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Camp Pendleton's other big cross

January 3, 2012 | 12:42 pm

The two large crosses erected on a hill at Camp Pendleton have led to the predictable debate about whether the symbol of one religion -- albeit the dominant religion in the United States -- should rightly have a sole and prominent place on public land. The crosses were erected without the permission of the Marine base, and there are legitimate concerns on both sides. Though the crosses were originally planted to honor four Marines who died early in the Iraq war, the site has become a sort of shrine for honoring fallen comrades with trinkets, written messages and the like. Such spots have tremendous meaning for those in uniform who have given so much; on the other hand, Camp Pendleton can't just allow people to set up gigantic religious symbols wherever they want on base.

It's interesting, though, that the crosses have engendered so much controversy, when most people aren't even aware of another large cross toward the base's northern end -- this one visible to the public, if hikers know where to look. Even many Marines have no idea it's there. The blufftop cross marks the spring where the first baptism took place in California, in 1769.

As the Portola expedition came up from Mexico with the intent of setting up bases in Alta California before the Russians could do the same, it came across the 350 or so residents of Panhe, a Native American village at the border of San Diego and Orange counties that was continuously occupied for 9,000 years. Two young  sisters of the village were dying, and one of the priests with the expedition baptized them at a spring near the river, directly below the cross, after telling their mother that this would allow their souls to ascend to heaven.

The event gave the canyon its name -- Cristianitos, or the little Christians.

A set of stairs leads down to the spring, which has been encircled with stones. Probably, the location on base is what has preserved the site this well. The public cannot gain access and few Marines even know it's there. Most of the main village of Panhe, closer to the ocean, is the site of a campground in San Onofre State Beach.

It would be foolish to think of removing the cross, if anyone dared to suggest it. History and religion are interwoven -- very tightly at times -- and in this case the site is only historic because of the religious event that took place there.


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--Karin Klein 

Photo credit: Karin Klein / Los Angeles Times

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