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David Nelson / Society

A Visit Back to Father Serra's Time

July 25, 1988|David Nelson

SAN DIEGO — Picture a small band of missionaries, camped under the cathedral of the stars on the site of what would become the first church in Upper California.

Since California Chardonnay had yet to be invented, perhaps a jug of non-vintage Spanish red would be passed from hand to hand while a flute picked out a simple Castilian melody chosen from the era's Top 40. Mosquitoes swarming from the nearby river would glide invisibly above the campfire and then, silently choosing their targets, dart at ankles not protected by the thick, brown Franciscan robes. In the general absence of pizza parlors, the smell of simmering black beans seasoned with salt pork and wild oregano perhaps would drift through the surrounding brush and draw other creatures nearer the circle of light.

The scene is easily enough imagined. A more difficult trick would be to guess if Father Junipero Serra and his companions, at that moment laying plans to found what would become Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcala, envisioned that a lonely patch of ground 100 miles from nowhere would, one day, host a brilliantly dressed crowd of notables drawn from a great surrounding city ruled by a mayor who favors Pepsi Cola above all other beverages.

Linda Alessio, chairman of Friday's annual dinner-dance at the Mission, said that her goal was to recreate the kind of party Father Serra might have given, had he been given to giving parties. Since Serra was Spanish, the mood had to be Iberian (the Mission's annual bash usually has had a Mexican fiesta theme), and, since the Franciscan priest founded his church 219 years ago, Alessio decided to go for Baroque. (Frank Alessio, who shared the chairmanship with his wife, said that Baroque was fine by him. Thus he couldn't complain when he discovered boxes containing 2,000 handmade Mexican wine glasses stacked in his garage. A local hotel has expressed interest in acquiring them, but for the moment, should you need to borrow a few. . . . )

About 510 old and new pals of the church and its pastor, Msgr. I. Brent Eagen, turned out to commemorate the mission's 219th anniversary, to benefit its restoration fund and to check out the Alessios' Baroque handiwork. The scene was, all in all, undisputably nifty, if the word suits something modeled after formal Spain's most mannered period. Following the charming custom of mission parties, the Alessios, Eagen and other greeters lined the route leading from the mission's front door, through the church and out into the spacious courtyard. Near the head of the receiving line were Eileen and Everett Gee Jackson, long-time mission patrons (Everett's classic drawing of the church graced the invitations and programs) who were themselves feted that evening, since the party followed by one night their 62nd anniversary. Drama accompanied the receiving line in the form of the San Diego Mission Choir, which thundered magnificently from the loft as guests glanced about to see whence the music issued.

The Baroque inspiration was carried out in banners (sewn in the Alessio garage) of dusty rose, claret and cream, the same colors borne by Serra and his company. The mission's fountain, usually the focal point but that night the startling backdrop to the dining area, glowed with massed, fat white candles and an exuberance of flowers. Prim, stylized topiaries of lilies and grape ivy rose from glazed clay pots (shaped much like those in which a trail-weary Franciscan might have soaked his aching feet) at the center of each table. A church kitten, decidedly not a Baroque feline but possibly a descendant of a gato brought from Spain, romped among the cautious feet of the Rinaldi Strings trio, which played during the cocktail hour and preceded the Bill Green Orchestra's more upbeat presence on stage.

Other things were much the same as in Serra's time. Mosquitoes dove at shoulders bared by plunging necklines, the menu (catered by Remington's) included black beans along with a garlicky steak and caramel-drenched cakes, and the stars were the same as those that serenaded Serra; they winked on by cue when Linda Alessio threw the switch that shut off the sunset and propelled the party toward moonlit magic.

Msgr. Eagen emphasized the ecumenical composition of the crowd, a fact which he said pleased him greatly and which is, in fact, a regular feature of this long-running summer celebration. History as much as religion was served by the post-dinner showing of a new videotape of the life of San Diego de Alcala, the Spanish saint for whom the mission is named. This year marks the 400th anniversary of his canonization.

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