Felipe Segesser

San Xavier
San Xavier del Bac


Ginny sphar

Father Felipe was born September 1, 1689. He entered the Society of Jesus on October 14, 1708, and professed in 1726.[1] He was the third of 17 children born to a “senator and provincial governor” of Lucerne, Switzerland. Felipe Segesser von Brunegg was of medium height, had blue eyes, light brown hair, patchy beard and a sense of humor.

Father Felipe came to the New World with a Mission of 26 Jesuits. When His Majesty’s ship La Potencia, alias El Blandón, put out to sea they were all aboard. This Mission was due to the Viceroy’s instructions of April 27, 1730. “For the conversion of those heathen Indians to our Holy Catholic faith and for their education, three missions are to be erected and planted on northern Pimería Alta and entrusted to three religious of the Sacred Company of Jesus.[2]

On February 2, 1731, the ship sailed into Havana Harbor. In April they crossed over to Vera Cruz. From there they went on muleback to Mexico, metropolis of the New World. Three of the Jesuits, one Swiss, one Moravian and one Austrian, were designated by the Father Provincial for duty in Pimería.

In mid-June of 1731 they rode north. The three Jesuits were Fathers Segesser, Keller and Grazhoffer. They were matched with three vacant missions, Guevavi, San Xavier and Santa María Suamca. They met Captain Anza at Fronteras. Since the dwellings built in Kino’s time were so dilapidated, it was decided that each newcomer would spend several months learning Piman and their ways with a veteran missionary, while Captain Anza would personally supervise the building of a house and the planting of wheat at each new mission.[3]

At “the place called Quino” they rendezvoused with Captain Anza, a military escort, the native captain general of the Pimas and assorted mixed breeds and Indians.[4] In the early dawn they celebrated mass and they were on their way—Father Segesser to San Xavier, Father Grazhoffer to Guevavi and Father Keller to Santa María Soamca.

The three new missionaries met again at San Ignacio as the guests of Father Campos to observe the feast day of Ignatius Loyola, July 31, 1732. It was an annual obligation to perform the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius. After eight days, Fathers Grazhoffer and Keller returned to their crude missions. Felipe Segesser stayed on to look after Father Campos who was ill. For the next several months, Segesser seemed to divide his time between San Ignacio and Bac, 50 leagues apart, no doubt passing back and forth through Guevavi.[5] Campos referred to Segesser as “the ragamuffin native of Lucerne.”

Later the following spring, Segesser rode into Guevavi to find Grazhoffer ill. From Guevavi, on May 1, 1733, Father Felipe wrote to one of his brothers, apparently in Genoa.[6] Father Grazhoffer’s condition grew worse and, on May 26, he died in Segesser’s arms. He had been poisoned by the Indians of Guevavi.[7] When the Father Visitor heard the bad news, he sent Segesser to Guevavi.

He was 43 when he went to Guevavi. Father Felipe was an astute observer and a capable missionary but he succeeded little better than his predecessor.

As the conquest proceded, as more and more of the Pimas died of disease or were culturally disoriented, the Pimas seemed to resort to drink more frequently. Among the Padres they gained a reputation for drunkenness. The Bishop even threatened to excommunicate the natives who participated. Father Segesser knew enough to be lenient or he may be ministering to an empty village.

Not many months after he buried Grazhoffer, Father Felipe lay very ill. It may have been malaria but he suspected the village hechiceros. Now it was Father Keller’s turn to act as nurse. Fearful that Guevavi might claim a second Padre’s life, Father Keller, from Suamca, ordered Segesser to be placed on a litter. So began a nine-day trip south to Cucurpe.[8] After an illness of five months Segesser was back at Guevavi.

As July 31, 1734, approached, Segesser arranged with Father Keller to observe the feast day of Saint Ignatius at Suamca. Father Stiger, who might have joined them, had recently been recalled from San Xavier del Bac by the Father Visitor. The two made ready but, without warning, the Indians of Soamca had deserted them. They beheld the feast of the Founder, not with joy, but tears.[9]

Segesser hurried back to Guevavi to find his own Indians had fled into the hills, taking cattle and horses. At Bac, in Stiger’s absence, the natives, at the same time, had broken into his house and stolen everything.[10] Again Stiger rushed north.

Had the Pimas of the north wished to set back the Spanish advance, this was the time. The three precarious missions were very vulnerable. There were not enough settlers to help and as yet no presidio existed in all Pimería. The Jesuit supervisors had begun to doubt again if the Pimas could be converted and they feared for the safety of their missionaries laboring among such a restless people.[11]

Hearing of the trouble, Captain Anza and his soldiers rushed to the scene. Already the three missionaries had started negotiating the peaceful return of the Indians. Once before, Segesser had brought the Indians back and he did it again. The cause of the flight was a rumor that the Captain was coming to kill all the Pimas. The rumor had been conceived and spread by Spaniards who wished to frighten the Indians and turn them against the Padres.

From San Xavier in November of 1734, Father Stiger reported that each of the three missionaries was with his own flock, though Segesser “is ill with the fever; last year he almost died of it; apparently this country is not good for his health.”[12]

This time the ill Father Felipe was escorted to Fronteras by Anza. There the Captain's wife, María Rosa Bezerra Nieto, restored the Padre’s health with household remedies.

Segesser did not return to Guevavi. Instead his superiors assigned him to the more healthful mission of Tecoripa in Pimería Baja.[13] Later he was to become Father Visitor and to re-establish the Pimería missions. Fathers Sedelmayr, Keller and Garrucho had been removed from the Pimería as a condition of peace insisted on by Luis of Saric. To replace the first of them, Segesser now assigned Vivas to Tubutama, Nentvig to Suamca and Pauer to Guevavi. Then, during his visit, probably in January of 1753, he tried to install them. The Indians at Tubutama accepted Vivas. At Suamca the Indians wanted only Keller, so Nentvig was left there ill at ease.[14] At Guevavi, Segesser was met with a cold reception. They still wore the Apache caps.[15] Father Pauer withdrew to Suamca.

One positive result of Luis of Saric’s bloody rebellion of 1751 was the creation of a second garrison in the Pimería. Tubac was activated on April 1, 1752. The site was suggested, among others, by Fathers Sedelmayr, Segesser and Stiger. Captain Belderrain and 50 soldiers would be there.[16]

For a couple of years after Segesser’s final exit, Mission Los Santos Ángeles de Guevavi was relegated to the occasional care of an absentee Padre.

Father Segesser served with distinction until his death at Ures on September 28, 1762.[17]

[1] For a biographical sketch, see Treutlein, “Relation of Segesser,” MA, XXVII, pp. 139-40.

[2] El Marqués de Casafuerte, Mexico, April 27, 1730; ibid.

[3] Father Christobál de Cañas, et al., to Bishop Benito Crespo, Pimería Alta, July 31, 1732, certified copy, Durango, November 19, 1733; AGI, Audencia de Guadalajara (Guad.), legajo 135; microfilm, BL. A translation of another copy of the above is included in Hammond, ‘Pimería Alta,” NMHR, IV, pp. 227-35.

[4] Cañas, et al., to the Bishop, July 31, 1732.

[5] San Ignacio, Bautismos. Segesser performed baptisms at San Ignacio during every month from July 1732 through March 1733, when Campos apparently recovered.

[6] A whole series of letters written home to Europe by the observant Father Segesser, from the time he embarked for the New World until his death in Ures, Sonora, in 1762, has been preserved in the Segesser von Brunegg family archive in Lucerne. Microfilm copies, some nearly illegible, have been obtained for the Bancroft Library and the University of Arizona Library. In addition to the letter of May 1, 1733, from Guevavi, there are several others from San Xavier and San Ignacio written during the Padre’s Pimería Alta period, 1731-1734.

[7] Treutlein, “The Relation of Felipe Segesser: The Pimas and Other Indians” (1737), MA, Vol. XXVII (1945), p. 142. This is a classic description of the daily life and trials of a missionary in Sonora. The date of Grazhoffer’s death is given in Alegre, Historia de la Companía, IV, p. 353, n. 33.

[8] Ibid., p. 142.

[9] Stiger to Father Francisco Xavier Halaver, San Xavier del Bac, November 9, 1734; originally cited by Bolton in Bavarian Hauptstaatsarchiv, Munich, Jesuitica 283; transcript and translation from the Latin “by Reynolds,” BRP.

[10] Treutlein, “Relation of Segesser,” MA, XXVII, p. 164.

[11] Stiger to Halaver, November 9, 1734.

[12] Ibid.

[13] For a description of Tecoripa, on a tributary of the Río Yaqui in south-central Sonora, see Paul M. Roca’s, Unique Paths of the Padres through Sonora: An Illustrated History and Guide to Its Spanish Churches (Tucson: Arizona Pioneers’ Historical Society, 1967), pp. 245-48.

[14] Between January 21, on which date he baptized seven at the presidio of Terrenate, and May 9, 1753, Father Nentuig seemed to stick it out in the area of Soamca. Soamca, Bautismos de los Pueblos de Visita.

[15] Juan Ygnacio Rodríguez Soto, Horcasitas, November 15, 1753; Arce y Arroyo testimonies.

[16] Ibid., 11. The opinions of Sedelmayr and Segesser, in the form of written statements, are included in Dobyns, Pioneering Christians among the Perishing Indians of Tucson (Lima, Peru: Editorial Estudios Andinos, 1962), pp. 8-10.

[17] Treutlein, “Relation of Segesser,” MA, XXVII, pp. 142-43. Many leagues south of Guevavi, Segesser served with distinction until his death at Ures on September 28, 1762.


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Last updated: February 24, 2015

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