It sat in storage in Woodland since 1974, much of that time in Adeline Santa Maria’s garage, a squat, dark cauldron weighing 650 pounds that very well could be a relic of California mission history.
Santa Maria family lore says it was used to cook stew meat at a mission in the chain founded by Father Junipero Serra.
Santa Maria, who lives on a tidy street in Woodland, said her late husband, Bob, got it from his father, Bill, who got it from his father, Jesus Santa Maria, the first settler of Topanga Canyon in Southern California.
Jesus and Elena Santa Maria died in 1944 after willing to their family the last acres of their formerly 508-acre ranch. He was 94 and she was 82, according to a Los Angeles Times story.
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The cauldron, it is said by family members, came from the San Fernando Mission in Los Angeles County, the 17th mission in the chain.
“Jesus got it in the 1800s from the mission,” said Adeline, repeating a story passed on through the years.
Her daughter Nancy Santa Maria said that her great-grandfather had “an eye for salvaging artifacts and an ear for a good story.” She also believes that Jesus Santa Maria rescued the cauldron from the then-deteriorated San Fernando Mission.
In an essay she recently wrote, Nancy Santa Maria notes that her grandfather believed the cauldron was used for culinary purposes:
“The priests were no longer in residence at the mission itself … The San Fernando Mission fell into disrepair after the priests left. Because we know that Jesus was, in later years, to farm the mission grounds and house his equipment and grain there, it raises the questions: Did he find the cauldron and bell in the rubble and, knowing the story, salvage the items?”
Despite its questionable heritage, the San Fernando Mission took possession of the cauldron after it being in Santa Maria family for more than 100 years. The ungainly cauldron and an old bell believed to belong to the mission were loaded on a trailer by the Santa Maria clan and trucked to Southern California the weekend of Sept. 17.
The kettle was placed on mission grounds and blessed by a priest.
The family has long wanted it to be on the mission grounds. Nancy Santa Maria has worked with Catholic authorities for 16 years to that end and has tried to get it authenticated, although an expert has not examined it in person.
She has sent photographs to Ruben Mendoza, an expert at California State University, Mission Bay, who has directed archaeological investigations and conservation projects at missions.
The cauldron is an enigma to Mendoza. While family stories say that it was used to cook stew for American Indians at the mission, it appeared to him to be the type of cauldron used in a smelting forge.
Still, it is not out of the question, Mendoza wrote the family, that it was used for various purposes. The family is just happy to have it returned to Southern California, where more people can appreciate it.
“More people can see it at the mission,” said Nancy Santa Maria. “They can use their imagination to think about what really may have happened with this cauldron. Why keep it in the garage?”