What a charming image for February’s big holiday – it would make a lovely Valentine! The pretty people depicted are not fictional characters; they are none other than the star-crossed lovers Concepcion Arguello and Nikolai Rezanov, as depicted in this watercolor by Frank H. Dessy taken from the book “Rezanov,” published in 1906 by Gertrude Atherton. Although most Benicians (and Russians) know the story, it bears repeating because it encompasses both an intriguing romance and an interesting slice of our own local history. Although it is difficult today to delineate fact from fiction, the bare-bones legend of Concepcion and Rezanov is as follows.
In 1806, the 42-year old Russian Chamberlain Nikolai Rezanov sailed into port at the Presidio, hoping to acquire food and other provisions for the close-to-starving inhabitants of the Russian colony in Sitka, Alaska. Spain, at the time, forbade the Presidio to trade with any other foreign country, which meant that Nikolai must remain in San Francisco for several months while he endeavored to negotiate the matter with the Presidio’s highest ranking officer, Commandante Don Jose Mario Arguello. The Commandante’s beautiful and accomplished daughter, Concepcion, age 15, captured Nikolai’s attention and heart. Finding that Conception returned his love, they became engaged, impelling Nikolai to depart for Russia to solicit the approval of the Tsar and the Pope, a church and imperial court imperative since Concepcion was Catholic and Nikolai, Russian Orthodox. They parted, each giving the other a token of their love and devotion. Nikolai received a locket that held several strands of her hair; Concepcion received from her fiancé a jeweled cross on a chain.
Back across the sea and on his way to St. Petersburg, Nikolai became ill but struggled on, determined to get to the capital to secure permission for the marriage. Cold and exhausted, succumbing to disease and a weakened constitution, on March 1, 1807, he slid off his horse in the snows of Siberia and died shortly thereafter. Poor Concepcion was unaware of his demise until some six or seven years later, rejecting a number of eager suitors in the interim. Thereafter, she devoted herself to caring for the aging, nursing the sick, teaching, and administering to the needs of the Indian population housed at the Mission in Santa Barbara.
Concepcion did eventually wed, becoming “a bride of Christ” upon taking her vows as a Dominican nun in April of 1851, after entering the Sister’s Santa Catalina Convent in Monterey. Sister Mary Dominica, as she chose to call herself, became the first native Californian to wear the order’s habit in the newly admitted state. The convent moved to Benicia in 1854 and the name was anglicized in the process from Santa Catalina to St. Catherine’s. The convent was torn down in 1966 and replaced with Solano Square. Sister Dominica died on December 23, 1857, and was buried Christmas Eve in the convent cemetery. Some years later the cemetery was closed and those who were buried there were relocated to St. Dominic’s Cemetery in Benicia. It is hard not to feel moved by this very touching story, and the book’s illustration seems to capture the couple just as they are realizing what they mean to each other before time, distance and tragedy tear them apart. Rest in peace, Concepcion, rest in peace.
On Sunday, February 15 from 2 – 4 PM, the Benicia Historical Museum is again hosting the awards ceremony for the Benicia Library’s Love Poetry contest to which the public is cordially invited. Joel Fallon will retell the story of Concepcion and Nikolai, the Museum will have a small commemorative exhibit, area writers will read their original submissions, and prizes will be awarded. Entrance is free and refreshments will be provided. Call the BHM or Benicia Library for details for further information.
* Atherton (1857 – 1948) was born in San Francisco and attended St. Mary’s Hill high school in Benicia before further schooling in Kentucky and marrying George Atherton, whereafter she lived in Fair Oaks. A prolific writer, she also authored “Black Oxen”, “The Conqueror”, “A Few of Hamilton’s Letters”, “Rulers of Kings”, “Senator North”, “The Aristocrats”, “Patience Sparhawk and Her times”, “American Wives and English Husbands”, “The Californians”, “A Daughter of the Vine”, “A Whirl Asunder”, “His Fortunate Grace”, “The Doomswoman”, “The Splendid Idle Forties”, and “The Valiant Runaways, (A Book for Boys”).