Juan Crisóstomo Gil de Bernabé

San José de Tumacácori


Ginny Sphar

Father Gil de Bernabé was from Aragon, from the Villa de Alfambra, a long day’s walk north of Teruel.[1] He moved early in life to the city of Zaragosa, maybe to live with relatives.[2] There in 1746 at the age of 17 or 18 he entered the Franciscan seminary of Nuestra Señora de Jesús.[3]

Sometime after his ordination, Gil de Bernabé abandoned the comforts of a big city convento. Seeking a more austere environment and stricter life of prayer and penance, he went to one of the order’s mountaintop retreats north of Zaragosa.

Late in 1762, a pair of friars from Querétaro College in Mexico was traveling to recruit friars for New Spain. Juan Gil de Bernabé begged to go. On January 15, 1763, he walked down the mountain, his travel order for Cádiz tucked in the folds of his habit.[4]

On his way to Cádiz, Spain, he picked up another friar bound for the same Mission, Father Francisco Garcés. The two men had little in common, yet in the missions Father Gil de Bernabé and Father Garcés would be neighbors.[5]

At age 35, Gil de Bernabé was the oldest member of the Mission of 1763. He was tall, slender, round faced, swarthy with a heavy black beard, curly hair and small eyes.[6]

The friars were split up on two ships. Juan Gil de Bernabé and nine others sailed on the ill-fated Mercurio that foundered on the windward side of Yucatan on the beach of Petempich.[7] They had sailed from Cádiz on August 1, 1763. Ten days after the wreck, Captain Romero learned their location and sent the second mate in one of the ship’s boats to the port of Campeche.[8]

By mid-November, the scene of the wreck resembled a small town, as five boats made for the scene of the wreck. The major objective was recovering 1,000 containers of the king’s quicksilver.[9] Captain Romero and the purser, who both died on the beach, were charged posthumously with smuggling, when certain barrels labeled almonds, a cask marked vermicelli and even the Captain’s mattress were found to contain cinnamon, playing cards, silks, lace and ladies’ stockings.[10]

By December 3 the survivors reached Campeche.[11] Then they traveled to Vera Cruz.[12] Early in 1764 they finally arrived at the College of Querétaro.[13]

Father Gil de Bernabé stayed there for 3-1/2 years. Because of his fervor and talent for teaching, he was a natural for home missions. When the urgent call to heathen missions was sounded in 1767, both Father Gil de Bernabé and Father Garcés volunteered. In January 1768 they sailed for Guaymas on different ships. Father Gil de Bernabé found himself on the Laurentiana that had been confiscated from the Jesuits.[14] Buffeted by squalls, the friars threw up until their bodies ached. Forty days later, in early March 1768 they arrived at the port of Mazatlán. Meanwhile the ship carrying Father Garcés was blown all the way back to San Blas.

Father Gil de Bernabé was troubled. Not long before they had set out from the College, he had confessed a poor woman possessed by the Devil. She told him the Devil had predicted his death. He had escaped the coast of Yucatan, but in Sonora he must die.[15]

Misión los Santos Ángeles San Gabriel y San Rafael de Guevavi was even cruder than he expected. He arrived in mid-May, driest month of the year, perhaps in the company of Captain Juan Bautista de Anza, who had a 20-day leave from the southern Campaign to collect provisions in the missions of Santa María Suamca, Guevavi and San Xavier del Bac.[16] For now Father Gil de Bernabé was the only priest in northern Pimería. He had his quarters in the one-story convento attached to the west of the church.

To call on his three visitas, the friar and his escort rode north down river. The closest, San Cayetano de Calabazas, was about five miles from Guevavi, and had neither a church nor a cemetery.[17]

The second was San José de Tumacácori, where Father Gil de Bernabé found both church and cemetery and more natives than either Calabazas or Guevavi. Tumacácori was an artificial congregation. Fifteen years before, in 1753, a garrison of frontier soldiers had preempted Tubac. They rounded up all the Indians who returned to this part of the valley after the 1751 uprising, families they dispossessed at Tubac, others from a pre-revolt east-bank ranchería of Tumacácori, and Papagos and settled them here. A Moravian Jesuit consecrated the church in 1757. Because Tumacácori was so close to the Presidio at Tubac, the Jesuits had thought of making Tumacácori a cabacera.[18]

The pueblo of San Ignacio de Sonoita was Father Gil de Bernabé’s third visita. It lay half hidden in the hills separating the parallel valleys of the Santa Cruz and the San Pedro. He ran the risk of ambush by the Apaches.

By now his friend Father Garcés was at San Xavier. At Guevavi, Father Gil de Bernabé hired an interpreter and began teaching the Pimas and Papagos of his mission pueblos to pray by rote in Spanish. He never got to know the Indians the way Garcés did. While Gil de Bernabé was mortifying his flesh to atone for his own shortcomings, Garcés was sitting cross-legged on the ground, eating Indian cooking and learning Piman. The first summer, Gil de Bernabé was combating sins among the Spaniards at Tubac.

When the Franciscans came, they had far less autonomy over the Indians than did the Jesuits. The mission reform meant that the Indians were absolute owners of the mission’s property. Their spiritual life degenerated. The Indians were told to forget the Jesuits, that the king would take care of them. They were promised a new deal—freedom, civil rights, and education—the Enlightenment by decree on the Sonora frontier.[19]

However, in the summer of 1769, the political situation changed for Father Gil de Bernabé.[20] He was given the key to the larder and could now bargain with the Indians. Although he still lacked the authority his Jesuit predecessors had enjoyed, he, not the comisario, was the Indians’ keeper. Now when they were hungry, they came to the Padre, and with full stomachs they learned to pray again.

For the friars, management of the temporalities caused considerable anguish. Reconciling being a businessman with the Franciscan vow of poverty put a strain on their consciences, but there was no other way. To keep from actually handling cash, the missionary had it locked in a strongbox in his quarters. The key he entrusted to a native governor or gente de razón whom he told when to make deposits and withdrawals.[21]

A year after his arrival, Father Gil de Bernabé was well on his way to becoming master of Guevavi in the tradition of the Jesuits.

Father Gil de Bernabé had been thinking of moving. He recognized the vulnerability of Guevavi from the Apaches. Tumacácori now had the largest population of his four mission pueblos and he could also minister to the sinful Hispanic community of Tubac. In 1770 or 1771 he did transfer the mission cabacera to Tumacácori. For the next half century more and more friars lived at Tumacácori.[22]

Father Gil de Bernabé had been sick before but this time he was scared. “Because of his great labor and little concern for his own comfort and health,” he found himself in the spring of 1771 utterly incapacitated; his hands and feet were paralyzed. They carried him 150 miles to the hot baths near Aconchi in the Sonora Valley. While Gil de Bernabé took the cure, Father President Buena sent an untried interim replacement. Twenty-eight years old, of medium height, swarthy, with a mole over his left eyebrow, Father Francisco Sánchez Zúñiga rode into Tumacácori ahead of the summer rains in 1771.[23]

Tumacácori opened the new missionary’s eyes.[24] He buried five mission Indians killed by Apaches.[25] After August 9, Zúñiga buried more mission Indians due to another epidemic. By mid-September, Father Gil de Bernabé was back and Father Sánchez Zúñiga departed.

By mid-October, Gil de Bernabé was so ill that Father Juan José Agorreta rode over from Sáric to look after him. When Agorreta’s hemorrhoids flared up and he began suffering chills and fever, Francisco Garcés came from San Xavier to the aid of both. He nursed them until they recovered.[26]

In the winter of 1771-1772, Father President Buena took to his bed. His hemorrhoids were excruciating; he could no longer ride a horse. He retired to the College of Querétaro. He recommended Father Juan Gil de Bernabé of Tumacácori as his successor.[27] When the warrant from the College reached Gil de Bernabé, he accepted. One year to the day before his own violent death, the lean and ascetic friar rode south for the last time.[28]

As the superior of 20 odd missions in the field, the penitential Gil de Bernabé found it hard to discipline others. Evidently he allowed some of the friars to take advantage of him. “It was the friars,” said Francisco Garcés several years later, “more than the Indians who crucified and martyred him.”[29]

In March 1773, Fathers Bartolomé Ximeno and Gaspar Clemente who had succeeded Gil de Bernabé at Tumacácori heard shocking news. Father Gil de Bernabé was murdered at Carrizel by the Tiberones. He was stoned to death and died violently on March 8 or 9, 1773. The witch’s prediction had come true.

Father Antonio Caxa, named to succeed Gil de Bernabé as Father President designated March 8, 1774, as a day to honor the memory of the slain friar. A year later his bones were exhumed and carried to the College in a box. Father Francisco Antonio Barbastro kept as relics Gil de Bernabé’s rosary, medals, and the broken crucifix he had been wearing the day they stoned him to death.[30] In 1782, Father Barbastro formally opened in Sonora Gil de Bernabé’s cause for canonization. Somewhere between Horcasitas and Rome the papers were lost in the process.[31]

[1] Not even Arricivita could find out anything about Gil de Bernabé’s parents, observing only that they must have been good Christians to have reared such a son. The parish records of Alfambra were destroyed in the 1930s during the Spanish Civil War.

[2] A possible relative, Father Basilio Gil de Bernabé y Sebastian (1717-1773), well-known Mercedarian who became general of his order and theologian to the king, apparently resided in Zaragosa at the time.

[3] Despacho de embarcación, July 18, 1763, AGI, Contratación, 5545A. For a brief description of the convent, see Pascual Madoz, Diccionario geográfico-estadístico-histórico de Espana y sus posesiones de ultramar, Vol. 16, p. 582. Nothing remains of it today.

[4] Patente, Bernad, Madrid, December 15, 1768, AGI, Contratación, 5545A.

[5] Kessell, “The Making of a Martyr,” New Mexico Historical Review (NMHR), Vol. 45 (1970), pp. 182-96.

[6] Despacho de embarcació, Cádiz, July 18, 1763, et al., AGI, Contratación, 5545A.

[7] Details of the Mission of 1763 are in AGI, Contratación, 5545A, and ACQ, N, 2.

[8] Joseph Alvaraz and Diego de Lanz to Arriaga, Campeche, November 8, 1763, AGI, Mex., 3117. Razón de la carga de la fragata de S. M. el Mercurio, ibid., 3118. Diego de Ayala and Lanz to Cruillas, Campeche, December 15, 1763, ibid., 1507.

[9] Ayala and Lanz to Cruillas, December 15, 1763, ibid.

[10] Pedro de Urriola (to Arriaga), Campeche, December 23, 1764, AGI, Mex., 3152. Diligencias, Campeche, November 30, 1764, ibid. Sumario, Consejo de Indias, December 23, 1765, AGI, Mex., 3002.

[11] Ayala and Lanz to Cruillas, December 15, 1763, AGI, Mex., 1507. Don Julián Vicente González de Andia was the inquisitor.

[12] Barbastro, Compendio. Arricivita, Crónica seráfica, p. 517.

[13] Cruillas to Arriaga, Mexico, January 2, 1764, AGI, Mex., 1507. Gov. and oficiales reales of Veracruz, March 10, 1764, ibid., 2916.

[14] Michael E. Thurman, The Naval Department of San Blas, pp. 60, 96.

[15] Barbastro, Compendio.

[16] Gil de Bernabé was in Horcasitas on May 1, 1768, where he recorded a baptism he had performed April 11 at San José de Gracia, a small Spanish settlement some 25 miles below Ures on the Río Sonora. Fragmentary baptismal, marriage, and burial records, Parish archive, Horcasitas, Sonora. Pineda to Marqués de Croix, Horcasitas, June 17, 1768, AGN, PI, 47.

[17] Nicolás de LaFora, Relación del viaje que hizo a los presidios internos situados en la frontera de la América Septentrional perteneciente al Rey de Espana, ed. Vito Alessio Robles, pp. 126-27; translated by Lawrence Kinnaird as The Frontiers of New Spain.

[18] Kessell, Mission of Sorrows, pp. 127, 144, 160-61, 168-69.

[19] Pineda, Horcasitas, August 10, 1757, in Pradeau, Expulsión, pp. 59-60.

[20] At San Xavier del Bac the transfer took place July 3. Garcés to Pineda, July 23, 1769, AC, No. 1094.

[21] Father Joseph Soler to Gil de Bernabé, Átil, May 26, 1772, CC, 202.10. On mission economics, see McCarty, “Franciscan Beginnings,” pp. 87-106. Gómez Canedo, Sonora, p. 27. The friars failed in their bid to get back the gold and silver taken from the missions at the time of the Jesuit expulsion. Gálvez ordered it forwarded to the newly established treasury at Álamos where the amount in cash would be used to pay the debts of the missions with any surplus credited to them. Gálvez to Pineda, Álamos, August 3, 1769, AGN, Historia, 18.

[22] Archeological excavations carried out in the mid-1960s indicate that the withdrawal from Guevavi was an orderly one. Father Barbastro exaggerated in 1788 when he wrote that the Apaches “burned and destroyed the cabaceras of Guevavi and the village of Sonoita, imperiling the minister Father (Juan) Crisóstomo Gil de Bernabé.” Barbastro, Compendio. Ximeno to Guardian, March 5, 1773, AGN, PI, 81.

[23] Born in Hervás, bishopric of Plascencia, Sánchez Zúñiga had entered the Franciscan Order in 1761 at the recollect convent of Santa Maria de Gracia. Father Juan Domingo Arricivita, Lista de los cuarenta religiosos, Madrid, June 21, 1769, AGI, Guad., 369.

[24] Sánchez Zúñiga’s first burial entry recorded the death of Governor Juan of Calabazas at night on San Juan’s Day eve, June 23, 1771; the body was buried in the Guevavi church. He also wrote the earliest marriage entry surviving from the Franciscan period for five Indian couples wed at Tumacácori, June 29, 1771. All the men were Pimas, three of the women were Papagos. From his entries in the mission books it appears almost certain that Sánchez Zúñiga lived at Tumacácori. DCB.

[25] Noticia breve, Mexico, June 17, 1771, AGI, Guad., 416. Navarro García, Gálvez, pp. 187, 200-05. On July 1, 1771, Zúñiga buried two men from Tumacácori killed by Apaches in one assault, and an ox herder and two women killed at Sonoita in another. DCB.

[26] Salazar to Buena y Alcalde, Tubutama, November 13, 1771, ibid., 512. On October 22, 1771, Agorreta married three Indian couples por enfermedad del Padres Ministro. DCB.

[27] DCB. Bernardo de Gálvez to captains of Fronteras, Terrenate, and Tubac, Chihuahua, July 25, 1771, et al., AGN, PI, 93. Corbalán to Bucareli, Alamos, December 24, 1771, et al., AGI, Guad., 512. Garcés to Buena y Alcalde, November 1771, Cpia de varios papeles, ACQ, H. Barbastro, Compendio.

[28] DCB.

[29] Garcés to Father Diego Ximénez, San Ignacio, December 25, 1776, CC, 201.18.

[30] Barbastro, Compendio. Arricivita, Crónica seráfica, pp. 426-31.

[31] Had even the initial stages of Gil de Bernabé’s cause gone well, the time was wrong. In 1779 Charles III had complained about all the Spanish causes pending in Rome. He demanded a full accounting and an assessment of each candidate’s chances. Charles III to the Duque de Grimaldi, El Pardo, March 12, 1779, AGI, Indiferente General, 3032.

To learn more about Padre Gil de Bernabé go to Mission 2000 by clicking (here) and following the blue ID numbers. To return to Franciscan Missionaries, click (here).

Last updated: February 24, 2015

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