The Life and Times of Father Junipero Serra

Father Junipero Serra was a great man. Let modern historians cast their aspersions against “the great man theory of history” (it should be “the great person theory of history,” of course); there are plenty of great persons whose wonderful achievements cannot be explained away by the times in which they lived or the privileges with which they were favored. Junipero Serra was born on the island of Mallorca to a farming family who came from the earth, worked the land until they grew old, then fell asleep and were buried in the earth with their ancestors. At his parents’ side young Juniper Serra “learned something of the secrets of nature and the dignity of labor . . . These were humble beginnings of the man who would one day add a realm to the Church and a coastline to the Spanish empire.”[1]

The young boy attended the Franciscan school, where he studied religion, Latin, mathematics, reading, writing and vocal music. At fifteen he decided to on a career in the service of the Church. He took his vows on September 14, 1730. “For 54 years, Serra would joyfully wear the garb of Francis of Assisi.”[2]

In 1748, still residing on the island of Mallorca, Junipero Serra wrote to ask permission for himself and Francisco Palou to become apostolic missionaries. On Palm Sunday they received permission joined other missionaries bound for the West Indies. Their ship departed from Cadiz in August 1749. It arrived in Puerto Rico, then sailed for a month through the Caribbean. “There were many hardships, the worst of which was the critical shortage of drinking water. Serra recorded as having noted to a companion that ‘the best way of saving one’s saliva is to eat little and talk less.’”[3] Finally they arrived at Vera Cruz, and from there, “men of war and men of peace, soldiers of the king and soldiers of the cross, started out on their mission of force or persuasion. There began El Camino Real of the New World. There Junipero Serra started out on the train that would lead to California.”[4]

Junipero Serra remained in Mexico many years. The friar worked alongside the local people. The Indians were given their own land to produce corn, beans and pumpkins; occasionally they were presented with a yoke of oxen and seeds for planting. Women were taught spinning, knitting and sewing. The Indians were encouraged to sell their wares at places like Zimapan, a mining center. During those years the missionaries erected stone churches at four locations.

In 1758, after 7 years, Junipero Serra was transferred to a place called San Fernando. Then, in 1767, King Charles III abruptly expelled the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits) from Spain and its colonies. One of the Jesuits was Johann Baegert, whose story I have told here and here. A decision was made to entrust the Jesuit missions in Baja California to the Franciscans. That is how Father Junipero Serra came to California. “It was incumbent upon the missionaries to learn the local dialects, even though Spanish was spoken here and there.”[5] The Jesuits had built a road connecting their missions. The natives of Baja California lived solely by hunting and fishing and seed gathering. “The languages lacked expression for Christian ideas and abstract concepts. It took no little ingenuity on the part of the missionaries to compose even the Lord’s Prayer in the local dialects.”[6]

They decided to go north, where they would be the first missionaries. They would sail, as the way on land seemed impassable. When hesitation was expressed about Serra’s ability to withstand the rigors of travel, because of his infected foot and leg, the decision was made to assign Father Miguel de la Campa to accompany him. The year was 1769. Father Serra was 57 years old.[7] He would establish 9 missions in the next 15 years, beginning in San Diego. After his death the Franciscans would establish 12 more.

In his first letter from California, Junipero Serra wrote, “Let those who are to come here as missionaries not imagine that they are coming for any other purpose but to endure hardships for the love of God and for the salvation of souls.”[8]

Up the coast to Monterey came the missionaries. The mission at Carmel was founded in 1770. It is so interesting to read how weakened were each of the missions until a resupply ship would arrive. The Spanish navy would guarantee the security of the missions. “It must be understood that the spiritual and temporal conquest of California was controlled by an interlocking directorate of Church and state.”[9]

In 1772 Junipero Serra traveled overland to San Diego. “On this trip he came to know the complete coast of California from Monterey south and made mental notes that helped him fashion his chain or ladder of missions. Much of what Serra saw on the trip determined his future course of action.”[10] In other words, he kept going ahead as far as he could see. He had to visit Mexico City in 1773 where he sought a personal interview with Viceroy Antonio Bucareli. Serra followed up this meeting with a report covering the favors he wanted in order to have a freer hand from the control of the military. Serra asked that the custom be restored whereby the management, command, punishment and education of the baptized Indians and those ready to receive baptism remain under the friars exclusively. Only crimes of blood were to be reserved to the military. In this way Junipero Serra became the sponsor of the first body of laws to govern early California.[11] It was a bill of rights for the Native American peoples. The voyage back to San Diego took 40 days. From there he prepared to walk to the site of the Mission San Gabriel, which took six days, “longer than usual because of heavy rains and mud on the roads.”[12]

The rest of the book is the founding of the missions at San Juan Capistrano, San Luis Obispo, Santa Cruz, Santa Clara, San Antonio de Padua, San Francisco. But one night at the Mission San Diego the native Indians attacked and killed six missionaries. The location of the mission had been moved from its original site, atop Presidio Hill, to the valley where there was abundant water. (Many other mission sites moved a mile or more from their original locations on account of better access to water and farmland.) It was November 4, 1775 when hundreds of warriors set fire to the mission buildings and awoke the missionaries. “Brother Luis Jayme walked toward the natives, uttering the traditional Franciscan greeting: “Love God, brother.” He was beaten to death. His body was buried in the presidio chapel. Immediately Serra wrote to Bucareli, reminding the Viceroy that he had earlier asked “that in case the Indians, whether pagan or Christian would kill me, they should be pardoned.” Thus, would be avoided the mistakes of San Saba (in the Texas missions) where reprisals against the Indians had ended missionary work among them. “There,” Serra wrote, “the soldiers are still in their presidios and the Indians in their paganism.”[13] Upon returning to San Diego, Junipero Serra had the privilege of confirming three of the former pagan Indians who had killed Luis Jayme.[14]

Then came great numbers of new believers. In San Diego 610 confirmations were administered. In San Juan Capistrano Serra confirmed 163 persons. Ten on to San Gabriel, “where a goodly number of Indians were awaiting to receive the sacrament. More were confirmed in San Luis Obispo and San Antonio, for a total of 1,897 new communicants on this trip northward.[15] In 1781 Serra established is ninth and final mission, San Buenaventura, near Santa Barbara. It is interesting that Los Angeles was never a Franciscan mission site; neither was Santa Barbara. These were military sites, with a presidio but no mission focus.

Junipero Serra was laid to rest in Mission Carmel August 29, 1784. It is a solemn place, but very busy with visitors. The Pope recognized Junipero Serra as a saint in 2015. His statue (along with President Ronald Reagan) represents the State of California in the Statuary Hall of Congress in Washington D.C.

[1] Francis J. Weber, Father Junipero Serra (San Luis Obispo, CA: EZ Nature Books, 1984). 1-2

[2] Ibid. 3

[3] Ibid. 9

[4] Ibid. 10

[5] Ibid. 18

[6] Ibid. 20

[7] Ibid. 23

[8] Ibid. 25

[9] Ibid. 29-30

[10] Ibid. 33

[11] Ibid. 38

[12] Ibid. 41

[13] Ibid. 50

[14] Ibid. 63

[15] Ibid. 63