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Our Lady of Refuge, patroness

June 23, 2016
Brother John M. Samaha, S.

Our Lady of Refuge, patronessOur Lady of Refuge is patroness of both Californias. Franciscan missionary Francisco Diego Garcia y Moreno was the first bishop of the Californias – Baja California (lower California in what is now Mexico) and Alta California (upper California in the present U.S.). He proclaimed Nuestra Señora del Refugio, patrona de las Ambas Californias. The official proclamation was made by Bishop Garcia Diego on Jan. 4, 1843, at Mission Santa Clara in Alta California.

The episcopal proclamation
The entire text of Bishop Diego’s declaration is recorded in Mission Santa Clara’s Libro de Patentes. “We make known to you that we hereby name the great Mother of God in her most precious title, ‘del Refugio,’ the principal patroness of our diocese.”

The bishop planned to establish his episcopal seat in Santa Barbara with the name of Our Lady of Refuge. But when California was ceded to the U.S., Bishop Thaddeus Amat moved to Los Angeles and constructed his cathedral there under the patronage of St. Vibiana, an early Roman martyr whose relics he had obtained.

All California missions, and the parishes established later, celebrated this patronal feast with great solemnity. For a time in the mid-19th century the Franciscans operated a seminary with this name at Mission Santa Inez. And Refugio State Beach is a geographic landmark named for her.

The liturgical feast
In 1981 the California Catholic Conference of Bishops petitioned the Vatican Congregation for the Sacraments and Divine Worship for authorization to observe the feast of Our Lady of Refuge on July 5 as an obligatory memorial. This was approved by official document dated January 15, 1982.

The dioceses of Baja California celebrate this patronal feast on July 4. Because of Independence Day, the dioceses of Alta California chose July 5, and the memorial is listed for that day in their ordo. The feast of Our Lady of Refuge has its own proper prayers for the Mass and the Liturgy of the Hours.

The renewal of interest in this Marian feast honoring the patroness of the Golden State was stimulated by the 1987-1988 Marian Year observance and St. John Paul II’s encouragement to revitalize interest in special, local feasts of the Virgin Mother Mary.

The image
The entire coat of arms of Bishop Garcia Diego included only the image of Our Lady of Refuge. A painting of Our Lady of Refuge holding her child, usually the product of a local or native artist, graced each mission church after the bishop’s proclamation. To this day most of the 21 missions of Alta California still display this image in the churches or in their museums.

Paintings of Our Lady of Refuge are, with few exceptions, quite similar in design and execution. The heads of the Infant Jesus and his mother Mary lean together with no background between them. Both figures wear a crown. Mary’s eyes are turned toward the observer, while the gaze of the child seems to turn left of the viewer.

In the Santa Clara Mission church the painting of Our Lady of Refuge is found above the larger picture of Our Lady of Guadalupe in one of the side altar niches on the left as one nears the sanctuary. Another painting by Eulalio, a local Native American, is on display in Santa Clara University’s De Saisset Museum near the mission church.

Other known and attractive portrayals of Our Lady of Refuge are found at Mission Santa Barbara, Mission San Carlos Borromeo at Carmel, Mission San Francisco de Asis, and Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa.

The current situation 
Church historians and native Californians applaud the move for restoring the patroness of both Californias to her original and rightful prominence in the local church’s liturgical calendar.

Sadly and with some dismay we find that no official celebrations are planned for July 5. This significant feast and particular devotion seldom capture the attention and imagination of today’s Catholics in California, the land and people entrusted to her tender mercies by Bishop Diego Garcia.

Let us rise to the challenge to promote the appreciation and fitting observance of the feast of Our Lady of Refuge, patroness of both Californias.

Marianist Brother Samaha lives in Cupertino.

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