By Jane Vella

Although among the smaller churches of any denomination in the area, Santa Margarita de Cortona traces its origins in service to the Holy Faith farther back than any except for the ancient Spanish Mission of San Luis de Tolosa itself.

The first mention of the area in which Santa Margarita is located, by official of the diarist Franciscan Fray Pedro de Anza colonizing expedition of 1775-76, noted that the party crossed Cuesta Pass in route north. After a stop at Mission San Luis Obispo, they passed through a native Chumash Rancheria in the vicinity of the present Santa Margarita headquarters on the creek of the same name on March 4th, 1776.

The 240 plus men, women and children with 1000 horses and cattle of the de Anza group camped that night near Atascadero and went on to found was are now the modern cities of San Francisco and San Jose.

Some time before the end of the century, the missionary fathers at San Luis Obispo established an asistencia (mission branch) in the same approximate location to serve as headquarters for their cattle raising operation in the upper Salinas River Valley. Although no description of this asistencia appears prior to 1829, nearly all similar mission branches elsewhere in Alta California included a chapel for families of vaqueros and ranch workers.

The church secularized its properties throughout California in 1832. Joaquin Estrada and his brother received titles from the Mexican authorities to the asistencia lands and nearby Rancho Atascadero in 1841. In 1850 California was admitted as the 31st State in the Union and the title to land had to be recognized by the American government. On April 9, 1861, Abraham Lincoln accepted the land grant and signed the patent (title) recognizing the ownership of Joaquin Estrada. The following year the ranch was bought by Martin Murphy, whose son, Patrick was sent to manage the vast property, its thousands of cattle and hundreds of ranch hands.

The exact location of the chapel, named Santa Margarita de Cortona is uncertain. However, the site has been duly noted as part of the National de Anza Historical Trail route through San Luis Obispo County. For over a century, traveling fathers held services there or in local home and sometimes lodging at the adobe ranch headquarters.

In 1905 a vacant building which had variously been used as a print shop and a one room schoolhouse was acquired. It was then moved from its location near the southern end of ‘I Street’ to a site adjacent to the present church and behind the rectory. For a relatively brief time Santa Margarita was a boom town while the tunnels were constructed and the tracks laid connecting the southern sections of the coastal railway approaching the Cuesta Pass. Remodeling was accomplished in 1906 and Bishop Conaty dedicated the church of Santa Margarita de Cortona on October 19, 1906.

The present church structure was begun in 1933, following a fire, which partially destroyed the original church. Father John Coen was the new pastor at that time but sadly died before he could see the new church completed. Parishioners salvaged redwood timbers from the earlier building, which were used to supplement other materials purchased with a contribution from the Extension Society. It was the Society that requested the new church be named in honor of the Holy Angles. Father John Nelson was the new pastor, who along with the Bishop Scher dedicated the new church on April 28, 1934.

The area of Atascadero was separated from Paso Robles parish becoming St. Williams Mission assigned to Holy Angles on August 12, 1943 while Father P.C. Santy was pastor. As it was during World War II, the new St. Williams Mission did not find a permanent home until 1950. During this time property was acquired and foundations were prepared while Mass was heard in the old Atascadero movie theater. When the war was over and Camp Roberts was being reduced in size, an Army Chapel was purchased and moved to the waiting site. It now serves as the Parish Hall for the New St. William’s sanctuary. Father Santy was transferred to Morro Bay in 1948. Father A.C. Stuhlman was appointed Pastor of both parishes and oversaw the completion of St. Williams’ first church. The new church was formally dedicated on Easter Sunday April 9, 1950. Father Stuhlman was appointed Rt. Reverend Monsignor by Pope Pius XII in October 1951 and continued as Pastor of both parishes until 1961.

Father Silvario Baquedano became the Pastor of Holy Angles in 1961, while also serving as the Catholic Chaplain at Atascadero State Hospital. During his tenure, which coincided with Vatican II, he was among the first to ‘turn the alter around’ and say Mass while facing his parishioners.

Msgr. Charles Smith was the interim Pastor 1969-70. He was called to serve from a convalescent leave, having been the Superintendent of Catholic Education for the Diocese of St. Louis, Missouri.

Rev. James Cadera was the Pastor from 1970 to 1987, during which time he raised funds to purchase the present organ. He also oversaw the installation of the Christ of Mercy window. It originally was over the front door and was moved t its present location.

On February 2, 1988 Father Richard Bonjean became the ninth in a succession of the 20th Century pastors, restoring what had become a nearly moribund parish and deteriorated building complex. The church was dramatically renovated, repainted, reroofed and refurbished. The rectory was transformed into a busy office and Parrish Center. An active Parish Council was established and an Alter Society was formed to aid the Pastor in the many activities associated with a growing congregation.

Father Bonjean was unable to continue his pastorate and in May 1995 Father Joseph Grech was appointed Parish Administrator. His immediate concern was debt to the Diocese of more than $32,000 that was brought to the attention of the Parish Council in May 1995. His inspiration and perseverance resulted in the retirement of this obligation in full by July 1998. Another major project resulted in a very noticeable change in the appearance of the church structure with the application of light grey siding and white trim.

The name ‘Holy Angles’ became history after Father Grech obtained permission from the Extension Society and the Bishop to restore the Parish to its original designation of Santa Margarita de Cortona, a Saint of particular reverence to the Franciscan order. Bishop Sylvester Ryan re-dedicated the Church and Parish to Santa Margarita de Cortona on December 7, 1997.

April 22, 2012
Edited by Cheri Roe