By Edgar W Hebert
For forty-one years, the name of Father Antonio Ubach was a familiar one in San Diego. His work included ministry to Indians and to white settlers as far north as San Juan Capistrano, far down into Lower California, and to the interior of Southern California as well. The years have not dimmed the influence of this forceful man; when church history is recalled in Southern California, his name looms large and his deeds are retold.
Antonio Ubach bore a German name, but is said to have been of Moorish blood. He was born in Barcelona in 1835. One version has it that he began his studies for the priesthood in Spain. Apparently his decision on a life career was reached after much soul-searching. He had a remarkable career in school and yet he felt the desire to serve in the church.
He came to the United States with Bishop Thaddeus Amat, C.M,. of the diocese of Monterey and Los Angeles, and Father Cyprian Rubio. At the bishop’s request, he studied at St. Vincent’s Seminary, Cape Girardeau, Missouri. After completing the required courses, he had to wait about a year and a half before ordination; he came to the west but was unable to be priested because Bishop Amat was away. The Vicar General and Administrator, Father Blasius Raho, C.M., was anxious to have him ordained, as his services were needed, and had written to the archbishop of San Francisco, Most Reverend Joseph Sadoc Alemany, asking to have him ordained for the diocese of Monterey and Los Angeles. The archbishop wondered if he could lawfully do this, in the absence of the bishop who brought him to America.
In a letter dated December 21, 1859, preserved in the Chancery office in San Francisco, Father Raho told him that there was such a facility, a dismissional letter, that he could be ordained on a nonprescribed day, and that the power was also present to ordain him under the title “for the mission.” In another letter of January 31, 1860, he further stated the qualities of the potential ordinand which fitted him for ordination.
Accordingly, on March 17-18, 1860, Antonio Ubach received Tonsure and the four Minor Orders, the Order of Subdeaconate on March 24, the Deaconate on April 1, and the Priesthood on April 7, 1860, from Archbishop Alemany at the cathedral in San Francisco.
From 1860 until 1865, when he was succeeded by Father Cyprian Rubio, Father Ubach labored at San Juan Bautista Mission. His first entry in the Baptismal Book there was April 16, 1860, his last was April 15, 1865. It is believed that he also visited Visalia and possibly Pajaro after leaving San Juan.1
In 1861, he started the first school in San Juan Bautista. He brought the Sisters of Charity to staff the orphanage and day school
there, and instructions were given in the long room behind the sacristy. In 1871 the sisters and orphans withdrew to Santa Cruz, following an earthquake in the locality. After leaving the San Juan Bautista area, it is believed from records in Los Angeles that he served for a while at what is commonly called the Plaza Church.
This year, 1866, found him in San Diego, as the successor of Father John Molinier at the adobe church on Conde Street. Twenty years before, the American troops had been quartered in Mission San Diego de Alcalá. The Mexican government had stripped it of all but 22 acres of land and the once giant herds were gone. When the American troops left, vandals too had stripped it of everything possible to transport. In 1865, when its title was confirmed to Archbishop Alemany by President Lincoln, the buildings were only a shell of their former selves. San Diego then consisted of a group of adobes and some frame buildings at the foot of Presidio Hill. Many wealthy and outstanding pioneer families had left, and the population was sprinkled with a few Americans whose dream was the coming of a railroad to this locality.
Father Ubach’s concern was for the Indians whose rancherias were scattered throughout the county, which then included the present-day county of Imperial. His missionary labors kept him on the road much of the time with marriages, christenings and burials, plus the daily work of a parish priest. No distance was too great nor weather too bad to prevent his journeyings. Old settlers met him far out in the back country, sleeping on the ground and living off the game in his efforts to reach the bedside of a dying Indian. Once or twice a year, he visited all of the rancherias and administered the Sacraments; his visit was a big event to the Indians, and he encouraged the feasts and activities as a good outlet for them.
His opinion came to be relied upon by the Indians. His decisions were impartial and final, and they held him in a reverence akin to worship. It was his influence that prevented the Temecula Indians from a bloody reprisal, when they were removed from their homes.3
He felt keenly the wrongs perpetrated on the Indians, and stood between them and their despoilers, never fearing to protest nor to speak his mind plainly.
At first he worked alone, but later other people came to his aid. His labors became known to President Grant, who had confidence in him and sent him on missions of state to Mexican officials. These were performed successfully and faithfully. Through his influence, the Indians were granted permanent homesites at the end of Grant’s Administration.4
One of his projects was the beginning of what is today the Immaculate Conception Church in Old Town, and he was assisted in this by contributions from descendants of early families who had left San Diego.5 July 10, 1868, was a proud day for him. Ninety-nine years almost to the same day as the founding of Mission San Diego de Alcalá, he saw Rt. Rev. Thaddeus Amat, C.M., lay the cornerstone amid appropriate ceremonies. Events now moved quickly, and the unfinished edifice was to stand for many years as a monument to his dream.6
Alonzo Horton came to Southern California and in 1867 began what was called New Town, present San Diego. A fire in 1872 destroyed most of the principal buildings in Old Town, the county records were removed, and people began to move to the new center. There, Father Ubach said Mass at a rented place called Rosario Hall, located at the northeast corner of Arctic (Kettner) and F Streets, preaching both in Spanish and in English.7 In 1874, he acquired title to the land for a cemetery located in what now is Mission Hills, next to the present Grant School.8 On January 31, 1875, a frame St. Joseph’s Church, at Third and Beech, was dedicated by Bishop Francis Mora on land contributed by Mr. Horton. It was described then as a fine structure, “on the mesa west of town.” Next to the church was his adobe house where he later lived permanently. Tales are told that the church was so poor the priests had no beds and slept on the floor. Until 1885, he continued to live in Old Town and serve both churches. Casa de Lopez and other structures are pointed out in Old San Diego as being places where he lived. People noted that he was never without his objects of charity, who were always in evidence.
Father Ubach’s records are still at St. Joseph’s, and they indicate that most baptisms still took place at Old Town and such inland locations as Santa Ysabel, Banner City, Julian, Agua Caliente, and El Capitan Grande. One whole page, that of May 13, 1878, is given over to Indians he baptized at ranchos that day. In Book Three of baptisms, he lists the first christening at St. Joseph’s: William Daniel Donovan, son of Michael and Ellen Donovan, was baptized by him on November 30, 1876. It was not until the next year, November 11, 1877, that another entry was made.9
In the course of his work he collected many items from Mission days. The San Diego Union of January 11, 1874, mentioned that he had in his possession the dagger of Joaquin Murietta; today, it is believed to have been that of Tiburcio Vasquez, another “worthy.”
For two years, 1878-1880, Father Ubach was in Spain visiting his family. In a letter of July 25, 1879, to Doña Emilia Turner of San Diego, now in copy form in the Title Insurance & Trust Company’s archives, he said he had spent a time with his mother, and was at the writing living with his sister, the superior of Casa Caridad, in Barcelona, to see if the sea air would make him feel better. He remarked that he didn’t like the food or water in his temporary home. He wrote also of his sister, who was troubled with her eyes, and with weakness. As soon as he received money from San Diego, he hoped to take her to a location where she would improve. After dealing with the ways to send him his money, he offered suggestions for good conduct, sent remembrances to Estela Beta, Rosa Stewart, the Minters and other friends, he asked for “news concerning the living and the dead.”
An item in the Union of May 15, 1881, recalls the solution of his transportation problem. It tells that a Concord buggy, built to his own design, was nearing completion. To our regret, no more details are given, but similar conveyances had the back end constructed to hold supplies and equipment needed for field work.
Legend has it that on his trips he was frequently accompanied by Rev. Henry B. Restarick, the Episcopalian rector at St. Paul’s. Each would stop to see people of his own faith and when night fell, if they were not near any home, they camped out. Each cleric cooked, made coffee, and did the dishes on alternate evenings. After supper’ they had lengthy discussions by the campfire, Father Ubach interspersing his comments with puffs on his thin black cigars and Rev. Restarick using his “bulldog” pipe to illustrate his points.10
At one stage of his career he had a great high buggy with yellow wheels, as was recalled by Miss Lillian Whaley in notes taken by Winifred Davidson in 1930. Charley Morris, his devoted admirer, was his driver. This individual had been in an accident and had great flaming, red eyes. Charley’s wit was contagious. At times, one horse was used for the buggy, but it was possible to use two. Prior to that, he had driven around the county, Miss Whaley recalled, in a single-seated “top buggy,” drawn by two beautiful palomino horses. It was possibly this rig that he sold to help defray his expenses for his trip to Spain.
The San Diego Union of May 10, 1882, makes mention of the beginning of Our Lady of Peace Academy at the southwest corner of Third and A Streets. This was staffed by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondolet, and their coming to San Diego was the fulfillment of one more dream of Fr. Ubach, namely, to provide education for the community.
Later, in 1887, they took over St. Anthony Indian School, which he had built near the ruins of the Mission. The first year, the average attendance was fifty-four boys and girls. The United States government paid $12.50 monthly for each child’s board, clothing and education; at times, the entrollment reached nearly 100 pupils. In the year of his death, 1907, the school was removed to Banning, Calif.11
In 1882, he was present for a singular event at San Luis Rey, which was in his charge. One Saturday in the fall, he, Father José Mut of San Juan Capistrano, and Bishop Francis Mora were present when Silvestra Morin and several others had two Indians exhume the body of Father José Maria de Zalvidea, who had been buried under the choir loft in front of the baptistry. The coffin and the body were in fair condition. After placing his remains in a new casket, Father Zalvidea was borne in procession, accompanied by lighted candles, to a new resting place on the epistle side of the altar before the door to the sacristy. Then Father Ubach celebrated Mass near the pulpit, as the main altar was in ruins. It was his custom to offer Mass at San Luis Rey on the first Sunday of each month; when he was prevented from going there, Father Mut officiated for him.12
Civic affairs interested Father Ubach. He worked for the coming of the Texas & Pacific Railroad, and he did what he could to see that good candidates were put forward for election. A note from him of November, 1884, now at the Serra Museum, attests to his efforts to secure the election of Zach Montgomery as district attorney.
Father Ubach saw the need of a hospital, and through the efforts of Bishop Mora, Mother Mary Baptiste of the Mercy Order in San Francisco sent Mother Michael Cummings and a small group of nuns to San Diego. They arrived the last of May of the first of June, 1890. Until St. Joseph’s Dispensary, located in a few rooms in the Grand Central Hotel at Sixth and H (Market) Streets, was ready, they remained at the Academy of Our Lady of Peace at the corner of Third and A Streets. The first patients entered the dispensary on July 9, 1890. The nuns were eager for a permanent site for a hospital, and around Christmas of that year, ground was broken at Sixth and University, where St. Joseph’s Hospital was to stand for many years. On April 25, 1891, nineteen patients were moved to the new quarters. This building continued to serve San Diego until its removal, under the new name of Mercy Hospital, to its present site, in November of 1924.
Building of a new and larger St. Joseph’s Church was his next project. An interesting sidelight is the use of old Mission bells in the new church. Father Ubach found the bells at the Mission were six in number in the inventory of 1834; they were cast between the years of 1792 and 1802. It is believed that the two Santa Ysabel bells, later discovered missing, and the one at Los Altos, were once San Diego Mission bells. A fourth bell was a gift to the Old Town church from Colonel Brayton, and the remaining two were at St. Joseph’s.
With Bishop Mora’s approval, he had some of these recast. At first, he planned to send them to Boston or Baltimore, but he finally decided to have them remade in San Diego by the Standard Iron Works. An old bell, Mater Dolorosa, was molded with a 1790 bell and San José and San Juan, two from the 1791-96 period, into a new bell called Mater Dolorosa. They were recast on March 20, 1894. This new bell was estimated to weigh 1200 pounds, be 30 inches wide, and have a height of 371/2 inches. The inscription on it reads: “Originally cast in New Spain (Mexico) in 1796, recast in San Diego, California, in 1894. Mater Dolorosa.”
Mater Dolorosa’s companion bell in St. Joseph’s had a superior tone and finish. It bears a large cross of raised diamond design on one surface, and has a three-divisioned handle. Its inscription reads, “1738. Santa Maria Amadalena.” It is about 3 feet in height, and is green in color. These bells are now in the restored Mission of San Diego de Alcalá, in Mission Valley.
In 1894, the new brick St Joseph’s was dedicated. Many of the windows were gifts of Spanish families formerly of San Diego, and were originally intended for the Old Town church. Statues, vestments and record books from the Old Mission were kept by Father Ubach at St. Joseph’s.14
An article in the Los Angeles Herald of November 10, 1901, reports Father Ubach militantly defending his beloved Indians, by attacking a Supreme Court decision to turn over Indian lands at Mesa Grande to J. Downey Harvey. He contended that the Indians were correct in their contention that their lands belonged to them and their heirs forever, as a part of a settlement involving Silvestre de la Portilla in 1836 and his rights of grant to San José del Valle. These claims had been accepted by Mexican and American officials at the time of the Cession. To his sorrow, the Indians were removed from their lands the second week of May, 1903, and resettled at Pala Assistencia.
Father Ubach became known widely to the world as Father Gaspara in Helen Hunt Jackson’s novel, Ramona. Later, in an article in the San Diego Union dated June 25, 1905, he reviewed what he had told her; the marriage had taken place forty years before, in the adobe church in Old Town. He knew their real names but would not reveal them. Mrs. Jackson had done the same thing, so as not to bring notoriety to the families concerned. He smiled when he recalled that Mrs. Jackson had said he could have been three things — a priest, a soldier, or a literary figure. He felt the description was accurate, and Mrs. Jackson had described him well. He had the step of a soldier. He wore a cape and a flat hat, and the scent of his ever-present cigar gave a hint to his arrival.
Lillian Whaley recalled, to Lena B. Hunzsicker in 1918, that Father Ubach spoke in a gutteral voice. She brought him his mail when she was a child in Old Town, and he would pat her on the head and repeat several times, “You are a good child.”
When he was walking on his porch, he would fill her apron with oranges. Each morning and evening, she would see him, with his cassock over his arm, go to the church and ring the bells. She remembered that he never made visits unless they were professional ones. He gave the impression of being tall, but he was not; it was his good carriage that made people think that he was.
The growth of his parish, and poor health, caused Father Ubach to lay aside part of his work for the Indians, although he continued to speak and write in their behalf. The return of the Franciscans to San Luis Rey and the coming of missionary priests to labor among the Indians gave him some measure of relief, but the Indians continued to come to him for advice. He was gladdened, in 1905, to see the beginnings of a second parish, Our Lady of Angels, on Golden Hill. This pioneer venture was the responsibility of Rev. William F. Quinlan.15
Millard F. Hudson, in a June, 1907, article in Out West, mentions that he was humble with people and disliked publicity. He had an aversion to being photographed, and to date only a few pictures survive him. One was taken with his beloved Indians in the back country, and another was taken at the time of the funeral for the Bennington victims in 1905. When it was suggested that copies of pictures of him could be sold to raise funds for church activities, he scotched the idea.
His sense of humor stood him in good stead. He was aware that some of his ideas could not be realized, and he accepted the facts as they were. He had a strong will and was a strict disciplinarian. Once his mind was made up, he remained adamant. It was seldom that he delegated parish work, unless it was for reasons of health.
In company, he was cordial, sometimes humorous, but always impressive, and his black hair and beard were always noted. Many stories have grown up around the beard. Some say he wore it because he was a missionary, others that it was because he had asthma, and others that it was used to conceal a scar made by a sword.
He liked to startle his choir by tip-toeing into the loft while it was practicing. He would then join in the singing, in his deep voice. During his early days in Old Town, he taught the boys English and Spanish as needed, and then played football with them. On feast days, he would bring a brass band to St. Joseph’s to supplement the usual choir and organ music, and he would also help with the decoration of the altars.
The clergymen of San Diego attended his funeral in a group, as did the Board of Supervisors.16 When news of his death reached the city council, the sergeant was ordered to lower the flag to half mast on the day of his funeral.17
His body was taken from the old wooden church and brought into his new one, escorted by a long procession of children. There, a solemn high Mass was sung. Bishop Thomas J. Conaty eulogized him in a long sermon, and Rev. Andrew Gurega paid tribute to him in Spanish. The services ended at 12:05 and a cortege a mile long brought him to his final resting place in the old Catholic Cemetery. Indians came from the mountains and mingled their flowers and tears with the sorrow of the people who mourned him here.
Father Ubach’s will is typical of the life and ideals of the man. He left St. Anthony’s School for Indian boys and girls at the Old Mission to the bishop. He, at his own expense, had built it. He provided for the building of a church at National City and a church for Spanish-speaking Catholics in San Diego. He left bequests to charitable and religious organizations, and to personal friends. His library, he left to the Trappists; in Nelson County, Kentucky, and one more bequest was for the finishing of the church at Old Town.
So ends the saga of a colorful and powerful man who has rightly been called “The Last of the Padres.”
1. Records of Diocese of Monterey – Fresno
2. Older, Mrs. Fremont, California Missions and their Romance. New York: Coward-McCann, Inc. 1935. Page 223
3. Engelhardt, Rev. Zephyrin, San Luis Rey Mission. San Francisco: James H. Barry Company, 1921. Page 187
4. Hudson, Millard F., “The Passing of a Spanish Missionary.” Out West, June, 1907
6. Engelhardt, Rev. Zephyrin. San Diego, Mother of the Missions. San Francisco: James H. Barry Company, 1920, supplement Page 8
7. Smythe, William E., History of San Diego, 1542-1908. San Diego: The History Company, 1908. Vol. 1, Page 175
8. Smythe, op. cit., Vol. II, Page 540
9. The Southern Cross, August 30, 1962. Page 16
10. San Diego Union, “Southwest Corner,” August 3, 1958
11. Engelhardt, Rev. Zephyrin, Son Diego, Mother of the Missions. Page 334
12. Engelhardt, Rev. Zephyrin, San Luis Rey. Pages 211 and 215
13. Walsh, Marie T., The Mission Bells of California. San Francisco: Harr Wagner Company, 1934. Pages 34-43
14. Hudson, op. cit.
15. The Southern Cross, August 30, 1962. Page 19
16. San Diego Union, April 2, 1907
17. San Diegan-Sun, April 2, 1907