HISTORY IN
    
THE COUNTY OF
          SAN LUIS OBISPO
 
Site  by Lynne Landwehr © 2001
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Features and Information:

 

What’s an “Obispo”? 

Probably the question asked most often by visitors to San Luis Obispo County is “What does ‘Obispo’ stand for?” 

As any Spanish speaker will tell you, “obispo” means “bishop.”  So, who, exactly, is the San Luis bishop?

Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa was founded in 1772 and named for the Franciscan saint known as Louis, Bishop of Toulouse (France). This contrasts with the name of Mission San Luis Rey, which was named for Saint Louis, King (of France), also a Catholic saint. The saint/King was the great-uncle of the saint/Bishop, by the way.

The figure who came to be known as Saint Louis, Bishop of Toulouse, was born in 1274 to a noble family in southern France. When Louis' father, King Pedro of Aragon, was taken prisoner in a war, he obtained his own freedom by giving over his three sons as hostages. The boys were taken to Barcelona, where they were placed under the care of Franciscan friars and held for seven years.  Freed in 1295, Louis gave up all claims to the family throne and announced that instead he would go to Rome and become a Franciscan, taking the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience.

One year later, probably in part because of his royal connections, Louis was appointed Bishop of Toulouse, France.  In this position, he gained a reputation for serving the poor, feeding the hungry, and ignoring his own needs.  After just six months, however, apparently exhausted by his labors, he abandoned the position of Bishop.  Six months later, at age 23, he died of a fever, possibly typhoid.  He was canonized 20 years later.

In paintings and sculpture, Saint Louis the Bishop is usually represented as a “boy bishop.” Often, a royal crown is at his feet, signifying the earthly power he gave up in order to assume the bishop’s mitred hat.

Frequently, when a San Luis Obispo resident makes a long-distance call to the outside world, the person at the other end of the line needs help in spelling “obispo.” The easy way is to explain, “That’s 'o', ‘b’-as-in-bishop, 'i', ‘s’-as-in-saint, ‘p’-as-in-priest, 'o'.”

And hello!--the whole beautiful name, all 13-letters-and-two-blanks-which-don’t-always-fit-in-the-limited-number-of-boxes is Spanish. So although we may slide its vowels into English patterns, we do pronounce the “s” in “Luis.” And our visitors soon do the same.

Lynne Landwehr © 2000

[Note: For the details used above, thanks to Dan Krieger for "The Patron Saint of San Luis Obispo" in the August 29, 1992, San Luis Obispo County Telegram-Tribune, and to Jeff McMahon for "Meet San Luis Obispo" in the August 16, 1995, New Times.]

Statue of Saint Louis, the boy bishop,
Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa

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Copyright © 2001 Lynne Landwehr.  All rights reserved.
www.historyinslocounty
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