Did you know that the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fresno celebrated its fiftieth anniversary beginning on December 15, 2016? This article is the second in a series about 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 Roman Catholic Diocese of Fresno.
Mariposa and Hornitos are noted as being the earliest locales in the Diocese where irregularly scheduled Masses were held for the Catholic settlers and miners. Temporary ‘churches’ of record in these two gold country settlements of the 1850s were in homes, tents, or ramshackle buildings. Father A. Arnault was the first priest assigned to this part of California to the town of Sonora and is believed to have visited and conferred sacraments in the Mariposa/ Hornitos area as early as 1849. He was followed in Sonora by Reverends Henry Alric, Francis Sadoc Vilarrasa, John Molinier, Cornelius Delahunty, Robert Maurice, Peter Gray and James Croke. All of whom are thought to have visited periodically Catholics in Mariposa, Hornitos and other settlements now in our Diocese.
The first priest assigned to Mariposa as pastor (1857-1860) was Most Reverend Louis Lootens, D.D., although he had no building dedicated as a church and his residence was in Sonora. He was concurrently assigned as pastor for Hornitos and French Bar (La Grange) and was further responsible for the missions of Coulterville, Hornitos, Bear Valley, Mt. Bullion as well as Mariposa. Fr. Lootens was followed by Rev. Louis A. Auger, appointed pastor of “Tuolumne and Mariposa Counties” in 1860, at which time he also established his residence in Sonora.
A permanent church was finally erected in Mariposa in the winter of 1862/1863. The church was dedicated by Archbishop Joseph Sadoc Alemany on January 18, 1863. The history of Saint Joseph’s is a little uncertain concerning some years following its dedication as there was not always a priest in residence and Mass was not consistently observed. Much of the inconsistency can be attributed to the fact that the Pastor of the two counties (Mariposa and Tuolumne) had to serve multiple settlements each week and in the winter travel could be much impaired by extreme weather conditions making passage to varied locations impossible. Agua Faria, Angel’s Camp, Mariposa, Coulterville, Hornitos, Sonora, Columbia, Princeton, La Grange and Bear Valley were some, but not all of the communities served by the Sonora priests in the 1860s and even later.
(See Getting to Know Your Diocese Part III in the next edition of Central California Catholic Life)