Burn Notice

The Missions in California represented one side of a distinctly asymmetrical culture war with the native peoples of the region - the Chumash world was changed forever while the interaction left barely a mark on the Church.

Little has changed in this equation. Despite being built on the site of the ancient Chumash village of Sisa, the architecture of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity Chapel, Thomas Aquinas College (Woman of the Apocalypse) primarily reflects the classical past of the old world. While it makes an almost imperceptible nod to the Mission tradition there is no gesture whatsoever to the form or symbol-making traditions of the people who were its first Californian converts.

While hybrid religions have proliferated throughout the world blending traditions from Asia, Africa, New World and Old, Roman Catholicism has remained largely immutable since its own hybridized development out of an ancient Middle Eastern monotheism (viz. The Old Testament) via the pagan traditions that flourished throughout the Roman Empire. Vatican II, 1962-65, however, opened the way for the inculturation of the Roman Catholic liturgy. Pope John Paul II explains in his encyclical #52, (1990) that "By inculturation, the Church makes the Gospel incarnate in different cultures and at the same time introduces peoples, together with their cultures, into her own community".

In the eighteenth century, the number of baptisms performed on the Chumash people was the measure of the Missions' success (and is one of the few records against which the size of the native population can be gauged) but it was achieved not by making concessions to the local culture but by Franciscan zeal and Spanish military hegemony.

Only the original adobe bell tower and Mission bell survived from the St. Bartholomew’s Chapel on the Luiseño Rincon reservation after the Poomacha Fire in North San Diego County in 2007, but remarkably, a new Chapel has been built on the site of the old that incorporates both Native American and Catholic symbols and metaphors.

Fires pose a near constant threat to Southern California's wildlands. Rick Halsey points out that their frequency has undergone a dramatic increase over the past century and that nearly all fires in the region are caused by human activity (Fire, Chaparral and Survival In Southern California, Sunbelt Publications, San Diego, 2008). The Poomacha fire started as an anthropogenic structure fire on the La Jolla Indian Reservation and spread, over the next days, throughout the Pauma valley on the edge of the Cleveland National Forest fueled by 100 mile per hour Santa Ana winds.

The Luiseño did not have contact with the Spanish until the expedition of Gaspar De Portola in 1769. Three decades later, their culture was terminally impacted by the establishment of the San Luis Rey Mission in what is now Oceanside. As head of the Franciscan Mission, Fr. Peyri allowed the Luiseño to remain in their traditional villages visiting them in situ to perform baptisms, mass and marriages. Times were harder after the secularization of the Missions in 1834, but they were not finally displaced from their lands until 1848 at the conclusion of the Mexican American War and the transfer of California to the United States. In 1875, however, the Luiseño La Jolla Reservation was established by executive order of Ulysses S. Grant.

There are now twin Luiseño reservations, La Jolla and Rincon. Both were ravaged by the fire but their ability to recover has been fundamentally shaped by their gambling interests. The Rincon reservation is funded by royalty payments from Harrah's Casino and Hotel built on reservation land. To the east, The San Diego Union-Tribune (November 5, 2007) reported that the La Jolla reservation must rely on state, federal, and insurance funds to effect renewal. The reservation's chairman is quoted as saying, "We are a non-gaming tribe". Not for the want of trying.

The North County Times reported on August 26, 2010 that the La Jolla Band of Mission Indians is proposing to build a casino and hotel on its Palomar Mountain reservation with a projected completion date of 2012. This comes after an aborted attempt in 2004, to build a 35,000-square-foot casino with 500 slot machines, a restaurant and 150-room hotel. In 2002, the band successfully opened, but later closed, a 30-machine slot arcade in a convenience store next to Highway 76. The new proposal calls for a 480,000-square-foot gambling and hotel facility with 200 rooms with six separate villa suites and a parking structure. Nice.

In the metaphorical shadow of their casino (undamaged in the fire), and without apparent concern for irony, the Rincon Luiseño ordered up a new chapel that would reconnect with the spirit of traditional Indian culture: of living lightly on the land. The Chapel utilizes a significant amount of site harvested building materials; the signature element being the massive rammed earth walls that flank the sanctuary, each nearly 60 feet long, 18 feet tall, and two feet thick. Symbolically important, these walls are built of 120 tons of sacred reservation soil. A local three ton boulder was crafted into the baptismal font and slabs of wood hewn from reservation oaks are used in furniture pieces. A thin film Solar PV system, high thermal mass construction, carefully oriented glazing and deep overhangs contribute to the Chapel's sustainable credibility. It is expected to earn LEED gold certification.

Using the notion of inculturation, the architect Kevin De Freitas incorporates a specific element of Luiseño iconology, the Wamkish, into the plan.  Wamkish were the traditional ceremonial enclosures of the Luiseño built in the form of semi-circular enclosures woven from thicket. The distinction between being inside or outside the enclosure was a key feature of the ceremonies. In St Bartholomew, an abstracted Wamkish in white stone forms the north and south (liturgical east and west) walls of the church. These wall sections define two significant moments of the church: the entrance moving from convex to concave, relating to the traditional ritual use of the Wamkish, and the concave enclosure of the sanctuary on which hangs the corpus, or representation of the crucified body of Christ. (Locus Iste)

In Luiseño culture the Wamkish was used for the most critical rites of passage, in particular, boys' and girls' puberty ceremonies. In The Religion of the Luiseño Indians of Southern California, 1908, the anthropologist, Constance Goddard DuBois, describes it thus,

"In the main place the sacred enclosure of brush, the wamkish, is built in a circle to about the height of a man. On the ground inside are placed the sacred ceremonial objects: the tamyush or sacred stone, toloache (jimson-weed, Datura meteloides), bowls, feather head-dresses and eagle-feather skirts; and the paviut, the sacred sticks (wands) with flint (crystals) in the end."

Typically, after several weeks of drug-fueled ceremonies the Wamkish, made of willow twigs and other chaparral brush, was ritually burned.

The old St Bartholomew's Chapel was un-ceremoniously burnt to the ground during the Poomacha chaparral fire of 2007. A new chapel has arisen on the site of the old: but by invoking the spirit of the Wamkish in its design it is inviting its sacred destruction by fire - an act to be initiated not by a Luiseño shaman but by the next cycle of chaparral fires that swirl through the Pauma valley - an inculturation not wholly anticipated, perhaps, by the Councils of Vatican II and Pope John Paul II.


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