On This Day: Laying the Cornerstone for St. Nicholas’ Chapel, El Campo Santo Cemetery, 30 May 1857

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

One of the more interesting aspects of the Homestead is that it has a rare private family cemetery, El Campo Santo, established by the Workman family about 1850, on the museum grounds.  The cemetery has survived the ravages of time, despite nearly being destroyed by a non-family owner in the first years of the 20th century, and remains (!) a source of fascination for many of our visitors.

According to a 1950s speech draft given by Thomas W. Temple II, a great-grandson of the cemetery’s founders:

Much in keeping with early English customs and the baronial estate he now owned, Workman selected an acre of land, some 400 years east of the [Workman] house, as a family burying ground, as early as 1850.  That year an Indian laborer at the [Rancho La] Puente, died and was buried by Workman and his men in that particular plot, without however the auspices of a priest.  Those at [ex-Mission] San Gabriel were at first quite indignant for, the Indian had evidently been buried in unconsecrated ground, as appears from the death register at the mission.

Temple spent many years transcribing and translating mission sacramental records as part of his work in the history and genealogy of early California.  While his statement that the establishment of El Campo Santo was in line with British traditions doesn’t account for how Spanish-speaking Californios had cemeteries on their ranchos (convenience, probably, given that official cemeteries were often some distance away at the missions and in Los Angeles), Temple’s statement about mission records showing the burial of a native Indian in what became El Campo Santo is notable.  It is also worth adding that the cemetery is actually a little over a half acre in size.

In 1851-52, William Workman made his only return trip home to England and could do this because of the highly lucrative beef trade during the peak years of the Gold Rush that enriched him and his family.  While visiting his surviving brother, Thomas, and sister, Mary, at his childhood home in Clifton, near the Scottish border, and while still in official mourning for his sister Lucy, who died at the end of December 1850, Workman commissioned a large slate tombstone for the family plot at the graveyard of St. Cuthbert’s Church.

St. Nicholas Chapel
The only known photograph of St. Nicholas’ Chapel, built by William Workman in El Campo Santo Cemetery.  The cornerstone was laid on this date in 1857 and the structure finished about three years later.  It was destroyed, allegedly by fire, in 1903 when the cemetery, including all the walls but the west one shown here, was desecrated by owner Lafayette F. Lewis of Anaheim.  Walter P. Temple built a mausoleum at the chapel site between 1919 and 1921.

Perhaps his visit home inspired Workman to establish a more formal arrangement at El Campo Santo.  The year he returned, the first brick-making business was established in Los Angeles and, at some unknown date, an enclosure wall of brick was built with a cast-iron double gate installed at the entrance.  At the east side of the burial ground, a plot was enclosed with a beautiful and ornate cast-iron fence, looking very much like on in San Diego.

The first family member buried in El Campo Santo was William Workman’s brother David, who relocated to this area from Missouri with his second wife Nancy Hook and their three sons.  David worked for his brother driving cattle and sheep to the gold fields in the north and, on one of these trips in late June 1855, fell down a steep precipice while searching in the darkness for a stray animal.  That November, David was interred at the cemetery with the funeral covered in a detailed article in the Los Angeles Star newspaper.

St. Nicholas Chapel mention Star 5 June 1858.jpg
The construction of St. Nicholas’ Chapel was mentioned in the Los Angeles Star, 5 June 1858.

A little less than a year, in October 1856, later artist Henry Miller, who was touring California and painting scenes, including the missions, paid a visit to the Workmans, having briefly stopped by earlier in the year.  Miller, whose description of the Workman House is the earliest so far discovered, also stated:

Amongst the drawings which I made for Mr. Workman was a plan for a chapel which he is going to build here for the benefit of his Indians who live near his house in their shantees and who work for him, earning 50c[ents] a day.

The following spring, Workman was ready to build what was named St. Nicholas’ in honor his wife, Nicolasa Urioste.  Thomas Temple’s speech draft stated that:

As most of the native California rancheros like the Vejars, Palomares, Alvarados, Yorba, Sepulvedas, [and] Lugos, had private chapels or altars in their homes, and it being another English tradition, Workman started the erection of a Gothic chapel structure in 1857.

It was true that other chapels were being built at the same time, though, again, how several  Californios were doing this while Temple claimed it was “another English tradition” is unclear. The 5 June 1858 issue of the Star reported, “we understand that Chapels will be erected this summer in Temecula; at Don Bernardo Yorba’s, at Santa Ana; at the Los Nietos; at San Jose; and that a Chapel has already been commenced at the Puente, the residence of W. Workman, Esq.”  Yorba’s chapel was in present Yorba Linda, Los Nietos was southwest of modern Whittier, and San Jose was the rancho of the Vejar and Palomares families in today’s Pomona, but none of the edifices survive.

As to the start of the construction of St. Nicholas’, Temple continued with his narrative:

On May 30th of that year [1857], Bishop of Monterey, Tadeo [Thaddeus] Amat, blessed and dedicated the corner stone, in the presence of visiting clergy and neighbors who with fervor and devotion, attended the ceremony.

A lead box was said to have placed in the stone with “several coins of the realm, religious medals, and a parchment with the following inscription:

In the third Kalends of June, in the year of Grace 1857, during the Vigil of Pentecost, with Pius IX, Supreme Pontiff, happily governing the Church, James Buchanan being President of the American Republic, and Neely Johnson being Governor of the State of California, the Most Illustrious and Most Reverend Bishop of Monterey, laid and blessed with solemn rite, this first stone, for a chapel, to be erected, and dedicated to Almighty God, under the invocation of St. Nicholas, Bishop and Confessor.  There were present Fr. Juan Nogal, parish priest of the parish of San Gabriel the Archangel, and Fr. Jaime Villa, parish priest of San Diego, in the midst of a great congregation of the faithful.

Despite the reference to the “third Kalends of June,” meaning the third day of that month, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles’ archivist Rev. [now Msgr.] Francis J. Weber certified “that on May 30, 1857, Bishop Thaddeus Amat laid the cornerstone for a church to be built on ‘La Puente’ Rancho under the title of Saint Nicolas [sic].”

Thomas Temple speech chapel dedication.jpg
A circa 1950s speech draft by Thomas W. Temple II includes text of a document said to have been placed in a lead box in the cornerstone of the chapel and noting the dedication by Bishop Amat.

In its annual report for 1858, the California State Agricultural Society, on its June or July visit to the Workman portion of La Puente, noted that the family was “about to erect a church edifice at his own expense, in which he designs to maintain the form of worship adopted by the Roman Church, for the benefit of his workmen and neighbors.

Two years later, the most detailed of the descriptions of St. Nicholas’ was penned by John Quincy Adams Warren in his spring 1860 visit to the ranch:

[Workman] has just erected upon his place a large commodious brick church for the benefit of those who may wish to avail themselves of the opportunity of worship.  The building is entirely of brick, built in a most substantial and modern style.  The brick used in the edifice are all made upon the grounds, and the mechanics are the best that can be procured.  No regard has been had to cost, that being a secondary consideration.  The dimensions of the church are 48 and 24 feet inside, and 19 feet high—walls 16 inches thick with 6 abutments, steeple 15 feet high.  The church is built in the Gothic style, and when completed will be an ornament to the neighborhood as well as a novelty, in point of location, reflecting credit upon the founder.

Warren is confusing on whether the chapel was finished or not, though perhaps the basic structure was completed and details were to be added.  In 1958, Leonore Rowland, local historian and descendant of La Puente co-owner John Rowland, wrote that the building had “eight slender towers surmounted by steeples” though the two at the entrance had crosses, not steeples.  She added that lightning rods extended from the spires, though that is not certain from the lone known photo of the building.

Rowland also wrote that “it is likely that there were several stained glass windows,” which appears to be the case from the image, with a large arched window over the doors and six tall and narrow windows on the northern and southern sides of the structure.  The rear of the building almost certainly had at least one window, as well.  Finally, she wrote that “this picture was taken in the declining years of the chapel,” though it is not known when the photograph was taken.  It was certainly after 1870 and before its destruction about 1903.

Workman Family Cemetery
A circa 1906 photograph from the Homestead’s collection taken from about the same vantage point as the above photo and showing what was left of the front (west) wall of El Campo Santo and with the chapel completely razed.

There is no information known about St. Nicholas’ Chapel from 1860 until 1906, when Walter P. Temple filed suit to halt the desecration of El Campo Santo by the Homestead’s owner, Lafayette F. Lewis of Anaheim.  It was said that the chapel was destroyed by fire and the structure razed, with some of its bricks allegedly carted off to El Monte for use in new construction.   There is, however, no documentation of this and it may have been a story concocted by Lewis, who also tore down three of the walls, leaving a majority of the west wall and the entrance gate, as well as the fenced plot.

Temple secured a judgment for damages of $5,000 and the rebuilding of the cemetery’s walls in Los Angeles County Superior Court against Lewis, who then evaded his responsibility by selling the Homestead at the end of 1907 to Eugene Bassett and his son-in-law, Thurston Pratt.  A decade later, Pratt and Bassett sold the ranch to Temple, whose first priority was to renovate El Campo Santo.

Mausoleum In El Campo Santo 2002.89.48.40
A 1920s photograph from the museum’s holdings of the Walter P. Temple Memorial mausoleum built on the site of St. Nicholas’ Chapel.

It was reported in 1918 that his plan was to recreate the chapel, but this was abandoned in favor of a mausoleum that is smaller than the chapel, and Temple used pipe fencing, rather than brick for the three missing walls.  He added landscaping and sidewalks, as well, in beautifying and improving El Campo Santo.

2 thoughts

  1. Hello Carla, there are two Davises with headstones in El Campo Santo. Joseph Davis, a native of Texas or New Mexico, is buried at the north end of the cemetery and was an employee of the Temple family at the Misión Vieja (Old Mission) community south of El Monte. He died there in 1875 and his family was associated with the Temples for many years. A tombstone for James W. Davis is in the cast-iron fenced plot. James W. B. Davis was a carpenter living in Los Angeles in 1860 and was there as a “gentleman” in 1884. But, he owned a part of Rancho La Puente and was shown as a resident of “Puente” in 1875 through 1883. He may have been an employee of William Workman and Francis W. Temple (Workman’s grandson), successive owners of the Homestead. Thanks for the question and the interest in the blog.

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