Father Keller was born in Olomouc, Moravia, on November 11, 1702. He had been a Jesuit since October 17, 1717. While he was a missionary at Suamca, the only mission he served regularly, he professed his final four vows in 1736. He was tall and fair, with a scar on his lip.
Father Ignacio came to the Americas on a Mission due to the Viceroy’s instructions of April 27, 1730. There were 26 Jesuits in the group and they were from various parts of Germany, Italy and Spain.
They put to sea on His Majesty’s ship La Potencia, alias El Blandón, in 1730. On February 2, 1731, they arrived in Havana Harbor. In April they crossed over to Vera Cruz. From there they traveled on muleback to Mexico, metropolis of the new world. They were there for a short time when they left for duty in the Pimería in mid-June of 1731.
Four Jesuits arrived in Durango to meet with their patron, Bishop Benito Crespo. Stiger was on his way to Tarahumara land, and Segesser, Grazhoffer and Keller were on their way to the Pimería Alta. They came through Casas Grandes and the Presidio of Janos and then due west to Fronteras. A half day’s ride beyond, at the Ópata mission of Cuquiárachi they met their superiors and the “two eldest missionaries” probably Campos and Velarde. The three were matched up with vacant missions.
Father Keller wrote some years later that “All I received were scattered and uncivilized Indians. They did not know how to plow. Because of lack of provisions, I was not able to go ahead with the building of a church not even a house. Thus I persevered living for years in a straw thatched hut like the natives, sustaining myself and them on the alms I would go out and beg for and donating to them the annual stipend with which His Majesty (whom God guard) favors us.”
On July 31, 1732, he met with his brothers at San Ignacio for the feast day of Ignatius Loyola. They met also to conclude an account of their progress to date in northern Pimería. The result was propaganda that would have done justice to Kino—none of the hardships, none of the disillusionment, only the prospect of a glorious harvest of souls.
When Father Segesser became ill at Guevavi shortly after he buried Father Grazhoffer, Father Keller came to act as nurse. Fearful that Guevavi might claim a second Padre, the missionary from Suamca ordered Segesser put on a litter to make the nine-day trip to Cucurpe. Segesser recovered in five months and was back at Guevavi.
On July 31, 1734, Segesser, Stiger and Keller were to meet at Suamca for the feast day of Saint Ignatius. Stiger had been recalled from San Xavier at that time by the Father Visitor so only the two met. It was at this time that the Indians of Suamca deserted their mission without warning. The same thing happened at Bac and Guevavi. Segesser went back to Guevavi and found that the Indians there had deserted and taken horses and cattle. At Bac, in Stiger’s absence, the Indians had broken into the Padre’s house, stealing everything “including the new, beautiful, and precious vestments in five colors and all appurtenances which our Viceroy had given to us when we were sent to these new missions.” Stiger hurried north.
Captain Anza rushed to the scene. Already, though, the three missionaries had negotiated the return of the Indians. The cause of the flight was a rumor started by malevolent Spaniards who wished to frighten the Indians, saying that Anza was coming to kill the Pimas. The Spaniards wanted to turn the Indians against the Padres. The Padres managed to get the Indians to return.
When the elderly Campos, whose mind was beginning to cloud, was finally dislodged from San Ignacio by order of his superiors, Father Stiger rode from Bac to replace him. Thus, with Stiger gone south and Segesser gone from Guevavi, the entire northern Pimería fell to Father Keller—Suamca, Guevavi and Bac—10,000 square miles of territory, a challenge he readily accepted. Ignacio Keller was a strong-willed individual.
Father Keller, like Kino, got along well alone. He resented other missionaries closing in on him. As early as February 12, he was preaching and offering Holy Baptism to the people in and around Guevavi.
To keep Christianity alive at the fatherless mission of Guevavi, Keller returned in early May, twice in July, once in September, and perhaps again in December of 1736. He came also in January, February and March of 1737. On one occasion he baptized “en Gusutaqui” three Pima baby girls and a boy he called a “Nigorita.” The term was used on the Sonora frontier for an Indian of the Yuma tribes, captured by other Indians and sold to whomever. They were also called Nijora or Nixora.
On July 1, 1737, Father Keller turned over the inventory of Guevavi to Father Rapicani. It was attested to by the Father Rector, Gaspar Stiger. Now Guevavi had another Padre. When Rapicani was gone from Guevavi for several months in the winter of 1737-1738, Father Keller came to baptize six persons.
In mid-February of 1741, Father Keller saw Father Torres Perea’s proper installation at Guevavi. In 1744, Torres Perea left for Caborca. In 1744, Keller again visited Guevavi and baptized seven more children. Once again Ignacio Keller bore the burden of three missions. Father Ildefonso de la Peña had left Guevavi. Thus, temporarily, Father Visitor Balthasar informed the Father Provincial that the stipends for Suamca, Guevavi and Bac should be sent to Father Keller. If, however, “Father Carlos Neymayr, whom I have assigned conditionally to the latter two missions, should arrive these stipends can be turned over to him.” Neymayr did not arrive.
In early 1744 Keller was back at Guevavi. In the marriage register he scribbled for Father Díaz’s signature a notice of the marriage of an Apache woman. Again at Christmas he was back to baptize, marry and list burials of those who had died since his last visit.
In early 1745, Father Keller met Joseph Garrucho and rode with him to Guevavi. It was a familiar sight to Father Keller. The church was nothing more than a brush roof on wooden posts. The mission at best was crude. Father Keller introduced the new Padre to the Indians. Father Keller’s scribe entered in the book of burials the seven persons who had died since Christmas.
In 1751, Luis Oacpicgigua, or “Luis of Saric,” a Pima, was joining the fall offensive against the Apaches, with the soldiers of the presidio of San Felipe. Their route took them through Guevavi, where Father Garrucho gave them 15 head of the mission’s cattle. However, at Suamca, Father Keller’s mission, their reception was less cordial. Luis arrived in the uniform of a Spanish officer and perhaps was overbearing. Father Keller may have suggested that since Luis was more familiar with native weapons, he would enjoy greater success with them. Heresay later claimed that he called Luis a Chichimec dog, whose proper attire was a coyote skin and a loin cloth and whose proper pastime was chasing rabbits and rodents in the hills. Whatever was said, it offended Luis, who now quit the campaign and went home nursing black thoughts.
The Indian Luis of Saric, the Padres had already concluded, was a bad sort, vain and ambitious. What was worse, he was a creature of Sonora’s new Governor, Diego Ortiz Parrilla, and as such he had extraordinary civil and military protection. In fact, Ortiz Parrilla had elevated him to the rank of captain general of the Pima auxillaries without consulting the missionaries. The Jesuits had, for months, been concerned over Ortiz Parrilla’s dealings with the Pimas. “The Governor,” Father Stiger had observed as early as April of 1750, “told the Pimas that they would come to see their lands extend to the Rio Colorado. What we are seeing is that during the (Seri) campaign he flattered them greatly and they now return most haughty and averse to the Padres.”
The fiesta at Guevavi on September 29, 1751, in honor of the feast day of San Miguel, was the best ever. Father Nentvig of Saric was there. Twelve years later when nearly blind, he would write an enlightening description of all Sonora. Also at the fiesta was Father Francisco Xavier Pauer of San Xavier del Bac. He was one of several Padres assigned to relieve Garrucho of Bac, but the first to get there.
The fiesta was in full swing when Pedro Chihuahua came looking for the Padres. He was Luis of Saric’s cousin and was carrying the baton of sergeant major of the Pima nation, apparently granted to him by the Governor of Sonora without the Padre’s knowledge. A dispute arose. Evidently Padre Garrucho suggested that Pedro was not authorized to parade around Guevavi with his baton. Pedro went away unhappy, not even staying to watch the bullfights.
Another incident occurred. In November, Garrucho rode to Arivaca to hear a confession. There he heard that thieving natives had stolen mission horses. He sent governor Lorenzo Sinnonobi of Arivaca and mission foremen Juan María Romero and Joseph de Nava to look for them. Near Baboquivari Peak they surprised the thieves and took them into custody. On the way back, a scuffle arose over squash for supper, provoked by either an insolent old thief or Romero. The old thief was lanced and stabbed with an arrow, but not seriously. By the time the prisoners were delivered to Guevavi and put to work on the church, Luis of Saric heard of the incident and a shocking event followed.
Sunday, November 21, began peacefully. Don Joachín Cásares was still there, indicating work was progressing on the new church. With little warning near panic ensued. Juan de Figueroa, mission foreman at Tubac, stumbled into the village, beaten and bloody. He said the Indians had gone crazy and tried to club him to death. Rumor had it that Arivaca was all smoldering ruin and carnage. The natives of Guevavi grabbed their weapons and fled. It was true. Foremen Romero and Nava were among those dead. Father Pauer of Bac and a small escort made a dash to Guevavi. By this time a warning had reached Father Keller at Suamca and he passed it on to San Ignacio. It was rumored to be an all-out revolt.
Without the Indians, Guevavi could not be defended. Preparations to abandon Guevavi were underway. The stock was rounded up. Most of the santos and church furnishings were lashed to pack animals. On Wednesday the retreat began.
At dusk the day after Christmas of 1751, a Spanish patrol arrived at Guevavi and reported the church and the Padre’s house were sacked, mangling the remaining santos and smashing the tabernacle and killing all the chickens and pigeons. At San Xavier del Bac, the “capilla o enramada” and the Padre’s house were totally demolished. Because they were more substantial, the church at Guevavi and Garrucho’s house survived.
Ortiz Parrilla began to lay the blame on the Jesuits. At the invitation of Father Stiger, the mission of San Ignacio became an armed camp. On November 30, Ortiz Parrilla arrived. By now Parrilla seemed resolved to wage a campaign against the rebels, confusing the soldiers. He sent out peace missions to Luis of Saric and began taking anti-Jesuit testimony.
In the early dawn of January 5, 1752, near the deserted visita of Arivaca, Luis of Saric lost his advantage. He and reportedly 2,000 natives fell on 86 Spaniards and were beaten. Now he was willing to talk peace. There were conditions: Father Keller must be removed from the Pimería Alta and Father Garrucho, now in Oposura, must return the Pima houseboys he had taken when he fled Guevavi.
Father Keller, who Ortiz Parrilla had characterized as a blacker villain than Garrucho, had been obliged to leave Suamca and answer the charges leveled against him. In Mexico City he had submitted to the Viceroy an impassioned account of the troubles and their causes as he saw them.
Then, after a brief stay at the Jesuit College in Guadalajara “it was deemed necessary by the Father Provincial to remove him from there and send him back to his mission again (and this is a point worthy of note) because its Indians were determined to have their Father Keller (as they would say) and not to accept any other.
His re-entry into Suamca in the spring of 1753 was triumphal. They received him back with a touching display of loyalty and rejoicing.
So strongly did Father Keller still feel about Ortiz Parrilla that when writing in the book of baptisms for Suamca’s visitas a note explaining his absence, he could not resist denouncing his archenemy again. Already Ortiz Parrilla had resigned. The Jesuits felt that he deserved censure and punishment for his actions in the Pima uprising.
During 1753, Father Keller filled in for Father Pauer, looking after three missions and two presidios. In 1753, Father Keller preached a return to active Christianity on the feast day of the Immaculate Conception. He was so convincing that they brought him 29 children to baptize. By December 14, Father Pauer had come to Suamca. With new resolve and with Father Keller at his side, Father Pauer re-entered Guevavi.
Late in 1756, Fathers Hlana and Gerstner rode to the San Pedro Valley in the company of Father Keller and a military escort, to the Sobaípuris. Instead of welcoming the new Jesuits, they wanted nothing to do with them. Father Keller of Suamca was their Padre; what more did they need. Father Keller had become lord and master to the Indians and while he lived they would accept no other. The Padres retreated.
The seemingly indestructible Keller of Suamca, after enduring the hardships of service on the New Spain frontier for nearly three decades, died some time after mid-August of 1759. Ailing, he had hastened to the side of a Pima of the north who was in danger of dying without confession. In doing so, the zealous Padre, evidently aware that he himself was near death, forsook the comfort of spending his last moments in the company of Europeans. Instead, by this final act, Father Keller demonstrated one of the noblest justifications for spending one’s life as a missionary: “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”