Fred Swegles
Fred Swegles

By Fred Swegles

It’ll be cool to see San Clemente’s PierPride Foundation upgrade seven aging signs along the railings of the Pier.

The signs tell visitors and locals about things you can see from the Pier. Whenever I pass the sign that describes San Clemente and Santa Catalina Islands, my eye is drawn to a glitch I’d love to see corrected.

It states that the name San Clemente Island “came from the Spanish explorer Vizcaino on Nov. 25, 1602, Saint Clement’s Day.”

Not so.

Nov. 23 is the feast day of St. Clement on the Roman Catholic calendar. Nov. 25 is the feast day of St. Catherine.

It’s good to know because that island off our coast was the inspiration for our town’s name.

I’ve learned a bit about Nov. 23, having visited San Clementes in Spain, Italy, France, Argentina, Chile, Ecuador, Mexico and the Philippines, plus places called St. Clement in Cornwall, the British isle of Jersey, Scotland’s Hebrides Islands and Maryland.

And, yes, I’ve been to our own San Clemente Island.

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All those places share a common heritage—a pope from the first century A.D.

Pope Clement I is said to have achieved Christianity’s crown of martyrdom after Roman authorities tied him to an anchor and tossed him into the sea.
In the walled-in, hilltop village of San Clemente, Italy, you can find a church tower topped with a cross, an anchor and a crown.

In the English village of St. Clement, Cornwall, the historic church’s stained-glass windows display an anchor with a cross.

On the isle of Jersey, instead of a roadside sign announcing you’re entering St. Clement, there’s a large anchor with a cross.

Our sister city, San Clemente del Tuyu, Argentina, celebrates Nov. 23.

Our own town’s first church, St. Clement’s Episcopal, displays an anchor outside its door.

I learned of this feast day connection one Nov. 23 during the 1980s while in Manila, Philippines, reading a local newspaper. A brief announcement said there would be a religious procession in San Clemente on the Day of San Clemente.

It wasn’t far outside the city, so I went. It wasn’t a town of San Clemente but a church parish in the city of Angono. The costumed procession was very colorful. Years later, I revisited the Philippines to find the Philippines’ town named San Clemente, several hours north of Manila by bus.

Still later, I visited St. Clement’s Island, Maryland. It’s “where Maryland began,” the St. Clement’s Island Museum proclaims. Each year, Maryland school children take field trips there to learn their heritage.

Tired of religious intolerance in England, Catholics led by nobleman Lord Baltimore petitioned King Charles to grant them a colony in America. The king said yes, if they would tolerate other faiths and name their colony after the king’s wife, Maria.

The Catholics departed England on Nov. 23, 1633. Sailing up the Potomac River in March 1634 with royal charter in hand, they chose a safe place to land, a defensible island.

They named it St. Clement’s and gave thanks for safe arrival. St. Clement was the patron saint of mariners.

So, how could someone put the wrong date for St. Clement’s Day on the sign on the Pier? Maybe because Sebastian Vizcaino’s diary was a bit vague.

Three decades before those English Catholics set out to found Mary’s Land, Spain tasked Vizcaino with mapping the California coast, naming landmarks.

As he headed north, the southernmost channel isle he spotted became San Clemente Island. His journal doesn’t mention that, just says he spotted three large islands on Nov. 24, “the eve of the feast of the glorious Santa Catalina.”

He named the island he landed on Santa Catalina.

If you backtrack a bit, it’s logical San Clemente Island could be named for Nov. 23. Saints Clement and Catherine both were revered Catholic martyrs.

In 2016, while exploring St. Clement’s Island’s Maryland mainland, I had a déjà vu moment. I photographed an island that the Catholic colonists founded in 1634 just past St. Clement’s Island. And, oh my gosh, what did they name it?

St. Catherine’s.

As in Santa Catalina.

Fred Swegles is a longtime San Clemente resident with more than 46 years of journalism experience in the city.

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comments (3)

  • its believed these california islands where tropical and not desert islands as they are described now more like hawaii islands
    the reason is its believed that sailors dropped sheep goats pigs off for fresh meat on the hoof for their return voyage that ate all the green tropical plants
    greedy pigs ate my salad
    :::::::: ) -:P

  • George, in the late 1970s (I think it was) the Navy flew me out to San Clemente Island one day to write a story about the Navy trying to curb goat overpopulation, denuding the island. They hired a trapper to relocate the goats. It was risky business due to unexploded ordnance over parts of the island. But they got it done.

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