente de Solá in Monterey to approve a church.2 The governor did not take expedient action so the padres, with the help of the natives, built a brush shelter (enramada) on the site and called upon Father Fernando Martin to celebrate the first Mass on September 20, 1818.3 A sign still exists that described the placing of the original Asistencia floor tiles.

By 1822, 450 natives, consisting of both Luiseño and Kumeyaay, lived at the Asistencia of Santa Ysabel. A chapel, granary, several adobe houses, and a cemetery had all been constructed on the grounds. In September of that year Father Mariano Payeras, Father President of the California Missions, visited the area as part of a plan to establish a chain of inland missions, with Santa Ysabel as the “mother” mission.4 The plan never came to fruition.

Sometime later, two bells were seen hanging on a simple timbered framework along the side of the Asistencia. Both bells were brought from Baja California. One, inscribed Nuestra Señora de Loreto, was dated 1723 (the oldest bell known to exist in Alta California) and the other–San Pedro 1767, a date two years prior to the founding of Mission San Diego. Unfortunately they were stolen in 1926 and the complete bells were not recovered, although parts of the bells were later found.5

After secularization of the California missions in 1834 during the period of Mexican rule (1821-1846), neighboring landowners plundered Santa Ysabel Asistencia and its lands. The chapel disintegrated into ruins. The Indians continued to honor their church grounds by visits from nearby priests, but the infrequent religious services were held under branch shelters (ramadas) leaning against the Asistencia wall. In 1844, despite protests by the local Indians, Rancho Santa Ysabel, consisting of 17,719.40 acres, was granted to José Joaquin Ortega and Edward Stokes.6

After this time, a wagon road to Warner’s ranch from San Diego passed through the Santa Ysabel site. General Stephen Watts Kearny and his “Army of the West” camped at the Rancho on their way to the Battle of San Pasqual in December 1846 and Jean Baptiste Charbonneau, son of Sacajawea, camped at the Mission in 1847 after guiding the Mormon Battalion to San Diego. In his U.S. Mexican Boundary Survey in 1849-50, U.S. Army Lieutenant A. W. Whipple documented the Mission as being “in ruins.”

As the Americans took over California after the Mexican War, the little church at Santa Ysabel continued to survive with a roofless structure and a few simple huts. By 1857 there were some American settlers in the area and the site served as a way station for the coaches of the San Antonio-San Diego mail line. The Santa Ysabel Chapel was somewhat rebuilt by 1875 and services continued. The Santa Ysabel Indian Reservation with an area of 9,679 acres and located “about three miles southeast of Henshaw Dam and about fourteen miles by road from Julian to the center of the reservation” was set out in 1898. The small town of Santa Ysabel nearby had a population of 249.7

Eventually three acres of the original Asistencia compound were returned to the San Diego diocese of the Roman Catholic Church. Father Joseph Exalaphat LaPointe, a French Canadian missionary, came to work with the Indians in 1903. With their help, he laid the cornerstone of the present church on September 14, 1924. It was designed as a simple California mission-style boarded-concrete structure and built with funds from the personal legacy of Father LaPointe. The church, christened St. John the Baptist in 1924, is well preserved.

The sign marking the place where the original Asistencia tiles of 1818 can be seen. Photo by Tom Workman.

Father LaPointe continued as the mission priest until his death on November 19, 1932. At the request of the Indians, he was buried alongside the building he endowed.8 Church services were later conducted by the Sons of the Sacred Heart founded in Verona, Italy. The Verona Fathers, as they were called, also administered religious services at the majority of Indian reservations in San Diego County until their membership was no longer sufficient to support those activities

As the 200th anniversary of the Santa Ysabel Asistencia approaches in September 2018, it is timely to remember the history of both the Asistencia and its surrounding area. The town of Santa Ysabel, about seven miles northwest of Julian, occupies land that was once the Santa Ysabel Rancho. The general store built in 1880 is still standing just a mile away from the church. The stolen bells were recast after a fragment of one of the bells was discovered and returned to the church.9 The local Indians still hold yearly fiestas, make pottery and baskets, and produce various kinds of lacework. Unlike other areas of San Diego County, the years have not changed Santa Ysabel. Visitors are frequent and legends of buried treasure still abound.10 The church, which remains in the diocese of San Diego, is administered by the St. Elizabeth of Hungary parish in Julian. Mass is celebrated each Saturday and Sunday by Father William Kernan

Mission Santa Ysabel c. 1886. ©SDHC #12108. Photo by C.B. Turrill.