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‘Rebuilder’ of Mission San Luis Rey comes home


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OCEANSIDE — More than a century after he left, Father Jeremiah Joseph O’Keefe has returned to Mission San Luis Rey de Francia.

The Franciscan friar’s remains were disinterred from a mausoleum vault at Old Mission Santa Barbara’s cemetery July 7 and reinterred at Mission San Luis Rey on July 14 during a 30-minute prayer service. His final resting place is beneath the floor of the historic church, left of the altar.

It’s not an everyday occurrence, but then again, Father O’Keefe wasn’t just any priest: He is known by many as the “rebuilder” of Mission San Luis Rey. Over a period of about two decades, from 1892 to 1912, he oversaw the restoration of the mission church and grounds, which had fallen into disrepair after being abandoned for about half a century.

“If he didn’t do that, we would just be a set of ruins,” said Franciscan Father Anthony Garibaldi, who serves as guardian of the Franciscan community at Mission San Luis Rey.

Father Garibaldi, who gave a reflection on the life and legacy of Father O’Keefe during the prayer service, told The Southern Cross that it was “fitting” that Father O’Keefe be buried at the mission that he restored, “where he belongs.”

Also fitting is that the reinterment took place in the same year that Mission San Luis Rey is celebrating its 225th anniversary.

Founded in 1798 by Padre Fermín Francisco de Lasuén, successor to St. Junipero Serra, Mission San Luis Rey was named after St. Louis IX, King of France, who lived during the 13th century.

The Irish-born Father O’Keefe came to Mission San Luis Rey from Mission Santa Barbara in 1892. He served as a liaison between the English-speaking community surrounding Mission San Luis Rey and a small group of Franciscans from Zacatecas, Mexico, who fled persecution in their homeland and received permission to rebuild Mission San Luis Rey to serve as a seminary called the Apostolic College of Our Lady of Zacatecas.

“At that point, the mission had been abandoned for almost five decades. … Everything but the church was pretty much destroyed,” said Helena Hazleton, museum director at Mission San Luis Rey.

The mission had been secularized by the Mexican government, then used by the American military as a base, and finally abandoned until1892, when Father O’Keefe arrived.

Hazleton said, “It was because of Father O’Keefe that the mission was able to be rebuilt.”

Father O’Keefe himself described the sad state of affairs that he encountered upon arrival at Mission San Luis Rey in an article appearing Jan. 1, 1898, in Oceanside’s Blade newspaper.

“The houses were unroofed for the tiles and rafters; the beautiful arches were blown down with powder to get down the brick; doors and windows were appropriated; and finally, the bare walls were left standing exposed to all changes of the weather and erosions of storm and rains,” he wrote, adding that “there were no roofs on any part of San Luis Rey except the church and even that was gone in large part.”

According to an article in The Journal of San Diego History, O’Keefe’s first order of business was the construction of temporary living quarters for the Mexican Franciscans and the repair of the mission church.

The church was rededicated on May 12, 1893, by Bishop Francisco Mora y Borrell of the Diocese of Monterey-Los Angeles.

Between 1903 and 1912, the focus of the rebuilding effort shifted to the construction of permanent living quarters on the foundations of the Old Mission quadrangle. The rebuilt quadrangle would be between one-fourth and one-third the size of the original, according to The Journal’s story.

“What we have today is his restoration,” said Father Garibaldi. “The friars live on the second floor, and the museum and the other mission activities are on the first floor. So, in effect, he brought the mission to where it is today.”

Father O’Keefe left Mission San Luis Rey in 1912 and returned to Mission Santa Barbara, where he died on Aug. 13, 1915.

His tomb was opened on Feb. 27 of this year to determine the condition of his remains, in anticipation of a possible relocation.

“All that was left were bones,” Father Garibaldi said.

Those remains were disinterred July 7 by Danielle Napoli, director of Old Mission San Luis Rey Cemetery, with the support of her husband, Sean, and Gwyn Grimes, executive director of Mission San Luis Rey.

The trio entered the mausoleum around 6 a.m., closing the door to give themselves privacy, and were able to complete their work before noon. Napoli said they had to ascend scaffolding to reach Father O’Keefe’s vault, which was on the top row of the mausoleum.

The bones were placed in a new casket that Napoli had brought with her. She said the late Franciscan had been buried in his habit and cincture, or rope belt, and a stole. These were removed, although the habit broke into several pieces in the process. A new habit and cincture were placed atop the remains.

“The friars were very adamant about making sure he had a habit with him,” Napoli said.

The casket was sealed, and Napoli and her husband drove it back to Oceanside in their SUV.

Reflecting on her involvement with the transfer of Father O’Keefe’s remains from Mission Santa Barbara to Mission San Luis Rey, Napoli said she “spent many, many months, many sleepless nights making sure that it was done with the absolute, utmost respect and dignity.”

She said, “It was a very humbling experience to be trusted with something that was so incredibly important … to our Franciscan family here, the fathers and the brothers that we have here at the mission. … It was an amazing experience that I will treasure forever and be able to share with my grandkids.”

The remnants of Father O’Keefe’s old habit were to be treated for mold and, along with the stole, reinterred in the mausoleum vault at Mission Santa Barbara, said Napoli. The old cincture was taken back to Mission San Luis Rey, where it will be displayed in the mission’s museum.

At Mission San Luis Rey, Father O’Keefe’s skeletal remains were interred on the opposite side of the altar from Franciscan Father Francisco Ibarra, who died at Mission San Luis Rey in 1842, and Franciscan Father José Zalvidea, who died there in 1846. Father Zalvidea was the last resident priest at the mission prior to Father O’Keefe and the friars from Zacatecas, who arrived some 46 years after his death.

Three friars from Zacatecas who were at Mission San Luis Rey during Father O’Keefe’s tenure – Francisco Jesús Álvarez and José Caballero, who both died in 1897, and Pascual Manzano, who died in 1901 – are buried nearby in the Old Mission Cemetery.

Hazleton acknowledged that Father O’Keefe had “found his vocation,” professed his solemn vows, and ministered for many years at Mission Santa Barbara.

“But his legacy is bigger at San Luis Rey,” she said, “because without Father O’Keefe, we would not be the community that we are today.”

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