San Francisco’s fog chilled the early April morning as Father Pacheco wrapped tighter into his cozy wool blanket and began snoring. His eyes played back and forth under his lids as he dreamed the kind of dream a sleeper wishes would never end. He was a young man again, and his joints did not ache. Long limber legs stood firmly on the deck of his small fishing boat at Puerto Ensenada as he tended to his nets.
He whistled a childhood tune as he worked, but the dream took a dark turn. A rogue wave rushed to shore as the boat swayed and bucked violently beneath him. Panic clutched his heart as he emerged through the long black tunnel into consciousness. His eyes blinked as he struggled to remember where he was, then he startled as a water jug crashed to the floor.
The ground beneath his bed moved on its own.
“Madre de Dios!” he shouted, searching frantically for his rosary beads and praying to the Lord Almighty to end his terror.
He was certain this was punishment because in his dream he was not alone. The doe-eyed Felicia Sanchez was with him, and he’d had feelings that a man of the cloth should not feel. He was certain his vengeful god was doling out a just punishment for a wayward priest because this was not the first time he’d had such a dream. Father Pacheco whispered his confession, an apology to the heavens, as the rumbling finally slowed and the earth rested.
It was then that he realized the ground had shaken with a powerful earthquake. Father Pacheco rose from his bed and dressed quickly. As the mission’s pastor, he must ensure that all souls in the parish were safe and that the parish itself was secure.
He rustled down the hallway, quickly tying a purple sash about his waist. Wall sconces had fallen to the ground, but the candle flames had extinguished on impact. He went first to the sanctuary and noticed a few cracks in the thick adobe walls, but the building was structurally sound. Father Pacheco checked the tabernacle and confirmed that the chalice and Host were safe.
He made his way down corridors, out the door and across the street, arriving at the convent to find the women in a state of hysteria.
“Mother Superior!” he shouted sharply. “Gain control of your charges. We must provide aid to the injured! Come quickly!”
“Father Pacheco, the city is ablaze!”
“Yes, Mother Superior. Are your nuns all accounted for?”
“Yes, Father,” she replied.
“Then follow me. We must see about the others.”
Father Pacheco and Mother Superior walked the length and breadth of the mission and to their relief all souls were safe. They went outside and found the sky above San Francisco had gone gray with smoke.
“Our mission is safe, Mother, but we must keep it that way. Gather everyone in the chapel.”
Over the next days, the inhabitants of Mission Delores watched in horror as the winds drove blazing fires in their direction. The fire brigade arrived ahead of the flames, and weary firefighters advised Father Pacheco that they could save the mission by dynamiting the nearby structures in an effort to control the burn.
Feeling helpless as the firemen worked, the Father made use of a humble wooden bucket that carried water inside for Mass. He filled it repeatedly from the well pump, quickly blessing the water and pouring it at the base of the mission’s structure. It was a small act against a big fire.
His face was covered in soot and tears as he watched the ravenous fire monster devour each nearby building with flames and the firemen fight to keep the flames from progressing. He clung to the bucket as if it were his only savior in a sea of tragedy and chaos. He carried the heavy vessel like a wooden cross, a burden for his sins.
Over and over, he returned to the well to fill the bucket with lifesaving water. He poured it on deadly flames that now licked and stretched to reach the doorstep of the mission.
Father Pacheco screamed out in anger and ran to fill the bucket again, weary arms lifting it once more to extinguish flames. When the bottom edge of the wooden bucket caught a wisp of flame, Father Pacheco felt the scorching blaze of hell on his skin as his demons within roared in syncopation with the demons of fire.
After three days that seemed an eternity, Saturday morning dawned anew. The sun brought its own fire to the world, lighting the devastation below and bringing the uncontrolled damage into bas-relief.
Father Pacheco awoke to find the charred wooden bucket clutched in his arms. It was his penance and his saving grace. He leapt from the bed after only a few hours sleep and ran straight to the well pump to fill the vessel once more, but this final bucketful of water was not necessary.
The fire brigade had won, the flames had ceased, and the destruction had ended. The mission was saved, but the city lay smoldering at the base of San Francisco’s seven hills.
Father Pacheco was proud that he had helped save his parish, but ashamed at the feelings he’d felt as he poured bucket after bucket of water onto flames. He wondered if San Francisco had paid for the bawdy sins of her people just as the charred skin on his arms was penance for his own. Had each been served a reckoning?
As the morning dawned on April 21, 1906, Father Pacheco realized fully he was not cut out to be a priest. With the last bucket of water in his hands, he poured it over his head, rebaptizing himself as a new soul.
Just as San Francisco would return to glory, so Juan Pacheco would rebuild his life. That pail of water had christened him a humble fisherman. He returned to Ensenada and fished fertile waters with his doe-eyed bride at his side and his four sturdy sons to continue the family name.
Father Pacheco was born by the water, baptized in water, saved lives with water, and found relief from his demons by returning to the holiest of waters to find his peace.
About the Author
Born with the eye of a writer and the heart of a storyteller, Karen Fayeth’s work is colored by the Mexican, Native American, and Western influences of her roots in rural New Mexico and complemented by an evolving urban aesthetic. Now living in the San Francisco Bay area, she can be found online at karenfayeth.com