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Santa Ysabel Mission Celebrates 200 Years of Faith

By Denis Grasska

SANTA YSABEL — The Santa Ysabel Indian Mission kicked off its bicentennial celebration with an outdoor Mass on Sept. 16.

Father William Kernan, who serves as pastor of the mission as well as St. Elizabeth of Hungary Parish in neighboring Julian, expressed hope that this jubilee year will foster renewal and a sense of hope as the community looks toward its future.

The 200th anniversary celebration is slated to continue with a fall festival on Oct. 20.

The Santa Ysabel Indian Mission was established in 1818 as an “asistencia,” or sub-mission, to Mission San Diego de Alcala. It is located about 60 miles east of Mission San Diego.

The first Mass was celebrated at the site by Franciscan Father Fernando Martin.

According to a written history, the mission grounds by 1821 included a chapel, granary, several houses and a cemetery, and were home to about 450 Native Americans. But, beginning in 1836, the Franciscan friars who established the mission were no longer able to make regular pastoral visits, and the buildings fell into ruins.

The current church building was constructed in 1924 and dedicated as St. John the Baptist Catholic Church.

In 1926, the mission’s two historic bells, which dated back to 1723 and 1767, respectively, were stolen. In 1993, a local molder and his son struck a new bell for the mission. The clappers from the original bells are housed in the mission museum.

Today, Father Kernan said, the Santa Ysabel Indian Mission is a small community, with often fewer than a hundred people attending Mass there on any given weekend.

Though none of the original mission structures are still standing, an archeological dig uncovered the tile floor that had been laid by the friars and Indians in 1818.

It was near this spot, a place rich with both history and spirituality, that the altar was erected for the outdoor bicentennial Mass.

In his homily, Bishop Robert W. McElroy praised the mission community for its faithfulness over the past two centuries.

In that Sunday’s Gospel reading, Jesus asked His disciples, “Who do you say that I am?”

“That question has been the central reality of the life of this mission ever since its founding 200 years ago,” Bishop McElroy said, noting that the answer to that question is now “emblazoned” on the walls of the church above a painting of the Crucifixion: “Truly, this man was the Son of God.”

The bishop said the past two centuries at the mission have been marked by faith, sacrifice, love, the proclamation of God’s word, and celebrations of the sacraments.

“Let us give thanks that God has called us together today to honor past generations of faith and to pray for the future of this community,” he said, “that God will always be present and that future generations will continue to wrestle with and answer the question ‘Who do you say I am?’ by bringing into their lives and hearts the one answer that makes it all worthwhile: ‘You are the God who loves me from my first moment in my mother’s womb and will love me ‘til the end of time.’”

The bicentennial Mass was followed by a short procession to the mission’s newly restored Marian shrine, which was blessed by the bishop “as a sign of the renewal of the commitment of this community of faith to remain in this place, preaching Christ and Him crucified.”

Restoration of the shrine was made possible by the Artho family. Alfred and Anna Artho, ages 91 and 87, respectively, were among the many attendees of the bicentennial Mass.

Also present was Father Peter Premarini, a member of the Comboni Missionaries, who had served at the Santa Ysabel Indian Mission as a seminarian in 1961. It was in the mission church that he made his first profession of vows.

“I’m glad to be here,” said Father Premarini, who ministered for 27 years as a priest in Uganda and now serves in Covina, California. “I’m not young anymore — I am 82 years old — but I still recognize the places where I used to teach catechism to the Indian children.”

Johnny Hernandez, 66, has been a member of the mission community since 1954.

He encourages local Catholics to visit the site, which is a California registered historical landmark located in “their own backyard.”

“[When] they drive out to Julian and get apple pie,” he said, “they should drive out here and see the mission because ... there’s a lot of history here and always has been.”

Given the fact that the United States itself has existed for little more than 240 years, Father Kernan said, it can be “hard to wrap your head around” the idea of a local Catholic community with a 200-year history.

“I think participating in a bicentennial ... increases the awareness of all the people that have gone before us,” he said. “It makes us aware of the shoulders that we stand on and perhaps moves us to rededicate ourselves to spreading the Gospel.”

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