The circumstances of the first recorded Catholic baptisms in California may be largely overlooked in history books, but they were once the stuff of pageantry in San Clemente – literally.
This year represents the 250th anniversary of the July 22, 1769 baptisms of two gravely ill infant native Acjachemen, later called Juaneno, girls by Padre Francisco Gomez.
For decades, San Clementeans commemorated the historical event through outdoor costumed reenactments, or pageants, performed by local community theater groups and actors. In different iterations and locations, “La Cristianita,” the name given by soldiers to the original site, and later “The Cross and the Arrow, Pageant of La Cristianita,” were performed between 1954-1988.
In 1957, the first historic marker commemorating the baptism was placed near the original site at Camp Pendleton.
Late City Councilwoman Bertha Henry Taylor helped keep the event in the public consciousness, supporting the summer pageant. She was also a leading advocate to have a historical marker moved from City Hall in San Clemente to Casa Romantica for greater visibility. The relocated historical marker was unveiled in 2013.
When the marker was moved to the new site, its importance was noted 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,” Romero told the OC Register at the time.
The first baptism
The Portola expedition was the first documented extensive exploration on inland California and was used by Spain to bolster its claim to large portions of California and the Pacific Northwest that were “discovered” in 1542 by the seafarer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo.
The expedition was just over a week into its journey from San Diego when it came across a spring on the outskirts of San Clemente. While setting up camp, two priests, fathers Juan Crespi, the official diarist of the journey, and Gomez, were first told of one, then two dying girls nearby.
In his journal, Fr. Crespi wrote that the priests hurried to where the children were.
“Father Francisco Gomez baptized the child as well as he could with her clutched to her mother’s breast; she was named Maria Magdalena, and I have no doubt she will die and we have come just in time that this soul may go to Heaven,” Crespi wrote, as translated by Richard F. Pourade in his book “The Call to California.”
Crespi later baptized the second child naming her Margarita and the soldiers called the place Los Cristianitos.
“So merely by passing by, we have gained these two souls,” Crespi wrote.
Full story at Orange County Catholic.