St. Joseph & the Incredible Rescue of the California Missions

Today the remnants of twenty-one missions, six pueblos, and four presidios bear witness to the former presence of Spain’s missionaries, soldiers, and settlers in California. Whether it be its numerous place names of Spanish origin or its ubiquitous mission revival architecture, California’s Hispanic heritage is visible everywhere throughout the state. Even its fields, said novelist Jack Kerouac, are filled with “Spanish mysteries.” Less well-known, however, is that California’s famous missions would not exist today but for truly mysterious events which happened 250 years ago—events which contemporaries attributed to the miraculous intercession of St. Joseph.

The Sacred Expedition

The original plan for establishing the California missions was conceived by a high-ranking administrator of the Spanish crown named Joseph: Inspector-General Don José de Gálvez. Prompted by reports that Russian explorers were making their way down the Pacific coast, Gálvez proposed an ambitious scheme to develop New Spain’s unsettled frontier in Alta California. His idea involved making two expeditions, one by land and one by sea, to establish a mission and a presidio at the ports of San Diego and Monterey, last visited by explorer Sebastián Vizcaíno in the early 1600s. The Franciscan friar who volunteered to serve as the first presidente of the California missions was also named Joseph: Miguel José Serra. Or at least that was his given name before becoming more famously known by his religious name—St. Junípero Serra.

On November 21, 1768, Gálvez issued a circular to the missionaries of Baja California which placed the success of the Sacred Expedition—as it was called—directly under the patronage of St. Joseph.

Comprised of two land detachments and three galleons, the Sacred Expedition departed from Baja California in staggered intervals in 1769. Two of the ships—the San Antonio and the San Carlos—arrived in the port of San Diego first, but the last ship to depart, the San José, was never seen again. To make matters worse, almost the entire crew of the San Carlos was bed-ridden with disease. After the stricken men were taken ashore, the illness continued to spread to the crew of the San Antonio. In the end, fewer than one-third of the crew members from both ships survived.

After the two land expeditions arrived in San Diego, military leaders debated whether or not the sea expedition should continue to the port of Monterey. They ultimately decided that while the land expedition could continue north, the San Antonio should return to Mexico to recruit the sailors necessary to man both ships. Accordingly, on July 9, 1769, the San Antonio departed for the port of San Blas. One week later, an exploring party under the leadership of Don Gaspar de Portolá set out north to find the port of Monterey. The balance of the expedition remained behind in San Diego.

Portolá’s men eventually reached the port of Monterey but somehow failed to recognize it despite having Sebastián Vizcaíno’s recorded descriptions of the area. When the explorers returned to San Diego unexpectedly in January 1770, the Sacred Expedition seemed anything but divinely-favored. Provisions at San Diego were running dangerously low and now there were dozens of unexpected men to feed. Under these circumstances, Portolá issued orders stating that unless the San Antonio arrived by the Solemnity of St. Joseph, the entire settlement would need to be abandoned.

The missionaries knew exactly what such a retreat portended. Fr. Francisco Palóu, Junípero Serra’s biographer and a fellow missionary, concluded that “if now, after having taken legal possession of the land and beginning a colony, it should be abandoned, many centuries would pass before another such effort could be made.” Fr. Palóu’s pessimism was not unjustified. The last time the Spaniards visited the port of San Diego was in the year 1602; it had taken them more than 160 years to return.

“A Miracle Wrought by the Holy Patriarch”

At the suggestion of Fr. Junípero Serra, the entire colony prayed a novena to St. Joseph seeking his intercession for the ship’s timely arrival. But when St. Joseph’s feast day finally arrived, the San Antonio was still nowhere to be seen. The Spaniards reluctantly gathered up their supplies and resigned themselves to the abandonment of the colony the following morning. Then, according to Fr. Palóu, the following happened:

[T]hat same afternoon God intervened to satisfy the burning desires of [Fr. Serra] through the intercession of the most Holy Patriarch and to give comfort to all, permitting them to see clearly and distinctly a ship which being hidden from sight the following day did not come to anchor until the fourth day in the port of San Diego. This vision was sufficient to suspend the plan to abandon the town and the Mission and all were encouraged to remain, attributing it to a miracle wrought by the Holy Patriarch on this, his own day, the last in which the expedition was to remain in that place before leaving, by permitting them all to see the vessel.


The relief ship had finally arrived! It was of course remarkable that, having been gone for more than eight months, the San Antonio reappeared on the very last day before the settlement was scheduled to be abandoned. And it was remarkable, too, that all of this occurred on the feast day of St. Joseph, the saint to whom the success of the entire venture had been entrusted. But the Spaniards soon learned that the circumstances of their rescue were even more incredible than they had originally imagined.

As it turns out, the San Antonio was not even supposed to be in San Diego. After the ship returned to Mexico, Don José de Gálvez ordered the San Antonio to sail directly to Monterey without stopping at San Diego in order to relieve the Portolá expedition up north. No one yet knew that Portolá had failed to find the port and had already turned back towards San Diego. Due to strong gales, the ship was driven more than 1000 miles from the Pacific coast before making its way back again approximately 240 miles north of San Diego. Having sailed within view of the distressed colonists on March 19th, one wonders how the ship could have been seen at such a great distance.

After the captain went ashore to refill his water barrels, he learned from the local Chumash that Portolá’s exploring party had passed through their village twice, meaning that Portolá was not in Monterey but was now back in San Diego. Still, the captain was reluctant to disobey orders and so resolved to keep sailing north towards Monterey. But as the San Antonio started to get under way, the ship lost its anchor in the depths of the Santa Barbara Channel. The captain no longer had any choice. Knowing he would need another anchor for the port in Monterey, the captain reluctantly reversed course and sailed back to the port of San Diego to borrow an anchor from the San Carlos. It was by means of this “accident” that the Spaniards in San Diego were finally rescued.

All of the future missions in California had come within a hair’s breadth of never being founded—literally a matter of hours. The San Antonio was spotted at three o’clock on the afternoon of March 19th but did not enter the port of San Diego until four days later on the afternoon of March 23rd. Yet this brief sighting on St. Joseph’s feast day was sufficient to suspend the Spaniards’ plan to abandon the province the following morning.

As a direct consequence of the dramatic rescue, twenty-one missions were eventually established in California and more than 100,000 indigenous people were baptized during the mission era. Such efforts were undertaken in order to fulfill a divine mandate: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” (Matt 28:19) The Spanish missionaries performed their task with a sense of urgency, for Christ had warned that unless a man be born again of water and the Holy Ghost, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. (John 3:5) All of this and more hung in the balance on that fateful afternoon 250 years ago when a lone ship appeared on the California horizon.

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Patrick M. Laurence, an attorney, writes on legal, cultural, and philosophical issues from Orange County, California.

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