Ramón Liberós


Ginny Sphar

Father Liberós was from Aragon, born April 7, 1789, in the Villa de Mazeleón on the Rio Matarrana. Five weeks past his fifteenth birthday the friars in the city of Calatayud received the devout lad into the order.

Early in 1813 Father Liberós traveled cross-country to the Mediterranean port of Alicante and from there booked passage south through the straits to Cádiz. With Father Nuñez and five others he boarded the frigate San José alias El Comercio, sailing July 16, 1813, the last and least troublesome of the ill-starred Missions.[1]

Father Liberós’ first visit to Tumacácori was in the spring of 1822. Father Francisco Nuñez, the college’s Comisario Prefecto, along with his secretary Father Ramón Liberós made a visitation of the missions, the first of the Mexican period. They arrived at Tumacácori during Holy Week. Father Estelric was still not well and ugly rumors were circulating again.

The three observed Easter Sunday, April 7, 1822. It was Liberós’ birthday. Nuñez had decided to remove Estelric.[2] Late in May 1822, Ramón Liberós returned to take charge.[3] At this time, he was 33 years old, blue-eyed, light complexioned, with a sparse beard and black hair.

The debts, embezzlements and sexual adventures of Father Estelric put Liberós at a disadvantage. He had to be above suspicion. He wasted no time.

Examining the papers of the mission archives, he came upon the cattle sale contract. He wrote immediately to Don Ignacio Pérez, a member of the third order of St. Francis, as a brother. He begged the would-be cattle baron to pay the overdue 1,000 pesos at once and the remaining 6,000 pesos as soon as possible. “The mission,” Liberós explained, “needs the money to continue its building program.” It was for this reason that the cattle were sold.

It was not easy. For the next 16 months, Liberós dunned the wily debtor until finally Pérez had to give up and sell part of his herd to pay.

No one knew how the emerging anti-clericalism or the hatred of the Spanish would affect the missions. With finance and politics in chaos, Pérez saw no reason to hurry payment. Liberós, however, seeing the pathetic sight of Tumacácori’s unfinished church, refused to be put off. “I shall come to Chihuahua, Durango, Mexico City or wherever I must if you continue deaf and oblivious to my supplications.” By September 1823, Don Rafael Elías had guaranteed payment of the entire outstanding balance plus collection costs. The friar had won.[4] As far as Liberós was concerned, even if the church at Tumacácori did not rival San Xavier and Caborca, by the grace of God, it would serve.

The insurrection, forced loans, and uncertainty about the future had rendered the original splendid plan of Narciso Gutiérrez an impossible dream. Whether by order of Gutiérrez, Estelric or Liberós, the transept was closed up on both sides, leaving the nave a simple rectangle. Unfired adobes, easier and cheaper, heightened the walls course by course, with fi red brick reserved for domes and barrel vaults and bell tower and other points of stress and for decorating. The hope of twin bell towers vanished. The one on the right would suffice. Instead of a barrel vault or a series of domes, the nave walls at Tumacácori would carry a flat wooden roof.[5]

On the basis of present documentary evidence, it is impossible to determine the contribution of each friar, Gutiérrez, Estelric and Liberós, to the church project or the chronology of construction. Apparently, by the time Liberós arrived, enough had been built to warrant his hope that the structure might be put to use.

Confidently Liberós went ahead with construction. On October 1, 1822, he blessed a large, walled cemetery behind the new church.

Despite the scaffolding and piles of brick still evident on all sides, Tumacácori’s new church could at last be put to use. Evidently the dome over the sanctuary was finished, the nave roofed, and the planned bell tower unnecessary at this stage. As the second anniversary of Gutiérrez’ death approached, Father Liberós scheduled the event. Friday, December 13, 1822, he removed the remains of Fathers Carillo and Gutiérrez from the dilapidated Jesuit church and had them carried to the new one. Beneath the floor of the sanctuary on the Gospel side he re-buried them. Although the Franciscans would never finish it, they finally had a church.[6]

Liberós, devout and energetic, seemed above scandal, which was a relief. He worked effectively through the mission foreman José Antonio Orozco.

Father Liberós learned to live with the uncertainties of the times. He must have wondered at the bishop’s reason, in 1822, for requesting an inventory of all the silver objects in the mission churches of Pimería Alta. Forced loan? Secularization? At the order of Father President González the friars complied, listing each item and weight.

In 1822 the mission Indians complained to Liberós that cattle owned by Don León Herreros were invading their fields. During Gutiérrez’ time in 1807 the lands had been surveyed for Tumacácori.[7] Father Estelric (who had sold off most of Tumacácori’s cattle) had paid little attention when Herreros laid claim by denuncia to the abandoned lands of Sonoita (until 1773 a visita of Tumacácori). Confronted by Liberós, Herreros assured Liberós that he had not meant to encroach. They agreed on a dividing line as there appeared to exist unclaimed land between the two lands.

By the spring of 1823 Father Ramón’s flock—mission, presidio and scattered ranches—probably numbered 600-700 people. He could handle the hardest of them when it came to debts or land encroachment but spiritually their inattention even to annual confession tried him sorely. There were those he said “had not confessed for 7 or 8 years.”[8]

Bishop Espíritu Santo told Liberós that he must formally admonish at mass on three feast days all who had not fulfilled their annual obligations, giving them two months to comply. If that did not work, he was to excommunicate them and post their names on the door of the church. “If even then they do not submit obediently to the mandates of our Holy MotherChurch, you will intensify and re-intensify the censure to the point of anathema.” Although the Third Mexican Council had denied parish priests the faculty of absolving the contrite and repentant of anathema, the Bishop conceded it to Liberós for the time being on June 6, 1823.[9]

By mid-June, a helper had come to Tumacácori, Liberós’ first and last compañero. Father Juan Maldonado, age 28, was a Mexican. A native of Querétaro, born November 24, 1795, he had joined the order at the convento of Nuestra Senora del Publito in 1812 and four years later, at the height of the scandals, transferred to the College of Querétaro. He stayed at Tumacácori only about six months.[10]

Tumacácori had received neither the 350-peso annual subsidy for 11 years nor its share of the 8,000 pesos deposited for the college in the treasury in 1813. A forced purchase of lottery tickets in the spring of 1817 added another 120 pesos. When a 3 percent tax levied in support of the Mexican Church Council was deducted, the treasury admitted it owed Tumacácori, on paper, over 4,400 pesos. Father Liberós saw none of it.[11]

The Apaches, after a generation of relative calm, seemed to take the offensive again. On All Saints’ Day, November 1, 1824, the Apaches ran off a bunch of Tumacácori’s horses. There was not much Liberós or the presidio could do about it.

In 1826 a measles epidemic swept the Pimería Alta, ten years after the last one. It ravaged the missions, killing many. At Tumacácori, Liberós emerged with only 18 families plus a few children whom he cared for in the convento.[12]

With what he could scrape together, Father Liberós kept working on the church. However, to him and the other Spanish friars it now seemed a matter of time. Their college, Querétaro, rent from within, offered no support. The politicos of the Estado de Occidente could not agree what to do with the missions—to tolerate them as buffers against the hostile Apaches or to suppress them and enjoy the fruits of their Indians. Spain refused to recognize independent Mexico. When the currents of sentiment against the Spaniards and against the missions flowed together, the Querétaran friars of Pimería Alta were sure to drown in the flood.

Five days before Christmas of 1827, the Mexican Federal Congress passed the law expelling Spaniards from Mexico.[13] The friars at Querétaro decided to leave; many, having anticipated the event, had left already. In April 1828, Captain Villaescusa came to Tumacácori to expel Father Liberós. He gave him three days to arrange his affairs.

After six trying years at Tumacácori, it was finished for Liberós. He had been a good steward. Physically the mission had never looked better. The bell tower lacked only a few courses of brick. The circular mortuary chapel needed a dome. If he had had a few more months he might have finished the job. He was the last resident friar at Tumacácori. At the time of his separation from Tumacácori, Father Liberós had given gifts—a mare, a horse, a cow or clothing. They were, technically, not his to give. To avoid stirring up resentment among the recipients, the gifts were written off.

The expelled missionaries gathered at a makeshift hospice at Ures, subsisting on charity. Ramón Liberós was chosen to request passport and to pick up the sum stipulated by law of expulsion for religious and other Spaniards who could not afford the cost of travel.[14] Liberós probably returned to Spain with his Franciscan brothers because only two friars stayed in Mexico—Mexican-born Father José Maria Pérez and Spanish-born Father Rafael Díaz, who had friends in Arizpe.

Never again would the missions be fully manned. The days of the resident missionary-protector had passed.

[1] Prado to Viceroy Félix Calleja, CSCQ, January 1817, AGN, Misiones, 18.

[2] González to Espíritu Santo, Caborca, October 4, 1822, AMS. DCB.

[3] On May 30, Father García baptized con licencia del ministero a 5-year-old Yuma boy giving him the name Ramón Liberós. DCB.

[4] For details of the contest between Liberós and Pérez, see Kessell, “Father Ramón,” pp. 58-68.

[5] On the basis of present documentary evidence, it is impossible to determine the contribution of each friar, Gutiérrez, Estelric, and Liberós, to the church project or the chronology of construction. Apparently, by the time Liberós arrived, enough had been built to warrant his hope that the structure might soon be put to use.

[6] DCB. It has been suggested, on the basis of an analysis of the interior decorations, that the new church “must have been in use before the 1822 date.” Charlie Steen and Rutherford J. Gettens, “Tumacácori Interior Decorations,” Arizoniana, Vol. 3, No. 3 (1962), p. 8. The documentary evidence, meager though it is, does not support this assumption. The dedication of a new mission church at Santa Barbara in California a couple of years earlier included a similar transfer of two friars’ coffins into vaults under the sanctuary. Geiger, Santa Bárbara, p. 47.

[7] SED, pp. 10-12. See also Greenleaf, “Land and Water.”

[8] Liberós to Espíritu Santo, Tumacácori, May 8, 1823, AMS.

[9] Espíritu Santo to Liberós, Culiacán, June 6, 1823, AMS.

[10] DCB. Libros de Tubac. Cardoso, Lista.

[11] Noticia de las cantidades que se les deben en esta tesorería a las misiones de la Pimería Alta, Arizpe, January 1, 1825, ACQ, CS. It was admitted in 1828 that mission stipends had been in arrears “for a long time.” Only the bishop, his secretary, and his notary got paid punctually, which seemed inconsistent to some, since the state also collected the tithe for the diocese. Juan M. Riesgo and Antonio J. Valdés, Memoria estadística del Estado de Occidente, p. 18.

[12] Fernando Grande, Informe sobre las misiones de Pimería Alta, San Ignacio, October 8, 1828, ACQ, SC. Just how many persons died at Tumacácori in the epidemic of 1826 is impossible to say. All the pages of burial, baptismal, and marriage entries after April 1825, have been torn from the Tumacácori books. DCB.

[13] For background on the expulsion, see Romeo Flores Caballero, La Contrarrevolución en la indenpendencia.

[14] Ibid. García to Nicolás Martínez, Ures, May 11, 1828, ACQ.

Last updated: February 24, 2015

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