Love Story for the Ages

In every time of year, but especially on Valentine’s Day and in the warming days of spring, young people in love can be seen on First Street. Holding hands, stealing kisses, sharing heartfelt embraces. They may not know that this little city played a role in one of the greatest love stories of all time. 

Every good story, certainly every good love story, could begin with the phrase: “Once upon a time.” So be it. This truly true love story will begin that way too.

Once upon a time, there was a young woman named Concha. Some said she was the most beautiful woman in California. Though only sixteen, when she entered a room every eye followed her, noting her delicate beauty. One admirer marveled at “her vivacity and cheerfulness, her love-inspiring and brilliant eyes, and for a thousand other charms.” 

A girl of such rare gifts must have a glittering ball to meet the handsome prince of her dreams, and so it happened with Maria de la Concepción Marcela Argüello. At an elegant dinner party hosted by her mother and father in the Presidio of San Francisco, the eyes of Nikolai Petrovich Rezanov fell upon her, instantly captivated. It was love at first sight. How could it not be?

The Russian nobleman was a widower whose wife had died a few years before. Gloomy and still in mourning, he had set out on an expedition in service to the Czar, with whom he was a trusted advisor. After a long and punishing voyage, he and his men had found a welcome harbor in the fogbound shores of Yerba Buena. Dashing and impossibly handsome, arrayed in his full dress Navy uniform, he approached the young girl for a dance. So carefree and full of life, Concha “pierced his inmost soul,” according to a friend, and his sadness melted away.

That evening, and in the days that followed, their two hearts became one.

They walked together on the Presidio grounds and picnicked on Angel Island. He opened up about his late wife and told stories about his travels around the world. Although he was fluent in Russian and French and her native tongue was Spanish—translators helped them get their words across—Concha and Nikolai were communicating on a different level, the language of love. Within weeks, the head-over-heels suitor asked the fair young maiden for her hand in marriage.

Joyously, Concha said yes, and the two lived happily ever after. 

Concha and Nikolai at Presidio

Nah, that’s not what happened.

This isn’t a fairy tale; it’s a real-life story, one that over the centuries has inspired poems, a novel, many books, a mural in a Presidio chapel, a chamber musical and a Russian rock opera, “Juno and Avios,” that is said to be that country’s “Jesus Christ Superstar.” 

In truth, shock and alarm greeted the Russian’s proposal. She was a mere girl, he was a middle-aged man. They were of different nationalities, different heritages, different faiths. She was Roman Catholic, he was Russian Orthodox. Their union would be acceptable, said Concha’s parents and the friars of Mission Dolores, only if it were blessed by the Pope and approved by Czar Alexander of Russia. The star-crossed lovers had no choice but to submit. 

On the day his ship left port, Concha gave the man of her dreams a locket with strands of her hair inside. His gift to her was a chain with a jeweled cross. They never saw each other again. 

On his return voyage to Russia Rezanov fell desperately ill with pneumonia.

Then, in a weakened physical state while making the dangerous land crossing over the wastes of Siberia, he fell off his horse and died from his injuries. Meanwhile Concha waited, and waited, and waited, now tortured by doubt. What happened to him? Had he forgotten her? Was it all a hoax? Presidio gossips whispered that Rezanov had courted her only for political reasons—to wed the daughter of a wealthy governor of Alta California and thus form an alliance between Spain and Russia. Concha would not, could not, believe these painful rumors. 

It was years before she found out the truth. An officer who served with Rezanov and who was at his bedside at the time of his death sailed to California to break the terrible news, adding, “His last words were of you.” The officer returned her gift of the locket. Inside were not merely strands of hair, but her heart.

Concha's headstone

Concha’s sisters and family urged her to date other men, to move on with her life.

Those love-inspiring eyes attracted many suitors, to be sure. But that was not the path Concha followed. She surrendered herself to a life of chastity and devoted service in the Name of her Lord and at age 60 became a nun, the first native-born Californian to enter the Dominican order. When the convent school in Monterey where she served moved to Benicia, Sister Mary Dominica Argüello moved with it and came to live here. 

The school was renamed Saint Catherine’s Academy, and this was where “La Beata Dominica”—so beloved was she that people called her The Little Dancing Saint—served until her death. She died December 23, 1857 and is buried in St. Dominic’s Cemetery on Hillcrest Avenue; her grave is in the second row to the left as you enter the gates. There is a special tribute to her, inscribed with a poem, next to her gravestone.