Thursday, March 22, 2018

An Original "History Keeper": Monsignor Francis J. Weber at Mission San Fernando, Cal.

The temporary exhibition, "History Keepers" at El Tranquilo Gallery & Visitor Center, El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument, ran during the summer of 2017 and included a two-minute presentation, produced by the Natural History Museum. It told a story behind a circa 1866 ambrotype - an early glass photographic portrait of Father Francis Mora, taken during the time he served as priest at the Plaza Church.

Ambrotype of Father Francis Mora
(Image courtesy of the Seaver Center for Western History Research, Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County)

While the exhibition showcased a number of compelling historical artifacts and highlighted the archivists or "history keepers" whose jobs are to take care of these objects, this blogger's discovery of the Mora ambrotype led to uncovering the achievements of a longtime History Keeper, Monsignor Francis Weber, whose career and relationship to the ambrotype will be revealed by this blog post.

Monsignor Weber, Archivist Emeritus at the Archival Center of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, was contacted by this blogger in July 2017.  He was responsible for reuniting Mora to this city. It turns out he was instrumental in 1962 for arranging the return of Mora's remains from Sarria, Barcelona to Los Angeles, his final resting place.  So it was apropos to make known to him the existence of this rare ambrotype portrait.  He was appreciative and sent a postcard of thanks, closing by extending an invitation to visit him.

A visit to his office at the Archival Center at San Fernando Mission finally materialized recently, Friday morning, March 16th.

Photo by E. Uyeda

Monsignor Weber in the News

A couple of recent well-written web articles highlight his accomplishments and his career as Catholic priest, writer, historian, professor and longtime archivist at the Archival Center of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles:

Angelus News, May 5, 2016:  Msgr. Francis J. Weber:  still curious (and writing) after all these years

Los Angeles Corral of Westerners:  Living Legend No. 60

Writings by Monsignor Weber

The large body of writings by Father Weber is widely accessible.  Public libraries hold his works, not to mention academic libraries.  The Seaver Center for Western History Research at the Natural History Museum, where this blogger holds a day job, has a number of his books.

Father Weber
(Photo by Gary Leonard)
Miniature Books Aficianado

Father Weber is the author of nearly 130 miniature books and has collected many, many more. The Huntington Library in San Marino, Cal. holds his donated collection, and here is a finding aid of it.

Father Weber holding the blogger's copy of his own miniature book California on United States Postage Stamps
(Photo by Gary Leonard)

The Life of Bishop Francis Mora (1827-1905) 

The subject in the exhibition video, Francis Mora, was a pioneering Catholic priest, serving in Los Angeles, who then became bishop of the Monterey-Los Angeles Diocese.  His impact on the city had also been included in a previous blog post, College Street, Early Schools, Saint Vibiana’s Cathedral and the Clergy of 19th Century L.A.

Much of the following biographical sketch was culled from Father Weber's writings:

The son of a sharecropper in Barcelona, Spain, his family could only afford to send him through the primary classes.  But the promising young Mora caught the attention of the school priests whom they picked to attend a nearby school for further studies.

Mexico broke up the mission system in 1833.  Mora eventually became the last of the Spanish bishops to provide spiritual leadership in preserving the Catholic church in California in the years that followed.

Having arrived in California in 1854, he served as pastor at numerous churches before arriving at the Plaza Church of Our Lady of the Angels in 1863 at about age 37.  Based on this, the date of the ambrotype could fall between 1863 and 1878, the time from his arrival at the Plaza Church until the year he became bishop.  Further, the ambrotype was most popular between 1856 and 1860 and its use waned from 1861 to 1866.  His simple mode of clothing in the portrait contrasts with the typical regalia befitting a bishop.

Mora served in the heart of Los Angeles at the time when the country was in a civil war. The cultural make-up of the city gradually changed.  Mora was conversant in English and Spanish, an asset in early southern California and enabled him to serve both classes.  By the time he became Bishop in 1878, the city was rapidly growing as the new Southern Pacific Railroad transported Americans settlers out west.

In 1873, he was elevated to Coadjutor (or an assistant to the bishop).  His popularity was reflected by the overflow of persons who attended his consecration.  Afterwards that morning of the ceremony, he went about his normal duties, setting out on horseback to administer to a patient in Anaheim.

He oversaw the completion to the construction of St. Vibiana’s Cathedral, begun by Bishop Thaddeus Amat.  Upon the death of Bishop Amat in 1878, Mora automatically took charge of the Monterey-Los Angeles Diocese that covered 75,984 square miles and served 21,000 Catholics through 40 priests in 28 parishes and 15 missions.

In the early summer of 1882, Bishop Mora was in the backwoods near San Bernardino to administer a Sacrament of Confirmation to a bedridden Native American woman.  On his return trip back to Los Angeles, he was thrown from his carriage and sustained a terrible back injury which he suffered pain for the rest of his life.  Yet he was never known to voice a complaint.

He was an advocate for the publication of a Catholic newspaper and saw the eventual establishment of paper "Catholic Tidings" in 1895, which is still being published to this day under the recent new title, "Angelus".

One of his final projects was the creation of the New Calvary Cemetery in East Los Angeles in 1896.  This meant the closure of the old cemetery near Elysian Park and the careful transfer of graves.

By the 1880s, he was the frequent target of a Protestant group, the American Protective Association (APA). They referred to him as “that damn old foreigner at Second and Main.”  He heroically upheld the ecumenical movement for Christian unity, by giving his followers this advice on dealing with persons of other faiths: “Give them always good example, for although of different religions, yet they are your brethren. Our creator is theirs. The sunshine and day fall alike on the field of Catholic and non-Catholic.”

Prayer Card for Bishop Mora
(Image courtesy of the Seaver Center)

In his retirement, he returned to Barcelona where he died in 1905. He laid in obscurity in the ensuing years.  The town of Sarria, where he was buried, was plundered in 1937 during the Spanish Civil War.

Father Francis Weber in Spain, 1961-1962

Father Weber was a young priest from Los Angeles conducting research in Barcelona,  and he used this opportunity to expand on the scant details of Bishop Mora’s life.  His sleuthing led him to the burial site and locate four grand nieces and one grand nephew, all of whom were surprised to learn that their grand uncle had been a bishop in California.

As Father Weber explained last Friday, at first he went to Sarria's San Gervasio Cemetery. He hired some local kids to search all the graves, but the search came up empty. In a departing taxi, he asked the driver whether there was any other burial places.  Father Weber learned that there was an abandoned cemetery, Cementerio de Sarria.  Once again, he hired kids to search, and this time he found Bishop Mora.  He was able to trace a grave rental document to Mora's living relatives.

Father Weber also uncovered a document indicating Bishop Mora’s wish to be buried in his former diocese, but at the time the expense made this impossible.  His remains were returned to Los Angeles in 1962, and today he is buried at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels. Very few of Mora's possessions exist, yet there is this pristine portrait from the time he was a youthful priest.

The Silver Napkin Ring

As he visited in the house of the newly-acquainted relatives of Mora, Father Weber now recalls, he noticed an inscription "Bishop Mora" on a napkin ring sitting on a table.  Father Weber realized that this was the only reminder of the bishop, a tiny item that escaped notice by the "red inspectors" during the Spanish Civil War in their hunt for religious icons. The grand nieces and one grand nephew allowed for him to return the silver memento to Los Angeles to be placed on display.

Pointing to Mora's Napkin Ring in display case
(Photo by Gary Leonard)

Close-up of the silver napkin ring on display in the Archival Center
(Photo by E. Uyeda)

Return to California of Archbishop Joseph Alemany

Father Weber explained to this blogger about the return of Archbishop Joseph Alemany's remains to California.  Alemany like Mora was from the Spanish Catalan region, was the first Bishop of Monterey beginning in 1850. 

During Bishop Mora's disinterment proceedings, a nephew of Alemany was present.  Father Weber broached to the nephew about the possibility of bringing Alemany back to Los Angeles.  It took several years of discussion and volleying between the Church and the Spanish government to iron out permissions.  Today, Alemany is buried in Colma, California.

An Angelic Companion

Visitors to Father Weber's office must cross over the white metal pet gate.  Angel, an eight-year-old Sheltie, awaits and emits two shout-outs "woof woof" once visitors cross the threshold.  Father Weber has had a succession of pets of this breed.  He said he was not planning on adopting another one, but this one came to him only several months ago - Angel's previous home gained two additional dogs, an arrangement that Angel did not find acceptable.

Shelties were highly utilized during the Mission era, Father Weber explained.  Without fencing, the dogs served to keep the cattle in check.
Father Weber and companion Angel
(Photo by Gary Leonard)

Photo by E. Uyeda

In the Archival Center
(Photo by Gary Leonard)

(Photo by Gary Leonard)