De Ciuitate Dei – Part One

De Ciuitate Dei – Part One


Just as the foundation of modern Virginia rests on the shoulders of Jefferson, Wythe and Randolph, the fabric of California’s cultural heritage and destiny was irrevocably woven over four centuries upon the looms of priests, soldiers, and businessmen working in concert with one another to build a new civilization on the margin of the western ocean.

San Diego and its surrounding environs, more than most California cities, belies a fervent respect for this consortium and the characters that comprised it.  Indeed, the iconic California Tower of Balboa Park bears on its southern edifice the likeness of several of these men, including among them Fray Junipero Serra, Governor Gaspar de Portola, and Captain Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo.  Here, the universal church, the imperial Spanish government, and the enterprising spirit come together; three spheres that joined forces to lay the groundwork of today’s modern city.

Fray Junipero Serra, California Tower, Balboa Park

Although the interplay of these three spheres is well-known to students of California’s Spanish and Mexican epochs, comparatively few realize how this intersection endured, reforged, and shaped San Diego well into the twentieth century.  While much of the country, laboring under the influence of a carefully controlled progressive education system, began to eye those of religious vocation and their role in history with an uncritically applied suspicious eye, San Diegans bore no such calumny.  Instead, in era after era, it was generally known that San Diego owes its character, its culture, and indeed its very existence, to men of the cloth.

The past 25 years have seen much change in San Diego.  Slowly and methodically, a combination of expatriates and the steady erosion of its own education system have conspired to render this shining city on the bay into yet another outpost of Bay Area hedonism and reflexively self-hating shallow socialist sensibilities that disdains one’s own heritage as something illegitimate, evil, and base.  Its culture is being refashioned, as perhaps is the necessary fate of all cultures in all times.

But the stories remain and shape an understanding of home for whomsoever dares explore them.  San Diego remains a place christened and dedicated to the glory of Saint Michael by Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo.  It remains a city founded by a hobbled friar who loved his Indian charges so dearly that upon witnessing one’s beating at the hands of a Spanish solider, he limped his way (first by mule and then on foot when the mule died) to Mexico City to seek the removal of the Spanish governor when his entreaties to cease barbarism toward the Indians were ignored.  It remains a city that saw its transformation from Old West backwater into industrial city begin in the narthex of the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Old Town when an eccentric Unitarian left a roll of gold coins in the collection plate and caught the attention of the parish priest, who rallied the local powers that could help him build “New Town.”  It remains a city that, upon its stepping out onto the world stage at the Panama California Exposition, saw fit to adorn that stage with the romantic, imperial trappings of a long faded empire.  Whatsoever the future may hold, San Diego remains the most Californian of cities in the most completely American of states, with an assemblage of city fathers and mothers of remarkable generosity, commitment, and quirkiness that is at once delightful, curious, sometimes supernatural and at times powerfully moving.

While Fray Junipero Serra’s story is comparatively well known, and Alonzo Horton, John Spreckels, and Kate Sessions have been the subject of several locally produced documentaries, the role of Anthony Dominic Ubach (1835-1907) is less commonly explored, but no less inspiring and consequential.  A local priest, his time in San Diego spanned the series of decades that saw the tiny pioneer settlement transform into a metropolis.  Indeed, as will shortly become clear, he played an active role in that transformation.  Additionally, in a time when Californian Indians were institutionally abused by settlers and government alike, he exhibited a remarkably erudite and enlightened sense of compassion and just philosophy toward this marginalized segment of society, becoming a fierce advocate for their rights and well-being.  His life was one that was both truly consequential and truly forward-looking – one that was far ahead of his time, and far more influential than his contemporary marginal status bestows.  He sought to build the City of God in every way he could right here in the very same city by the bay that I call home.

Anthony Ubach

This piece, completed in 1965 as a doctoral dissertation by the late Dennis Rankin Clark at the University of San Francisco, will be reproduced in sections.  Any adjustments are purely editorial, such that the words of the scholar may hold sway over the words of the editor.

Milan L. Brandon II


Pioneer Priest of San Diego

A Study of His Influence on the Rise of Modern San Diego

A Thesis presented to the Faculty of History Department, University of San Francisco

By Dennis Rankin Clark

May 10, 1965

I. INTRODUCTION (1542 – 1850)

More than half a century before the founding of the first permanent English settlement at Jamestown in 1607, two small Spanish ships under the command of Captain Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo moved slowly up the California coast from Navidad, Mexico searching for the Northwest Passage, and entered for the first time the Bay of San Diego. It was late afternoon, Thursday, September 28, 1542, and Cabrillo named the place San Miguel, “a landlocked and very good harbor.”  After a six-day respite during which they had reconnoitered the area and encountered the local Indians without incident, Cabrillo’s force again moved northward on October 3, proceeding as far as the Oregon border before heading back toward Navidad, and stopping briefly at San Diego in mid-March, 1543. The whole undertaking was considered a failure, and no ship entered the harbor for another sixty years.1

Landing of Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo (1542)

A change in Spanish colonial policy brought a new expedition under Don Sebastian Vizcaino to the Bay of San Miguel on November 10, 1602. Promptly upon arrival he renamed it in honor of San Diego of Alcala, and sent off enthusiastic reports about the place; but his extravagant language so defied belief that after his expedition left the bay on November 20, 1602, no European entered it again for another century and a half. Ultimately, however, the pressures of international politics rendered more vigorous efforts at occupation imperative, and the expedition of Governor Gaspar de Portola and Father Junipero Serra made its way to San Diego in the early summer of 1769. A presidio and mission were soon established there near the bay and efforts to tame the country and convert the Indians were undertaken.2

For years the very existence of this settlement was tenuous at best and it was near the end of the century before anything approaching self-sufficiency had been achieved. In the meantime, the mission had been transferred in 1774 to its permanent site six miles inland from the presidio, and had survived a whole catalogue of adversities, from drought and starvation to earthquake and Indian attack. The first decade of the nineteenth century was marked by relative prosperity until revolution broke out in Mexico in 1810, inflicting new hardships by stopping the flow of Spanish supply ships and making the presidio garrison wholly dependent upon the mission for support. Despite these additional burdens the Fathers completed the present mission church in 1813 and established asistencias at Pala and Santa Ysabel in 1816 and 1818.3

Already impoverished by enforced support of the military and attacked by the Mexican government which had been carving large grants from its lands, the Mission received its death blow from the Secularization Law passed by the Mexican Congress on August l7, 1833. This legislation converted the missions to parish churches and set aside most of the mission land, livestock and tools for distribution to the colonists who were to be transported to California. Additional decrees provided for emancipation of the Indians and transfer of management of both mission and Indian into the hands of secular officials. The Fathers at San Diego, as at the other establishments, submitted quietly to the inevitable; and on September 20, 1834, Mission San Diego was transferred to the designated commissioner.

The results of this transfer were disastrous. Few of the Indians received the land and cattle to which they were entitled under the Secularization Law, and even the most advanced proved incapable of managing their own affairs. Those that were less civilized became involved in the increasingly frequent raids which afflicted the ranchos and even the town of San Diego for the next twenty years. The resultant instability brought the town into a period of decline so that by 1840 the population barely exceeded a hundred souls, the presidio had been abandoned and its chapel was falling into ruins.

Attempts at desecularization were made in 1836 and again in 1843 but failed on both occasions because of the Californians’ complete intransigence in the matter. Finally in February.l845, California’s Governor, General Manuel Micheltorena, was forced to resign because of his sponsorship of even a limited program of desecularization. His successor, Pio Pico, who assumed control of the territorial government in the absence of a governor, quickly arranged for confiscation and liquidation of the missions. A deed of sale was drawn up at Los Angeles and signed by Pio Pico on June 8, 1846, conveying Mission San Diego with all its cattle, lands and buildings to hon Santiago Arguello in consideration for his “important services” to the territorial government.

In the meantime, after an extended period of conflict and deteriorating relations between the two countries, the United States had declared war against Mexico on May 12, 1846. By July 7, the California capital at Monterey had fallen to the Americans and it had become apparent that Mexican resistance in California could not last too long. Nevertheless, near the end of July, Pio Pico, who was already fleeing the American troops, sent instructions to Father Vincent Oliva4 at San Diego, directing him to hand over the Mission to Arguello.

Mission San Diego in 1848

Several days later on July 29, an American sloop-of-war, the Cyane, arrived at San Diego carrying eighty marines who promptly disembarked, marched unopposed to the plaza and raised the American flag. However, just as easily as it had fallen the first time, the town was retaken by the Californians and had to be recaptured by the Americans before the war in California ended with the defeat of the Mexican forces at San Gabriel on January 9, 1847.

After the American victory the ownership of Mission San Diego was again in question. Father Oliva had retired to Capistrano the preceding July, leaving Jose Estudillo as administrator and declining to recognize Arguello’s claim. The latter had already expressed doubts as to the validity of his own title to the property and consequently hesitated to take possession of it before the American government had taken some action. Extensive correspondence on the matter was exchanged and all the while, the property continued to deteriorate: sacred vessels were stolen, the doors of the Church were carried away, and even the tile roof was removed. On August 9, 1848, the commander of the garrison at Los Angeles, Col. J. D. Stevenson, wrote to Governor Mason urging sale of Mission San Diego as an alternative to allowing its complete destruction through the ravages of wind, rain and vandal. However, the government at Monterey had other plans and a week later offered the Mission and all its properties to Father Gonzalez Rubio5 urging him to take possession as soon as possible. This is where the matter rested, and a year later no one had yet occupied the property when the Rev. John Chrysostom Holbein, C.SS.CC.6 assumed his duties as the second resident priest for the town, San Diego.7

II. SAN DIEGO PREPARES (1350 – 1866)


The settlement the young Father Holbein found at San Diego in 1850 was far from impressive, and the whole county contained less than 800 white residents.1 The place was in fact reaching its nadir, and neither Americanization nor the Gold Rush which was beginning in the upper half of the state would have much effect beyond providing a large number of hurried steamship travelers stopping briefly for supplies on their way to the gold fields. The Presidio chapel had long since fallen into ruin, though even in that condition it had been used for Sunday Mass until the departure of Father Oliva. Only an apartment in the Estudillo house remained available as a place of worship.2

In choosing a site for a new Church, Father Holbein was faced with the fact that a group of local businessmen had just initiated an apparently successful effort to abandon Old Town in favor of a more advantageous location nearer the bay.3 Nevertheless, he cautiously chose to erect his new church in the Old Town area, though on the north side of the River near the point where present day Friar’s Road to Mission San Diego intersects with El Camino Real. The property described as lot 1, block 88, was granted by the city’s board of trustees on August 24, 1850, on the condition that “a building suitable for use as a Roman Catholic Church” be erected there, and with the provision that should this not be done within a reasonable length of time, ownership of the lot would again revert to the city.4

Judson Ames, editor of the San Diego Herald,5 effusively recorded the laying of the cornerstone:

“The ceremony of laying the cornerstone for a new Catholic Church at San Diego, Old Town, was performed on the afternoon of the 29th ult., with all the gorgeous rites of that most poetic faith…

At 4 o’clock, precisely, the folding doors of a large apartment in the house of Don Jose Antonio Estudillo, used for private worship, were thrown open, and a procession composed of the most esteemed and cherished members of the Church Universal, with the learned and devout ‘Padre’, in full canonicals at their head,…issued into the Plaza, and was increased every moment by the addition of citizens, male and female, Catholic and Protestant, until it reached the sacred spot…

The prayers being over, the priest consecrated with holy water the foundations of the building; after which, a scroll containing a memorandum of the date and place — the class of persons from whom the contributions were received (of which we were glad to see many Protestants) together with the names of several who formed part of the procession, was securely sealed in a vessel of indestructible nature, and placed under the cornerstone about to be laid.

The procession over, we returned to our humble domicil (sic), deeply impressed with the solemnity of the scene…”6

It is unfortunate that the good relations which at least initially seem to have existed between Ames and Father Holbein could not endure. But when the priest adopted unpopular and sometimes unnecessarily extreme positions in certain local controversies, the editor was only too willing to enter the fray carrying the balance of public opinion with him.

The first serious disagreement to occur placed Holbein in direct opposition to the Masons who had considerable strength in Old Town. It arose on the occasion of one of their annual celebrations when he issued “a formal bull” forbidding any of his flock to be present at the place where the address was to he delivered or even to go into the street while the procession was going past, “on pain of being damned for all eternity”. In his fiery editorial Ames rhetorically asked the priest if he had forgotten that “that fathers of the Christian Church were themselves Masons and that the Pope and the whole Romish Church continued patrons of the order…,“ He also reminded his readers that “this intolerant priest“ had only a few months earlier headed a Catholic procession through the streets of the city, dressed in “full regalia”, and that the majority of persons present and contributing for the erection of the Church whose cornerstone he was then blessing, were American Protestants. Ames concluded on a rather threatening note:

“When, old man, wilt thou take up another contribution for roofing those barren adobe walls…? Poor Padre! We do really pity thee. Go and study the teachings of Christ instead of thy catechism that thou mayst learn how to live in such a manner as will insure thy entrance into that Grand Lodge above where the Supreme Architect of the universe resides.”7

A further alienation of the American population was brought about by Holbein’s interference with the education of the Old Town children. The school trustees of the city had distributed a circular announcing the opening of their school, to which he responded from the pulpit brandishing a copy of the circular in his hand and unconditionally forbidding any of his members to send their children to this school. Such a stand, naturally, provoked further denunciations from Ames, including a long reprint from the New York Budget8 hostile to the Catholic position on the education question.9

Resentment had not died down entirely the next year when an announcement of the city’s first Protestant services appeared in the paper, “Heretofore we have had only the dogmas of the Roman Catholic Church expounded in Spanish by Padre Juan, and as comparatively few of the American population understood that language, the masses have had no resort on the Sabbath… and have spent the holy day in drinking.”10

Two months later, with an air of unconcealed relief and satisfaction, the Herald made its final comment about Father Holbein.

“We are pleased to learn that this gentleman is about to relinquish the charge of his flock in San Diego and return to Germany. His antipathy to the Masonic fraternity, his liberality of opinion in religious matters, and his active endeavors in the cause of education and intellectual advancement, have endeared him exceedingly to our American population, who will be delighted to learn that he is about to leave for a more congenial sphere, where his talents and virtues can be better appreciated than among this community.” 11

However, the “reverend gentleman” was not to be dispatched so easily and did not actually depart until the following September.

In the meantime, the annual patrona fiesta began on December 8, and continued for several weeks, to the disgust of Ames who reported that no services were held on one particular day because the place where they were usually held was being used as a judges’ stand for a horse race.  Such expressions of disapproval are interesting, coming only two weeks after a Herald article observing that although equal opportunities for both Catholic and Protestant worship were available in the city, the chapel of the former was always full at the morning services, whereas the latter which was conducted at the Court House, rarely attracted an audience of over a dozen, “while the quiet due to Sunday is broken in upon by the rioting of the inebriated, and the very words of holy writ are drowned by the click of billiard balls and the calls for cocktails from the adjacent saloon.”

After Christmas, Father Holbein went out to the Mission where he exhumed and reburied at the Mission cemetery in a single chest, the remains of three Franciscan missionaries “whose names are not known with certainty,13 buried in the presbytery of the Church of Mission San Diego, converted into a military barrack for the American soldiers…”14 This seems to have been the extent of Holbein‘s concern with the Mission whose disposal had been authorized by California Secretary of State, H. W. Halleck in 1849 after the Church had failed to take possession. The government, nevertheless, had retained the property and established it as a military post in 1851.15 Such an occupation predictably involved certain abuses of the buildings but guaranteed that at least the main buildings were kept in good repair.

In November, 1853, Bishop Joseph Sadoc Alemany of Monterey, 16 who had taken over the administration of the Diocese from Father Rubio in December 1850, initiated testimony before a special United States Land Commission, and demanded return of the Mission properties to the Church. After two years of hearings, the Land Commission rendered its decision in favor of Alemany on December 18, 1855, subsequent appeals to the United States District Court being dismissed the next year.17 The extent of the land assigned varied from mission to mission, but when the patent for Mission Sen Diego was finally signed by President Lincoln on May 23, 1862, it included a total of 22.21 acres.18

Despite the decision delivered by the Land Commission in 1855, the military remained firmly ensconced at the Mission which had become the headquarters of the Southern Division of the Army of the Pacific. Deterioration and change continued apace. “The Mission Church, with its quaint old belfry and antique gables, has undergone a great change since first we visited it in 1850, and with its shingled covering in place of old red tiles…would scarcely be recognized by the old Priests… We found, with the exception of the barracks, all a barren waste…The bells… have been removed from the belfry and now adorn a gallows erected in a corral near the Plaza…“19

By fall of 1858 the Army had permanently withdrawn and the old problem posed itself once again: “Who has charge of the Mission? This question is suggested on witnessing the destruction of the property at the Mission of San Diego, recently occupied by the government as a military post.  There is not a door nor a window left in the buildings that were occupied as the officers’ quarters… and the barracks are in the same plight. If there is anyone who has any legal claim upon the Mission property, we hope they will call to a strict account those persons who are known to have been concerned in this disgraceful business, and place someone there to take charge of what may still be left.”20

But no one came forth to answer the question, to take possession of the property, or to prosecute the offenders; and the silence and inactivity persisted even after issuance of the patents to Alemany in 1862.

After the departure of Holbein in September, 1854, the people of San Diego were left without a priest until the following April when a certain Father Marincovich stayed in the city for a few days and then departed for San Luis Rey.21 In the meantime, on New Year’s night, an adobe wall on the north side of the still roofless new Church begun by Father Holbein, had become so undermined by the rain-swollen waters of the San Diego River, that it “fell with a crash that could be heard all over town…The building would have been finished long since, but from the fact that the resident Padre made himself so obnoxious to the Protestant portion of the community – by his weekly denunciations of Free Masonry, that he couldn’t squeeze another dime out of them.”22

Waiting Time

This note of dissatisfaction and pessimism, whether deserved or not, did not really stand alone, but, was substantially in harmony with the spirit of the times. The incipient prosperity and expansion in the new city by the Bay (“New Town”) had collapsed by the spring of 1853 as the Gold Rush subsided. The cattle market was already depressed and many of the ranchos in difficult straits. Banditry was on the rise and the Indians so restive and troublesome that hardly a night passed without some new incident of theft, vandalism, assault or the like; and very little effort was made to apprehend or punish the offenders. A public meeting was held at the Court house in March, 1854, to consider the “state of the country”. It seems that the sheriff had resigned and the assessor declined to serve; the county judge was absent and had been for several months.23 All in all, the prospects for San Diego’s future were not too promising.

On the ecclesiastical front, Father Marincovich was succeeded first by a certain Father Meinrich, and then by Father Pedro Bagaria, a young Spanish priest who had been ordained for the diocese by Archbishop Alemany in 1853 and remained at San Diego from 1855 to 1857.24 Father James Vila25 came in 1856 and continued there through the next year; and it was during his tenure that Bishop Amat26 who was touring the missions of his diocese, paid his first official visit to San Diego.27

Winter of 1857 saw the arrival of Father John Molinier,28 a French-secular priest, who lost no time in undertaking the construction of a new church, this time in a more suitable and safer location. The building itself was an adobe house built in 1850 by John Brown for his wife, and purchased from him early in 1858 by Don Jose Antonio Aguirre for $350.29 This latter made a gift to the church of both the house and a large part of the funds required for its remodeling, in thanksgiving for having won an important legal battle in which he had been involved. Work progressed steadily and by early fall it was nearing completion 30 when, several weeks before the planned dedication, some “worthless scamps” broke in during the night and damaged the communion railing. It was apparently a simple act of vandalism as the building had not been consecrated and there was not yet anything inside worth stealing.31

Fortunately the damage was not too serious and allowed the dedication of the building to the Immaculate Conception to take place as scheduled on November 21. The ceremonies of dedication and the high mass were celebrated by Father Molinier, assisted by the young ladies’ choir and the San Diego Guards who appeared in full regalia and fired the customary salutes. The day ended at the home of Jose Aguirre, the donor of the Church, with a banquet “at which wine and sentiment flowed freely.”32

Within the week a second act of vandalism was perpetrated at the little Church.  “On Saturday night last, a citizen of the town, while under the effects of some of the Minnie Whiskey sold about the place, broke into the new Catholic Church and caused some considerable damage by breaking the candlesticks, wax images, and the crucifix. When found he was mounted on the top of the altar, embracing a figure of Christ on the Cross, which is very large, frantically imploring him to hear, and in his delirium he had broken off the arms and otherwise disfigured the body. He was arrested and confined, and the physician having pronounced him to be suffering from delirium tremens, he was properly cared for, and on his recovery released on repairing the damage he had done, no one preferring charges against him. The perpetrator of the act was a rigid Catholic and would have committed any deed sooner than that, had he been sane.”33

The necessary repairs were made and the life of the Church in San Diego settled back into its usual peaceful routine without further incident.

In the second half of 1859, a young Spanish priest, Father Vincent Llover34 came to San Diego to take the place of Father Molinier who returned early in the New Year and continued his pastoral duties there until he left for good in mid-1861. He was followed by a certain Father Angel Molino during whose residency Bishop Amat made a confirmation visit to den Diego in September, 1862.35 Father Miguel Duran36 took the place of the departing Father Molino in September, 1863, and remained until the late summer of 1866, as the era of the ranches and the dominance of Old Town itself was drawing to a close.

The preceding decade had been a difficult one, filled with disappointments and listlessness. An attempt initiated in 1854 by a newly formed railroad company to connect San Diego with Yuma and thence with the rest of the country looked hopeful for a while and then came to naught with the beginning of the War between the States.37 Though leaving-San Diego untouched aside from rendering it more isolated from trade and the country in general, the war had aroused a considerable division of sentiment within the city — a large segment supporting the cause of the Confederacy.38  Editor Ames with Herald in hand had finally departed for San Bernardino in April, 1860, leaving San Diego without a newspaper until the arrival of the Union in 1868. The county’s population had risen by 1860 to 4,300, a figure that would shortly begin to sag, but the majority of the newcomers had settled outside the city, farming as squatters on public or Indian lands, or on the big ranches. A series of severe droughts beginning in 1856 had ruined the cattle-raising economy, replacing the cattle with sheep and in the process bringing many of the impoverished Dons to their knees, so that by the War’s end, the majority of the great ranches had passed on to new owners, members of a new generation.

III. PRIEST AND PASTOR (1866 – 1880)

This then was the San Diego that the Reverend Anthony Dominic Ubach found on that day early in October, 1866, when he entered for the first time the parish that would be his for the next forty-one years. He had been born at Barcelona, Spain, in 1835, of a prominent Spanish family with the German name, Ubach. Although little is known of his early life, it is said that he was an accomplished scholar, “ranked as one of Spain’s best swordsmen and was a poet of no mean ability.”1  He dressed in a manner which gave some hint of a military background, and wore a long beard, necessitated some said by a case of asthma, though the more romantic insisted it was to cover a chin disfigured by some sword injury.2


Mrs. Helen Hunt Jackson, the noted author and humanitarian, included him in her novel Ramona, giving him the name “Father Gaspara” and describing him in a manner which Ubach himself later accredited as accurate and “very good”.3

“He had a nature at once fiery and poetic and there were three things that he could have been – a soldier, a poet or a priest. Circumstances had made him a priest; and the fire and poetry which would have wielded the sword or kindled the verse, had he found himself set either to fight or to sing, had all gathered into added force in his priestly vocation. The look of a soldier he had never quite lost – neither the look nor the tread; and his flashing dark eyes, heavy black beard and hair, and quick, elastic step, seemed sometimes strangely out of harmony with his priest’s gown. And it was the sensitive soul of the poet in him which had made him withdraw within himself more and more, year after year, as he found himself comparatively powerless to do anything for the hundreds of Indians…”4

Anthony Ubach, aged 20, accompanied Bishop Amat and Cyprian Rubio5 to the United States in 1855, and completed his theological studies at St. Vincent’s Seminary in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, in 1858. Coming to California shortly thereafter, he was not ordained for a year and a half due to the absence of Bishop Amat. In the meantime, the Vicar General, Father Blasius Raho, C.M.6, who was also Administrator of the Diocese in the absence of the Bishop, had become anxious to have Ubach ordained because of the pressing needs of the Diocese, and so had requested Archbishop Alemany to perform the ceremony.

Despite Father Baho’s recital of the young ordinand‘s priestly qualities, however, Alemany had demurred until the dimissorial letters demanded by Canon Law could be obtained from Bishop Amat. Ultimately, when all the legal formalities had been disposed of, Anthony Ubach7 received First Tonsure and the four Minor Orders on March 17 and 18, 1860, subdiaconate on March 24, diaconate on April 1, and the priesthood on April 7. All these orders were conferred by Archbishop Alemany at San Francisco in the Church of Saint Francis (not the Cathedral of Saint Mary) after the candidate, in the words of the Archbishop, had been “properly dismissed, (i.e. for ordination purposes by Amat), examined and approved”.9  The pastor of the Church, Father John Harrington, and others of the clergy and laity were present for the ceremony.

The new priest’s first assignment was as pastor of San Juan Bautista Mission, where his first entry in the parish records appears on April 16, 1860. He was preceded there by Father John Molinier, who, as noted above, likewise preceded him at San Diego, and by Father Francis Mora, later bishop of the diocese. While pastor at San Juan, Father Ubach on occasion visited Visalia and Pajaro and in 1861 opened at the Mission an orphanage and day school staffed by the Sisters of Charity of Emmitsburg, Maryland.10

Outside of routine entries in parish registers, there are few indications of his activities during the rest of his pastorate at San Juan, except for a letter, obviously one of a series, posted December 28, 1864, to Bishop Amat. In it he requested excardination from the Diocese of Monterey – Los Angeles and stated that he had already received permission from Bishop O’Connell11 to enter the Vicariate of Marysville, contingent upon this excardination.12 Bishop Amat’s reply was not written until March 4, at which time he refused to grant complete excardination but extended permission for him to go to Marysville ‘saltem ad tempus.”13 Ubaoh therefore departed for Marysville on April 15, 1865, serving in that Vicariate for only a short period before returning to the Monterey – Los Angeles Diocese and an appointment to the Plaza Church in Los Angeles. On an undetermined date in the following summer, he was named pastor of San Diego.

Arrival in San Diego


The town of San Diego at the time of Ubach’s arrival hardly presented a cheerful prospect. It was a cluster of adobe houses with tile roofs and a few-frame buildings at the foot of Presidio hill. The prosperous Dons had either departed or become impoverished and to their number had been added a few hundred struggling American pioneers. The adobe chapel built by Father Molinier had been refinished on the outside with weatherboard, and stood “in a neglected, weedy open…its walls imperfectly whitewashed, decorated by a few coarse pictures and by broken sconces of looking-glass, rescued in their dilapidated condition from the Mission buildings now gone utterly to ruin… Everything about it was in unison with the atmosphere of the place: the most profoundly melancholy in all Southern California.” 14

On the whole, it was one of the poorest and most unpromising parishes imaginable but Father Ubach took up the work vigorously and immediately, not to lay it down again until death.

After attending to the immediate needs of his parishioners in town his first concern was for the Indians whose rancherias were scattered throughout the county. Hence no more than a week after entering the city, he set out for the first time into the backcountry, arriving on October 14 at San Pasqual where he performed a number of Baptisms, marriages, etc.15 This long, slow journey through all the rancherias administering the sacraments and counseling the Indians even in their secular affairs as they gained more confidence in him, would be repeated several times each year for the next several decades. He would often be seen riding off in his wagon with his driver into the wildest of backcountry, sleeping on the ground and living off whatever he could find, in his efforts to reach the bedside of a dying Indian.

Always his visits were momentous occasions in the lives of the Indians, and he encouraged the feasts and activities they usually put on when he came as a good outlet for them, a slight relief from their otherwise dreary existence. The Indians regarded him with a veneration little short of worship and his influence among them was so considerable thee they came to rely on his judgment almost entirely in the troubled times that were still ahead.  With all these cares and labors afield, Father Ubach did not neglect his congregation in town, but rather soon became a central figure in the quiet life of Old Town.

Alonzo Erastus Horton16 had arrived aboard the old steamer, Pacific, on April 15, 1867 and soon announced his intentions of building a new San Diego closer to the bay – the same place the failed business consortium mentioned above attempted to build their city before the Civil War scuttled their plans. He was desirous of purchasing an extensive tract of land but could find no one to sell it to him, as the terms of the old city trustees had expired and there was no money for a new election. Horton supplied the money and during the ten days required by local law to lapse before the election could he held, he attended Mass one Sunday at the old adobe chapel of the Immaculate Conception, where his sizeable contribution to the collection attracted considerable attention. Father Ubach did not fail to notice this and took the opportunity after Mass of meeting him, inquiring as to whether he was a Catholic – which he was not – and what his wishes with regard to the upcoming ballot were. Horton indicated his preferences for the new trustees and Ubach told him he could have them, and proceeded to begin stumping for Horton.

And have them he did: with Ubach’s influence, each of his choices received unanimous election – 32 votes – and the land auction was held May 10, with 960 acres going to Horton for $265.17 New Town was on its way and before too many years it would come to be known simply as San Diego.

Intent upon providing the people of San Diego with a more suitable place of worship, Father Ubach, with the aid of several old Spanish families no longer living in San Diego, undertook the planning of a large red brick Gothic church to be built at Old Town on the site of the present Immaculate Conception Church18 and to be dedicated to that same patron. His resident parishioners were enthusiastic over the plans and had no intention of being outdone and so engaged in various fundraising schemes of their own which received rather effusive newspaper coverage.

“The concert on Tuesday evening given for the benefit of the new Catholic Church, was a complete success. Mr. Robinson’s fine saloon rendering of the music would have done justice to much more pretentious performers… Father Ubach is entitled to great praise for the management of the affair…”19

Demonstrating a keen historical sense, Father Ubach designated as the date for the laying of the cornerstone, July 18, 1869;20 the centenary of the beginning of the Mission San Diego de Alcala on Presidio hill only a few blocks away. Bishop Amat was present for the occasion, preaching in both English and Spanish at a Mass celebrated by the Rev. Maurice O’Brien, C.M., of St. Vincent’s College, and directly after Vespers laying the cornerstone of the new Church of the Immaculate Conception.21

Thereafter, progress reports on the construction were given regularly in the Union, ending on an. optimistic note: “We are gratified to see how rapidly this edifice is approaching completion. It will be a fine “Church building when finished. The front window casings are placed, and the walls are climbing up into the air. It should be finished before the rainy season commences.” 22

Then suddenly, silence replaced the commentary.  Due to lack of funds, construction had been discontinued with the walls near the five foot level, just about the point described in the final notice in the Union. The rise of the new San Diego had already drawn away large numbers of parishioners and both the necessity and the interest in having a new church in Old Town were flagging.  To aggravate the situation J. S. Manassee & Co., a local firm, filed suited against the Church to recover the $750.31 and interest at two-percent per month from December 2, 1870 for lumber and material furnished by them in construction of the new Catholic Church at Old Town.23 Ultimately, when the county seat had been moved to New Town, in 1871, and the death blow dealt to Old Town with the great fire of April 20, 1872,24 which consumed many homes and all the business places on the plaza, Ubach was compelled to admit defeat.

Within a few months he summoned all the Catholics of New Town together at Rosario Hall25 for an important meeting26 at which it was resolved to take all steps necessary for erecting a Church in that city at the earliest possible date. Accordingly a subscription list was gotten up and within a short while pledges had passed the $2000 mark.27 The original plan of the congregation had been to purchase the Rink from Mr. Horton along with the two lots adjoining it for the sum of $3600, with the understanding that the latter would donate the sum of $300 to the Church as soon as the property had been purchased. However, the silent hand of their pastor at work can be seen in the fact that this plan was discarded and the construction was soon begun on two lots donated by Horton.

In the meantime, Father Ubach offered Mass in a rented building, Rosario Hall, preaching in both Spanish and English. While this hall was being used for services, Bishop Amat,28 already several weeks overdue, finally arrived at San Diego for his regular visitation and administered the sacrament of Confirmation to a small group there.29

In June, Father Francis Sanchez,30 the venerable Franciscan missionary who had come to California in 1841 with Bishop Garcia Diego, arrived in the company of Father Ubach after traveling through the Indian Rancherias and giving “missions” at San Luis Rey and San Pasqual. Father Sanchez remained in the city for about a week and while there preached a “mission” for the local Catholics.31

The height of the city’s first boom was reached in 1873 and throughout that year and the next Catholics of the area took advantage of the prosperous circumstances, holding a number of balls, concerts and other benefits for the new Church.32 Even when a general decline set in after the failure of another railroad scheme in mid-1873, their efforts were not diminished and a frame building on a mesa west of town was completed at the end of 1874. The Right Reverend Francis Mora,33 Coadjutor to Bishop Amat, came down from Los Angeles for confirmation and the dedication of the new church of St. Joseph, which took place January 31, 1875.34

Dedication of Saint Joseph’s Cathedral

Adjacent to the new Church was an adobe house where Father Ubach resided permanently after 1885. Until that time he continued to live alone, except for a housekeeper, at various places in Old Town, and serve both churches, with the assistance of Father Polydore Stockman who had been with him since “mid-summer of 1874. At the time of Father Stockman’s arrival, Ubach had just acquired title to some five acres on a hill to the north of the city, upon which he laid out the new Calvary Cemetery in which he himself would eventually be buried.35

The Mission Continues to Crumble


Throughout the period since the original patent had been given by Lincoln in 1862, the Church had not taken any efficacious steps toward occupying or reactivating the Mission. In 1868 the property had been leased for ten years by E. F. Sanborn who began producing olive oil and pickling olives for the market.36 His enterprise does not seem to have been too successful since only three years later T. J. Davis leased the same olive orchards from the Bishop and began erecting a frame house for a residence on the same property.37 Although the Mission buildings continued to decay, an excursion stage line from San Diego was installed for the benefit of tourists,38 and Davis kept a guest book for visitors.39

Despite the confirmation of the Mission itself along with a small amount of land to the Church, under the patent of 1862; Bishop Amat still did not regard the matter as closed, as indicated in an announcement that appeared in the Union ten years later;

“The property of Santiago Arguello, deceased, consisting of what is commonly known as the ex-Mission lands is to be sold by order of the Probate Court. Reverend T. Amat, Roman Catholic Bishop of Monterey and Los Angeles, warns bidders and others interested that they cannot acquire a title to the land for the following reasons: He says that the Church has a claim upon the property, as one of the conditions of the grant to Arguello was that he should sustain divine worship at the Mission and support the minister thereat for all time out of the proceeds of said lands. This he says has not been done and that the United States will not issue a patent until the claim” of the Church is adjusted.”40

To renew such an old claim at so late a date was a bit over-optimistic and unrealistic, and ultimately the case was lost after dragging on for some time. In the meantime, the Mission was allowed to continue to decay so that by 1883 Henry Chapman Ford would say: “But little is left of the former buildings, except a portion of the Church, and the adjacent dormitories. The chapel is used as a stable; several colonies of wild bees have taken possession of the cavities over the lintels of the doors…“41

Homeward Bound

At this time, after 23 years absence from his home in Spain, Father Ubach received permission from his Bishop on May 1, 1878 to return to that country for a vacation, but with the clearly expressed provision that he return.42 The same day this permission was granted, he was called out in the middle of the night to a rancho in Mission Valley where one of the young daughters of the household claimed to have been harassed by ghosts.43 The incident caused considerable excitement, with people coming out from town to see for themselves; but the priest’s exorcisms seem to have been quite efficacious as none of the family or visitors confronted the troublesome spirit again. At the request of the family though, he remained at the rancho for several nights as a precautionary measure.44

On May 12, 1878, not quite two weeks after Ubach had received permission to return to Spain, Bishop Amat, with whom he had come to the United States in 1855, died at Los Angeles after several years of declining health.45

That July, Ubach made public his intentions of returning to Spain and announced that he would raffle off his buggy in order to pay off his back debts and provide for traveling expenses.46 Several weeks later, however, a notice appeared in the paper stating that since the buggy had already been disposed of by private sale, there would be no raffle.47 Four days later another notice requested all ticket holders to come and get their money back… a slight oversight.48

Father Ubach finally made his departure from San Diego in the fall of 1878, leaving the parish in the hands of a young Mexican priest, Father John Pujol,49 who would remain there until his return in July, 1880. During the intervening period the only evidence available concerning his activities is a Spanish letter sent from Barcelona to an acquaintance in San Diego, Dona Emilia Turner, to whom he gave profuse thanks for all the news she had sent, and a description of how he had passed some of his time since leaving San Diego.

“I spent a month at the side of my dear old Mother and at the request of my doctor I have stayed with my sister who is the Superior of this Institute (a convent: Casa Caridad), to see if the sea air would make me feel better as I am used to it in San Diego. I feel that I am getting much better, though I don’t like the food or the water here. I have seen my little sister who is very big for her age. She is very skinny and weak and her eyes bother her considerably. As soon as I receive the money from San Diego I am going to take her where she will have fresh air, and I don’t have any doubts that she is going to become fat and that her sight will improve.”50

After making arrangements for the transfer of some funds to Barcelona, and warning Dona Emilia to be careful of the company she was keeping, “When the cat is away the mice will play”, Father Ubach faded into a silence which remained unbroken until his return in mid-summer of 1880.

References to Part One


The sources of various letters and documents are, in the footnote references, abbreviated by using the initial letters of the principal words in the source citation. The abbreviations contained in the present work are as follows:

AALA     Archives of Archdiocese of Los Angeles

AASF     Archives of Archdiocese of San Francisco

ADMF   Archives of Diocese of Monterey-Fresno

ADS        Archives of Diocese of Sacramento

ADSD     Archives of Diocese of San Diego

NA          National Archives

ASJC      Archives of Saint Joseph’s Cathedral (San Diego)

ABCIM  Archives of the Bureau of Catholic Indian Missions

Continue reading “De Ciuitate Dei – Part One”