Juan Bautista Estelric


Ginny Sphar

Father Juan Bautista Estelric was born November 24, 1784, in the villa of Muro on the island of Mallorca. He took the holy habit of St. Francis on February 21, 1801, in the Convento of Santa María de los Ángeles de Jesús outside the walls of Palma. In Spain he signed his name Estelrich, the conventional Mallorcan spelling. By the time he came to Tumacácori, he had dropped the H. He was slender, swarthy, with black hair and eyes.

He sailed for overseas missions from Cádiz, Spain, on November 1812 aboard the frigate Veloz with three other recruits. Because of the insurrection in New Spain, they had transshipped from Vera Cruz to the port of Altamira. From there they went overland to San Luis Potosí and on to the College of Querétaro.

Father Estelric arrived at Tumacácori in December 1820. He received Bishop Bernardo del Espíritu Santo on New Year’s Day 1821. It was at this time that someone wrote a terse unnumbered entry recording the death of Narciso Gutiérrez “on December 13, 1821—an error for 1820.”[1] This error was compounded on marble in the mortuary chapel of San Xavier del Bac, his final resting place.[2] There the date reads December 21, 1821. Father Gutiérrez had been dead three weeks by the time the bishop had arrived.

Father Narciso would not have approved of his successor. The erratic Juan Bautista Estelric, age 36, was one of the “new ones.” He was a member of the notorious Mission of 1810-1813. He had been at Magdalena, visita of San Ignacio, since May 1819. A couple of weeks after Gutiérrez died, Estelric took over at Tumacácori and Tubac. He immediately decided to finish the church by any means necessary. The necessary means turned up almost at once.

Don Ignacio Pérez, 29, native of Arizpe, rancher, son of the owner of the Cananea Mine, had big plans. In December 1820, he had applied for a grant to the sprawling San Bernardino ranch 100 miles east of Tumacácori. In his petition, he outlined his plans for converting the ranch into a buffer zone between the Apaches and the northern settlements. It would compliment the presidial cordon.[3] However, foremost in his mind was a cattle empire. To stock the ranch he needed thousands of head of cattle.

At Tumacácori, Pérez and Estelric struck a bargain. The contract, signed January 2, 1821—the day after Bishop Espíritu Santo’s visit—called for the sale of 4,000 head of the mission’s cattle (Estelric had 5,500 head on the ranges of Tumacácori) at three pesos a head. These proceeds were to go toward the completion of Gutiérrez’ long-deferred church. Pérez agreed to pay 4,000 pesos in cash upon receipt of the herd, 2,000 more pesos in 6 months and the remaining 6,000 pesos within 1-1/2 years, August 16, 1822. It seems likely that the bishop had a hand in this because it was unlikely that Estelric alone could have made such arrangements so quickly.

The cattle were delivered to Don Ignacio’s agent, Don Rafael Elías González on about February 16 and Don Rafael paid the first installment of 4,000 pesos. As of late February, then, Estelric had money to go on with the church.[4]

After the infamous Pimería Scandals of 1815-16, the Viceroy had implored the Father Guardian of the College of Querétaro to assign only the most virtuous and prudent friars as missionaries. Unfortunately Estelric was not one of these. Soon his superiors had reports of his imprudence with worse to follow.

Estelric’s chaplaincy at Tubac began peacefully enough. He signed the burial entries for those who had died since November 1820. He also married two couples soon after. Shortly, though, Estelric and the commandant of the presidio quarreled. Don Ignacio, a Sonoran criollo, formally denounced Estelric to Father Prefect Nuñez (the recruiter who had brought Estelric from Spain 10 years earlier). Nuñez reported the altercation to Father Faustino González of Caborca (Father President). Father Faustino knew how damaging another scandal would be. He journeyed to Tumacácori and reconciled the two men. Bishop Espíritu Santo complimented him on his handling of the affair.[5]

Bishop Espíritu Santo was holding his breath. He and most of the Mexican hierarchy, along with the superiors of the regular clergy, fiercely opposed the anti-clerical measures issuing from the Spanish Cortes—attacks on the right of the church to own and acquire property, and plans to suppress the religious orders and independence.

Amid these troubles, Pérez’ second payment for the cattle fell due. Father Estelric, who had construction crews back on the church job, was counting on the money for payroll and materials. When the August due date passed with no sign of the 2,000 pesos, the friar appealed to Don Elías. When that brought no satisfaction, Estelric wrote a 1,000 peso draft on Don Ignacio Pérez in favor of Felix Bustamente, likely the master builder supervising the building of the church, probably the second master builder of Tumacácori. In a firm letter, which Pérez later described as so full of indignities he could hardly believe it, the missionary told the cattle buyer that if he failed to honor the draft on sight, “I shall be forced to take other measures to recover the said sum and meet my obligations, steps that will be for me most painful but unavoidable.” Pérez honored the draft.[6] The other 1,000 pesos, which Estelric demanded be delivered at once, Pérez sat on. Pérez thought, who could tell what effect independence from Spain would have on the missions or on Spanish currency. Sadly depressed, Estelric all but gave up. Work had to stop until the remaining funds were available. For Estelric the funds never became available.

His obligations and his conscience weighed heavily. He fell ill. He had sinned. By Easter Sunday, April 7, 1822, he still was not well. Father Nuñez and Father Ramón Liberós on an inspection tour found the Tumacácori mission books in order but little else. Although Nuñez left Estelric at Tumacácori, he had decided to remove him. Late in May 1822, Ramón Liberós returned and took charge. The case of Estelric involved more than physical illness. The Father Prefect had removed Estelric from Tumacácori on more serious grounds—the scandal he was causing with a woman who attended him.

Father President permitted the sickly friar to live in the Caborca visita of Busanic. Secretly Estelric had the woman brought to him there. During confession to Father President, Estelric convinced him that they had been framed. Father President offered to assign him as compañero at Cocóspera with spiritual responsibility for the Santa Cruz garrison. Within two days Estelric asked for a pass saying he wanted to go first to Pitic to consult a doctor. Instead he went to Santa Cruz. Within a month the scandal was hotter than ever. Estelric had made a deal to have a woman brought to him for a price. Proceeding cautiously, Father President González verified the fact and also the rumor of a couple of children. In looking further, they discovered that Estelric had stashed away money in gold and silver—close to 1,000 pesos, clothes, etc. As a temporary measure Father President ordered Estelric to return to the mission of Sáric. He was to abstain from saying mass for twelve days and to do spiritual exercises. Instead he played ill and wrote Bishop Santo.[7] Santo was shocked at such a presumption and said he would not contravene the decision of Father President González to award Estelric the chaplaincy of Santa Cruz.

Father President González said, “Without a doubt the conduct of your reverence is unfitting the holy habit you wear and the apostolic ministry you exercise.”[8] By November 1824, the fall of Estelric seemed complete. By secret communiqué, a talebearing parish priest informed the bishop that Estelric now had in his company his woman of the scandals and went about without his habit, dressed like a layman.[9]

Yet he survived! By affiliating himself with the Jalisco province, he continued his ministry, such as it was, at Mátape, Horcasitas, Bacadéguachi and Guásavas in east-central Sonora. Estelric died at Guásavas suddenly and without sacraments. He was buried on December 29, 1835, at the age of 51.[10]

[1] Almada, Diccionario, pp. 453-54. Andrade, Noticias biográficos, p. 25, claims the bishop traveled over 3,600 miles and confirmed more than 93,000.

[2] Bernard Fontana, Biography of a DesertChurch: The Story of Mission San Xavier del Bac, p. 22. The Smoke Signal, Spring 1961, published by the Tucson Corral of the Westerners.

[3] Almada, Diccionario, pp. 562-63. Mattison, “Spanish and Mexican Settlements,” pp. 310-13. Service record of Pérez, Primera compañía volante de Nueva Viscaya, December 31, 1817, AGN, PI, 233.

[4] Father Ramón Liberós to Pérez, Tumacácori, September 6, 1822, BL, M-M 379, No. 75. For a more complete treatment of the big beef sale and its aftermath, see Kessell, “Father Ramón and the Big Debt, Tumacácori, 1821-1823,” NMHR, Vol. 44 (1969), pp. 53-72. Almada, Diccionario, pp. 239, 241-42. Rafael Elías González was a great-grandfather of Plutarco Elías Calles, President of Mexico, 1924-1928. Simón, according to Almada, had commanded the Tubac company of Pimas, evidently in absentia from 1805 to at least 1897 while Ensign Manuel de León acted for him.

[5] Espíritu Santo to González, Culiacán, July 6, 1821, and González to Espíritu Santo, Caborca, June 4, 1821, AMS.

[6] Estelric to Pérez, Tumacácori, September 10, 1821, and draft, BL, M-M 379, No. 62. Pérez to Liberós, Chihuahua, September 24, 1822, ibid., No. 77.

[7]González to Espíritu Santo, Caborca, December 4, 1822, AMS.

[8] Espíritu Santo to Estelric, Culiacán, February 14, 1823, AMS.

[9] Br. Francisco Javier Vázquez to Espíritu Santo, Pitic, November 4, 1823, AMS.

[10] Father Ignacio Dávalos to Espíritu Santo, Tecoripa, April 12, 1824, AMS. Tabula II, 1827, ACQ. List of contributors, Guásavas, July 30, 1832, Archivo Histórico del Estado de Sonora, Hermosillo (AES). Fragment of Guásavas Libro de Entierros, Parish archive, Granados, Sonora.

Last updated: February 24, 2015

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