Did you know that the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fresno will be celebrating its fiftieth (50th) anniversary on December 15 in 2017? This article is the first in a series that will pre-date that celebration by providing readers with a brief historical overview of not only the first 50 years of our Diocese, but a look back to the earliest Catholic presence in what is now the eight county thirty-six thousand square mile eighty-seven parish Roman Catholic Diocese of Fresno.
In the beginning: Visalia’s Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary has the distinction of being the earliest church in the Diocese where Mass has been consistently celebrated since its inception. First, by pioneer priest Rev. Daniel Francis Dade, who settled in a Visalia stable in 1861 where he had living quarters, an elementary school and his church. It should be noted here that the earliest records of Masses being held in Visalia are those celebrated over a period of three weeks in 1859 by visiting Mission San Juan Bautista’s Pastor Rev. Francisco Mora who later became Bishop of the Diocese of Monterey-Los Angeles (1878-1896). The historical record states that Father Mora tried to establish a church in Visalia while he was there but the needed support for it was not forthcoming, likely due to too few Catholics in the area at the time. Visalia was in the Diocese of Monterey until 1878 when the boundaries of the Diocese were realigned and the territory renamed the Diocese of Monterey-Los Angeles, which it remained as so until 1922 when the Diocese of Monterey-Fresno was formed. We will revisit this change later on.
The earliest Masses observed in the Diocese are believed to be those said by Franciscan Reverend Francisco Tomas Hermene-Gildo Garces as he traveled through what is now Kern and Tulare Counties in 1776. Father Garces was a Spanish born missionary who ministered to the indigenous Native Americans and members of the military company with which he traveled in this his last of four entradas. He noted in his diary that he had covered over 3,600 miles in an eleven month period while reaching members of the varied tribes in both California and Arizona. Father Garces was martyred by rebellious Indians in August 1779 at the Pueblo de la Conception on the Colorado River while trying to negotiate peace during an uprising. Bakersfield’s Garces High School is named for Father Garces.