The Del Valle Vestments: Relics of Old SCV On Display at LMU
Story and photos by Leon Worden
Used in the celebration of Mass but never before seen by the masses, a treasure trove of religious relics dating to the Santa Clarita Valley’s Californio period were formally unveiled Thursday at Loyola Marymount University.
Now through May 7, visitors to LMU’s William H. Hannon Library can view liturgical vestments worn by priests when they made their rounds to Rancho Camulos in the 1800s and which have been in university storage for decades.
The exhibit, “The Del Valle Vestments: The Devotion and Performance of a Matriarchy,” represents a semester’s work under the direction of Theater Arts Professor Leon Wiebers, who led a class of three student curators – Elizabeth Fisher, Morgan Hanna and Loreto Lopez – in an investigation of some old textiles in the library archives.
As they discovered, the vestments had been donated to LMU by Josefa del Valle Forster shortly before her death in 1943. Josefa was a daughter of Ygnacio and Ysabel Del Valle, who once owned 48,000 acres of the Santa Clarita Valley – from Piru on the west to the edge of Canyon Country on the east, taking in the present communities of Newhall, Valencia, Stevenson Ranch, Castaic and parts of Saugus.
More research is needed to unlock Josefa’s connection to the Catholic university, but like other Californios – Californians whose ancestors came over from Spain in the 18th and early 19th centuries – the Del Valles were devout Catholics. It’s believed Josefa’s mother, Ysabel, was responsible for the construction of a little chapel that still stands adjacent to the family’s adobe home, which they built in 1853 near Piru on the site of a former Indian village known as Camulos (in the modern spelling).
Little was known about the vestments when Wiebers, then a new faculty member, learned of them three years ago from Cynthia Becht, head of Archives and Special Collections at LMU. With his dean’s encouragement, Weibers turned the investigation in to a class called Costume Research Methods.
“As the class worked to integrate this original primary research with secondary research into the family’s 19th century California context, the prominent role textiles played in the lives of the Del Valle women came into view,” according to a write-up by Brecht and Librarian Desirae Zingarelli-Sweet. “These formidable women played leading roles in creating and sustaining the family’s image on a site where the very objects of their religious devotion were irrevocably intertwined with their social standing. The family’s regular performance of religious rituals and personal connections with prominent Catholic figures formed an integral part of this enduring image.”
Weibers first brought in guest lecturers including a priest to explain the rituals and a textile expert to help interpret weaving techniques and terminology. He then starting taking the students on field trips – to Rancho Camulos Museum, where director Susan Falck helped contextualize the artifacts, as well as to UC Irvine and the Natural History Museum’s Seaver Center. Del Valle descendants had donated heirlooms to those institutions, as well.
“We realized that we had this dragon’s hoard of amazing things to start looking at, but we had one small semester to kind of scratch the surface,” Wiebers said during Thursday’s opening-night presentation.
He said the 15-week course will serve as a springboard for further investigation into the eight or nine sets of Del Valle vestments in the university collection, of which only two are on display.
But library visitors will see more than the intricately hand-embroidered vestments that were shipped over from Barcelona and which, in accordance with 19th-century church doctrine, were made of “silk, cloth of gold or cloth of silver.” Adding to the richness of the exhibition are Del Valle prayer books, letters, photographs and several items on loan from Rancho Camulos Museum including a bodice worn by Josefa and a jeweled “sacred heart” from the Camulos chapel – as well as some newly discovered Del Valle papers that had been packed up by August Rubel when he bought Rancho Camulos in 1924.
And if you look carefully around campus, you might spot the three Rubel descendants who, by sheer coincidence, currently attend LMU.