August 02, 2005
In 1998, Gabrielle Leonhard of the Mission Olive Preservation, Restoration, and Education Project (MOPREP) visited Nuestra Senora de la Soledad in the Salinas Valley. Gabrielle recalls, “The wind was blowing, dirt filled the air, a door was slamming open and shut, a dog barked in the far distance; yet the silence and emptiness were immense.” Soledad is solitude in Spanish; Our Lady of Solitude Mission, a name appropriately chosen by the Franciscan padres who established the Mission in 1791. Salinas Valley is wide with mountain ranges on both sides and the Salinas River running through it. In the foothills, approximately ten miles away from the mission, are the Pairaso Springs, where ancient mission grape vines have been found. This is probably the original location of the olive orchard, although no ancient trees are left. Historians know olive oil was produced at Mission Nuestra Senora de la Soledad, for a piece of the original press has been excavated from the center courtyard.
MOPREP Community volunteer Bob Bianchi at the 2004 olive harvest
Gabrielle found twelve older olive trees at the Mission, planted in the 1920s and 1960s during the Mission’s restoration but, at least in known memory, never harvested. Gabrielle suggested oil could be made from the Mission’s own trees, which could be used for the Sacraments. Nick Bianchi, the mission’s museum curator, immediately embraced the idea and began planning the first harvest. MOPREP volunteers, Tim Noonan and Gabrielle, headed up this project and enlisted olive tree consultant Antonio Isern, and Allesio Carli, wine maker and olive oil master, at Pietra Santa Winery near Hollister. The team began to teach the volunteers about harvesting, irrigation, pruning, and proper horticultural care. Allesio continues to press their olives annually.
In the winter of 2000, Mission Soledad volunteers pressed its first harvest from the twelve old trees. Not since Mission secularization in the 1830s, had any mission produced its own sacramental oil. This was a historical event. Bishop Sylvester Ryan of the Monterey Catholic Diocese was thrilled to be able to consecrate oil from Mission Soledad for Chrism oil, one of the three sacramental oils found in every Catholic church. That spring, on the first Monday of Holy Week, Mission Soledad’s olive oil was consecrated in a very old, traditional, and symbolic mass where all clergy annually renew their vows. Before the end of the mass, the oil was decanted and given to all the fifty-seven churches and parishes within the diocese. Three days later, on Holy Thursday, the three sacramental oil decanters were ceremoniously brought into their new home churches during the evening mass. For the next year, Mission Soledad’s oil was used for every baptism, wedding, last rites, ordination, and anointing in the diocese.
Allesio Carli, Olive Oil Master from Pietra Santa Winery, pruning the oil olive trees at Mission Soledad
Since Mission Soledad’s first harvest in 2000, olive oil production has continually increased each year. 2005’s harvest, the largest yield to date, resulted in thirty-five gallons of extra virgin to the diocese for this year’s Chrism mass. “No other Mission, nor diocese, is producing their own olive oil for the Chrism. I am very proud of Mission Soledad’s accomplishment and contribution to our community,” said Bishop Ryan.
MOPREP and Mission Soledad began a very long and fruitful collaboration on that windy day back in 1998. Since then, in 2001, the mission volunteers and MOPREP planted 150 trees next to the mission. The orchard took two years to plan, propagate, establish seedlings, and then plant. MOPREP propagated Mission Soledad’s olive trees from hard wood cuttings called truncheons, an ancient propagation method used by the padres. The truncheons were from Mission La Purisima’s ancient olive grove. Mission Soledad’s new orchard was the first that had been planted since the founding of the missions. Mission La Purisima’s ancient grove was undiscovered until MOPREP found it in 1998. Nick Bianchi, Mission Soledad’s museum curator and olive grove manager commented, “It was so exciting! The trees were returned to the ground of their ancestors!” Mission Soledad will harvest the olives from their new orchard for the first time this winter.
MOPREP is a volunteer effort in collaboration with many of California’s olive oil producers, the California Mission staffs and volunteers, and the local communities, funded by private donations and MOPREP fundraising, to preserve California’s cultural link to the olive tree. Volunteers coordinate horticultural care, replanting, and olive harvests for oil making, at any of the twenty-one California Missions that request their assistance.
To learn more about MOPREP visit their website at www.missionolive.org or call (707) 224-8058. New members are welcome. Mission Soledad is located off U.S. Highway 101 on Fort Romie Road, a few miles south of Soledad. The phone number is (831) 678-2586. To learn more about all of California’s Missions visit the official website www.ca-missions.org.
About the Author/Photographer: Teresa Giovanzana is a free-lance writer-photographer, who is passionate about the California Missions and the historical significance and use of the Mission olive. Teresa is a native Californian living in San Jose who can be reached by email: firstname.lastname@example.org.