Ghost story enthusiasts heading southeast from Ensenada on the México 3 toward Mike’s Sky Ranch may wish to stop off at the dusty town of El Alamo to experience first hand the eerie quiet of a tranquil site that once one witnessed a dark and violent moment in Baja history ~ the torching of Misión Santa Catarina Virgen y Mártir in 1840.
The story of Misión Santa Catarina (also known as Santa Catarina de los Paipais) began well enough. Dominican missionaries had searched for quite a while to find a location in northeastern Baja ideal for constructing a fort that would help to defend the Misión system from hostile invaders. When at last in 1794 Sergeant José Manuel Ruiz and his associate Tomás Valdellón found this site nestled in the mountains on a plateau surrounded by valleys, it seemed an ideal location to watch out for potential attackers.
Based on their recommendation, Dominican Missionary José Loriente tackled the challenge of building a Misión complex at this site. Construction began in 1797. Using materials such as adobe brick, stone foundations and sand, Loriente’s crew built a flat roofed Misión chapel approximately 10 meters in length and 5 meters wide. They added workshops, a dormitory, a granary, and encased the complex in thick defensive walls overlooked by an imposing watchtower.
Once built, the Misión served local Paipai Indians native to the region. By the year 1824, Misión Santa Catarina boasted 600 parishioners – more than many of the other Baja California Misións put together. The neophytes worked together with the Dominican priests and soldiers to grow maize and wheat, and trade domesticated animals. Santa Catarina’s congregation and Misión thrived, although not without some difficulties. Cattle raids were frequent, as were attacks by local tribes unsympathetic to the missionaries and their cause.
However, tragedy struck in 1840, at a time when most of the Paipai and Spaniard parishioners were away gathering piñon to the north. Angry members of the Kiliwa tribe stormed the Misión, terrifying the few neophytes and elderly women who remained behind at Santa Catarina. The Kiliwa blamed Spanish missionaries for decimating native populations of the region with diseases after their arrival in Baja, and wanted revenge.
Without hesitation, they burned Santa Catarina Virgen y Mártir to the ground. Sixteen neophytes were reportedly killed in the attack. When the rest of the parishioners returned from their gathering expedition to discover this destruction, they pursued the Kiliwa into the San Pedro Mártir Sierra and slaughtered them. However, their revenge was too late. Once scorched, the land around Misión Santa Catarina was forsaken and its buildings were never reconstructed.
According to sources cited in Wikipedia* the invading Kiliwa menacingly renamed Santa Catarina and called it Waíu-ichí, or ‘empty burning house’. Only fragments of adobe now remain to show where the impressive buildings once stood. The town of El Alamo today is home to Paipai and Kumeyaay Indians, who live amid remnants of jojoba greenhouses, scattered adobe buildings, rusting car parts, and (some say) the ghosts of their ancestors.
Wikipedia.org, Misión Santa Catarina Virgen y Mártir, Author Unknown, Cited on April 3, 2007.