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by Tyler Kindred
The newest addition to the Casa Romantica Cultural Center and Gardens arrived this November as the La Cristianita monument, commemorating the first Christian baptism which took place in 1769 two miles east of where the landmark now rests in an area in Camp Pendleton.
This transition to the Casa took place just a year after the death of Bertha Henry Taylor, the San Clemente resident and civic leader best known for her work on the outdoor summer pageant commemorating the La Cristianita event. Taylor had petitioned to have the marker moved to Casa Romantica for many years prior, as the monument serves as a reminder of an earlier California, a time instrumental in the development of the United States.
In the Spring of 1769, as the east coast protested against King George III with what would later become the American War for Independence, Father Juan Crespi and Gaspar De Portola commenced their expeditions of California. King Charles III of Spain had issued an order to occupy California a year prior, with a primary incentive to explore the San Diego Bay as well as the bay of Monterey. Portola volunteered for the effort and was named acting military governor of California, alongside Father Junipero Serra who would lead the expedition’s missionary effort. Their journey commenced after a land and sea rendezvous at the San Diego bay, where a settlement was to be established, and from there the crew would head northward to Monterey. The expedition was to last a total of 9 months.
Father Serra arrived at Presidio Hill from Baja California on June 29, 1769, two days after Portola and his crew. It was there, in San Diego, that they would dedicate the first of many California missions to come; heading northward to Monterey on July 14. The expedition, including Fathers Juan Crespi and Francisco Gomez, would reach the outskirts of San Clemente on July 22. It was on this day that Christianity’s spread in California would officially commence with the baptism of two indigenous Acjachemen children.
As told by Father Crespi: “Saturday, July 22. At about 7 o'clock we continued over course toward the West. At about 11 o'clock, having traveled four leagues, more or less, we arrived at a pool of water. Near this pool we camped. Our scouts informed us that yesterday they had found two sick baby girls in a rancheria. We therefore asked the commandant for an escort of soldiers, and then visited them. We found one of the children to all appearances dying on its mother’s breast. We begged her for permission to examine the child; but, although we tried to make the little girl understand that it was not our intention to harm her - that we desired only to wash her head in order that, if she should die, she might go to Heaven, the child refused to loosen her hold on her mother. At last we induced the mother to let us carry out our desire. Thereupon, my companion, Father Francisco Gomez, baptized the little girl, giving her the name of Maria Magdalena. Later on, we visited the other sick girl, who was badly burnt and seemingly also at death’s door. We baptized her under the name of Margarita. On account of this incident the soldiers called the place Los Cristianitos. I named it for San Apolinario, and to the other it is known as La Canada de los Bautismos.”
The historic event for the United States gained relatively little recognition until 1929, when San Clemente’s first mayor, Thomas F. Murphine, alongside Father St. John O’Sullivan of the San Juan Capistrano Mission, brought more attention to the baptism. In an April of 1929 letter to the Orange County Historical Society.
Murphine wrote: “We know, of course, that the christening took place near what is now Cristianitas Canyon where the fathers had struck camp and was named for this date and event. During our excavations here in San Clemente, we have found numerous trophies and old stone implements which definitely prove that once upon a time several Indian villages were located here. We feel strongly, just as you undoubtedly feel, that the various places of historical interest in the state of California are one of the greatest assets of our state and should be carefully and faithfully preserved for future generations. We, therefore, take this opportunity to suggest that your society appoint a committee to meet with us for the purpose of visiting the ground and endeavoring to establish the approximate place of the christening, and discuss ways and means for a suitable shrine or monument, which will permanently consecrate this event so tremendously important in the history of our state and in the religion of this country.”
For years San Clementeans commemorated the historical event through the pageant La Cristianita, originally written by Jennie Belle Bartlett in 1954, and performed by the community theater group.
Eventually, the play would be re-written and directed by Norman Wright in the early 1970s, and last until 1988. Wright, a San Clemente resident of 25 years, was a graduate of USC, who took his degree in drama on to Walt Disney Studios. It was there that he began authoring stories for Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, before being promoted to Story Director for Fantasia and later Sequence Analyst for Bambi. He would eventually break away from Disney to form his own company, Norman Wright Productions. For over a year, Wright and his wife would research data for what would become The Cross and the Arrow, Pageant of La Cristianita. Wright used direct translations of the original diaries of Fathers Junipero Serra and Juan Crespi for the script. The Hollywood entertainer and San Clemente resident, Jerry Velasco, would also help by writing the opening number, On Our Mission We Go.
The pageant was critically acclaimed by Disney, and would eventually gain state-wide recognition.
With the La Cristianita Monument now at Casa Romantica, more attention will be paid to an all-too-important event in our nation’s history. With the spread of Christianity in this state came the spread of European settlements, starting with the California missions. This monument may serve as a looking glass into the old world, as well as raise cultural awareness of our land and the caretakers who came before.
As stated by Teresa Romero, chairwoman of the Juaneño band of Mission Indians, “What this monument represents is the biggest paradigm shift in our culture - the day the children were baptized and we became Christians… This monument here is a true testament to the fact that our people…the Acjachemen… are still here today,”.
Thanks to the San Clemente Historical Society for their well-documented history of the Pageant of La Cristianita.b