Please Don't Go
The remarkable story of Fr. Antonio Peyri of San Luis Rey
Antonio Peyri was born on January 8, 1769 at Porrera, in Catalonia, Spain.
This section of Spain had a proud history. In medieval times Catalan traders rivaled those of Genoa and Venice, and Catalonia was noted for its religious art.
Young Antonio Peyri entered the Franciscan order at the age of 15, and was ordained a priest nine years later, in 1793. He sailed for New Spain on May 8, 1795 with twenty other friars.
Peyri trained for missionary service at the Missionary College of San Fernando in Mexico City. He was sent to California in 1796. After serving for less than two years at Mission San Luis Obispo, Peyri was singled out Father President Fermin Lasuen to be head missionary for the chain’s 18th mission, San Luis Rey. He was not yet thirty years of age.
Peyri was described as having an 'amiable and endearing' personality. His passport records describe him as "a man of regular stature, light-skinned, with red hair and blue eyes."
Over the next thirty-four years Fr. Peyri built San Luis Rey from a grass hut to a magnificent complex that covered six acres. Auguste Duhaut-Cilly, a French sea captain, sketched the mission in 1827.
Duhaut-Cilly describes how, when he first saw the mission he stopped his horse to gaze alone "on the beauty of this site."
When Carleton E. Watkins photographed San Luis Rey about sixty years later the grandeur of the mission was still very much evident.
The history of San Luis Rey is impressive. Within six months of the mission’s founding on June 13, 1798 the neophyte population had grown to 214 and the mission expanded steadily for the next several decades to a peak population of 2,864 (in 1825). At the height of its prosperity San Luis Rey had the largest neophyte population of all the missions in the Americas.
San Luis Rey was also an economic powerhouse. The mission started with 162 head of cattle and 600 sheep. At the end of 1832 (the last year for which there are records) the mission, and its network of ranches, contained 27,500 cattle and 26,100 sheep. San Luis Rey's total livestock was over twice that of the next nearest mission (San Gabriel) and over five times the mission average.
The mission had four ranches: San Juan, Santa Margarita, San Jacinto and Las Flores. An asistencia (sub-mission), San Antonio de Pala was established in June 1816.
The prosperity of San Luis Rey began to decline as secularization approached. Fr. Peyri elected to retire before the mission he had spent his life building was destroyed. He left California in 1832, taking with him two Indian youths who were destined for the priesthood (Pablo Tac and Agapito Amamix).
All of the stories of Fr. Peyri that have survived describe a endearing human being and an accomplished missionary. French Sea Captain Duhaut-Cilly reports that Peyri behaved with "affability and politeness he possessed in so great measure". Duhaut-Cilly was impressed with the missions 'superb structures', its high quality wine and olives and most important the attitude of the Indians who he thought were "the best treated in all the missions."
The San Luis Rey's neophytes were so upset at the prospect of losing Fr. Peyri that they vowed to prevent him from leaving. Fr. Peyri had to steal out of the mission secretly in darkness. When the Indians discovered he had gone scores of them rode to San Diego to beg him to return. They arrived on January 17, 1832 just as the Pocahontas, set sail. Many swam towards the ship as Fr. Peyri blessed them from the deck.
Peyri's religious superiors had the highest regard for him. In 1813 he was chosen to accompany the Father-President for canonical visitations. 1827 the missionary College of San Fernando College named him as a back-up for the president of the missions should the incumbent die or become incapacitated. Fr. Engelhardt, the noted Franciscan historian admired him as "the zealous and most practical of the missionaries."
Antonio Peyri left San Luis Rey in good health. An Englishman, Alexander Forbes, who had heard a lot about this priest, went out of the way to meet him in Mexico. He described Peyri, who was 67 at the time, as "a robust man [who looks to be] fifty years of age"…"a jolly figure, [with a] bald head, and white locks… he looked the very beau ideal of a friar. He thought "this worthy man…will live long in the memory of the inhabitants of California."
Fr. Peyri found that the Spain he had left some 37 years earlier had changed, and that he was an exile in his homeland. The government had exclaustrated all religious orders so that there was no longer a Franciscan home to which he had to go (exclaustration) is a release from religious vows to return to the secular world.) After observing the situation in Spain Peyri wrote "I confess that I have been very much disappointed in having left my California in order to come to my country." Unfortunately his health had begun to deteriorate in Spain. Though he wished to travel back to California,his doctors fobade it.
Fr. Peyri died in Spain, though the exact date and place of his death is not known.