July 31, 2015

The life of Blessed Junipero Serra

By John F. Fink

(While he is in the United States in September, Pope Francis will canonize Blessed Junipero Serra, a Franciscan missionary priest who ministered in present-day California in the 18th century. Here is a short profile of the saint.)

In the latter half of the 18th century, Spanish missionaries began to move into what is now the southern part of the United States and up the west coast into California. The man who led the missionary expeditions into California was a small Franciscan priest named Junipero Serra.

He is recognized by the United States government as the “founder of California.” The nine missions he founded up the coast, plus the 12 more that were founded by his successors after his death, are now some of the largest and most important cities of the state—San Diego, San Francisco, Santa Clara and Los Angeles. Every state has two statues in Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol in Washington, and one of California’s is that of Father Junipero Serra.

Father Junipero was in California only the last 15 years of his life. During those years, he baptized 6,736 Native Americans and confirmed more than 5,000. He also brought unprecedented prosperity to at least six different tribes who were gathered into the missions.

It has been estimated that he traveled 5,400 miles by sea and 5,525 by land to visit his missions. He lived at Mission San Carlos Borromeo in Carmel, and he would sometimes travel by ship from nearby Monterey Bay to San Diego and then return by land, baptizing, confirming and performing weddings as he went. He would then continue north to the Santa Clara and San Francisco missions.

Serra was born in the village of Petra on the Spanish island of Majorca on Nov. 24, 1713, and was given the name Miguel Jose. When he was 16, he applied for admission to the Franciscan order. At first, he was rejected because he was short and frail looking. However, other Franciscans convinced the superior to change his mind, and Miguel was admitted.

During his novitiate year, Miguel learned about the missionaries and their work in the Americas. Francis Solano, who had just been canonized in 1726, especially intrigued him. Miguel’s reading about the missionaries stirred his desire to follow in their footsteps, but that wouldn’t happen for another 19 years.

He professed vows on Sept. 15, 1731, when he was 18, and took the name Junipero for Brother Juniper, who had been St. Francis of Assisi’s close friend. He spent the next 18 years at the Convent of San Francisco in Palma, first as a student and then as a professor of philosophy and theology. He was ordained a priest in 1737.

When a Franciscan priest was recruiting priests for the perilous work of converting the natives of northeastern Mexico to Christianity, Father Junipero volunteered. So did Father Francisco Palou, one of his students, who would remain Serra’s close friend and, eventually, his first biographer. They said goodbye to their parents, left their island home forever and sailed to Mexico. Serra was 35, and Palou was 26.

It was a difficult journey. Ninety-nine days after they left Majorca, they reached Vera Cruz, Mexico. From there, they walked 250 miles to Mexico City, through tropical forests, over high mountains, and up to an altitude of 7,382 feet. Serra and Palou walked a little more than 15 miles a day. Somewhere along the way, Serra’s left foot became swollen, apparently the result of a mosquito bite. This resulted in an affliction that was to torment him for the rest of his life.

The two reached the College of San Fernando in Mexico City on Jan. 1, 1750. They would be under the jurisdiction of the Franciscans there the rest of their lives.

Serra’s first assignment was the remote, untamed Sierra Gorda country in the Sierra Madre mountains in northern Mexico. To get there, he and the soldiers and Christian natives who accompanied him had to walk 16 days through more tropical forests. Once again, his foot began to swell and his infected sores were painful.

Serra worked in Sierra Gorda for more than eight years. He learned the natives’ language, and gradually got them to trust him and convert to Christianity. He also taught them better methods of agriculture, and how to sell their superfluous products.

He was then recalled to the College of San Fernando in Mexico City, and from 1758 to 1767 he preached in and around Mexico City. During those nine years, he walked an estimated 5,500 miles, despite his ulcerated leg, preaching to Spaniards, Creoles and Indians.

During all this, he was practicing the penances that he would perform for the rest of his life. He usually slept from 8 p.m. to midnight, prayed a midnight office, and continued his prayers until dawn. His only other sleep was a siesta after lunch. He ate sparingly, mainly fruit, vegetables and fish. He wore a sackcloth of bristles next to his skin. Also, in imitation of St. Francis Solano, he would drop his habit to his waist and lash himself. These practices were approved by the religious authorities of the day, although they seem extreme today.

In 1767, King Carlos III of Spain decided to banish the Jesuits from Spain and its colonies in the Americas. Civil authorities were commanded to round up all Jesuits in some 16 Mexican missions, and take them as prisoners to the port at Vera Cruz. Franciscans were ordered to replace the Jesuits.

Serra was chosen as the president of the missions in Baja (Lower) California. He and other missionaries left Mexico City and, traveling almost 20 miles a day, reached the west coast in 39 days. There, they embarked on a ship that took them 200 miles up the peninsula to Loreto, the center of the former Jesuit missions in Baja California. Serra remained at Loreto for more than a year while his men conducted conversion efforts.

While in Loreto, Serra learned that Jose de Galvez, King Carlos’ visitor general, wanted to settle Monterey in present-day California. Serra immediately offered himself as the first volunteer “to erect the bold standard of the cross in Monterey.” The two men corresponded, and Galvez said that he agreed with Serra’s concept of establishing missions about a day’s journey apart in the unexplored territory.

Although Serra’s interest in California was spiritual, King Carlos had political motives. He had learned that Russia intended to establish settlements along the Pacific coast, and he wanted to prevent that, keeping the western part of the present-day United States for Spain.

So Serra was on the move again, 900 miles from Loreto to San Diego. Don Gaspar de Portola was the leader of the expedition, but he tried to persuade Father Junipero not to go along because Portola thought that Serra’s infected foot had become cancerous. Serra let the expedition go ahead. Then he followed with two servants, a sick and aging mule, and little else.

Serra was so crippled when he began his journey that two men had to lift him onto his mule. “Goodbye, Francisco,” he said to Father Palou, “until we meet in Monterey.” Palou replied softly, “Goodbye, Junipero, until eternity.”

Serra kept a detailed diary of his long trip to San Diego. He left on April 1, 1769, traveling from mission to mission on the Baja peninsula, often sleeping in uninhabited country. His diary notes that “my left foot had become very inflamed,” and “this inflammation has reached halfway up the leg.”

Eventually, though, he caught up with Portola’s men and was able to travel with them, at times being carried on a stretcher. They finally arrived at San Diego on July 1, slightly more than three months after they left Loreto, 900 miles away, and 2,000 miles from Mexico City.

The coast of California had more Native Americans per square mile than any other area of the present-day United States. About 250,000 of them lived in more than 25 linguistic groups. At first, all the Indians seemed friendly and welcomed the Spaniards, so Serra turned his attention to constructing his mission on the site he selected, Presidio Hill. He founded his first mission in California, San Diego de Alcala, on July 16, 1769. He was then 55 years old.

The natives didn’t remain friendly for long, though. On Aug. 15, with only four soldiers guarding the mission, a group of about 20 Indians attacked. Serra’s servant was killed with an arrow through his neck. A blacksmith and a Christian native were wounded. The soldiers killed some of the attackers, and they retreated. After that attack, the natives became more peaceful.

Serra’s second mission, after San Diego, was the one in Carmel named for St. Charles Borromeo, and it was there that Father Junipero made his headquarters. The presidio, where the Spanish soldiers were located, was at nearby Monterey, about an hour’s walk away.

At first, Serra had the cooperation of the Spanish civil authorities in his vision of building missions. But others who did not share his vision replaced those civil authorities, and friction arose. It was difficult for Serra to accept what he considered the interference of the civil authorities in strictly religious matters, but it was an era when the king of Spain was supreme in ecclesiastical as well as civil matters, and the king’s representatives had authority to make the final decisions.

In 1772, disagreement over jurisdiction became so great that Serra made the long trip back to Mexico City to confer with the Spanish viceroy, Chevalier Antonio Bucareli. Serra and a 12-year-old native servant went by ship 13 days to San Blas, Baja California. From there, they walked eight days to Guadalajara, through the Sierra Madre Mountains. They arrived so ill that they were given last rites. They recovered and continued their journey, and finally arrived at the College of San Fernando on Feb. 6, 1773, three months after they left Monterey.

The trip was successful because Bucareli issued a decree that “the government, control, and education of the baptized Indians should belong exclusively to the missionaries.” This “Regulation” was the basis for the first legislation in California, a sort of “Bill of Rights” for the Native Americans there. The soldiers were to preserve harmony and cooperate with the missionaries.

From then on, Serra was always busy with the details of mission life: the natives, the missionaries at each of the missions, the planting of crops, the construction of buildings, the scheduling of ships, and the handling of a vast correspondence.

Things seemed to be going smoothly until October of 1775 when about 600 natives attacked and burned the mission in San Diego. One of the missionaries, Father Luis Jayme, was killed, shot by more than a dozen arrows and then his face crushed. When word reached Serra in Carmel, he was stunned. Then he said, “Thanks be to God. Now that the terrain has been watered by blood, the conversion of the San Diego Indians will take place.” The mission was rebuilt and the natives pacified.

Junipero Serra remained active until he was 70, constantly traveling from mission to mission despite his ulcerated left foot and leg, celebrating Mass, baptizing, confirming and performing weddings. He died peacefully on Aug. 28, 1784, and was buried in the church at the mission in Carmel.

St. John Paul II beatified Serra on Sept. 25, 1988. His feast is celebrated on July 1.

Serra Clubs, which promote vocations to the priesthood and religious life, are named in his honor.

(John F. Fink is editor emeritus of The Criterion. This article is condensed from a chapter in his book American Saints, published by St. Pauls/Alba House.)


Related editorial: Canonizing Junipero Serra

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