Time of the Bells, 1769-1835

CHAPTER SIX: Fr. Serra’s Death

At Carmel, Serra looked out from his beloved mission of San Carlos and knew that his work was coming to an end. In a sense, his death was to mark the closing of a period of exploration and isolation. In the 15 years since he had led the Franciscan fathers up into New California, no foreigners had broken into the rich and quiet land. A few Spanish settlements had been established but, in reality, California belonged to the nine missions which stretched along the coast from San Diego to San Francisco. The threat of Russian advances from Alaskan waters, which had brought about the belated Spanish decision to possess and settle California, per­sisted. And knowledge of Spain’s growing weakness, as a result of military defeats in Europe, was attracting a rising interest in Cali­fornia and the American West Coast on the part of the French and the English. And then there were the brash Americans, whose ships were beginning to appear in shipping lanes around the world.

These events seemed far removed from the peaceful mission on the rim of Carmel Valley which Serra had made his headquarters. Most important to him in the 15 years had been the conversion of more than 4600 heathens who were now living at the missions as Christians. This was a harvest worthy of a giant of the church. He was tired now, ill, and 70 years old. His legs, which had troubled him over the years since his arrival in Mexico in 1749 at the age of 36, were getting worse and he had difficulty in standing. “The nights I pass without much sleep, but the reason for this may not be so much my legs as the chief at the presidio.” By this he meant his old antagonist, Gov. Neve.

The church at Carmel, now restored, rose-tinted in the shadows and with a yellow-green moss clinging to the damp walls and red tiles of the roof, sits on a site cut out of the sloping hillside of a green-carpeted valley opening on a little round bay that receives the full force of a plunging surf. The high hills are heavily wooded and near the shore of the bay are salt water marshes and cypress trees twisted by the constant winds. The freshness and greeness carried memories of that far-off island in the Mediterranean Sea on which Serra was born. In the old church yard at that time was a tall wooden cross that marked the grave of Fr. Juan Crespi, the companion who had come with him from Majorca and had shared his zeal and his disappointments. Crespi had died a year before at the age of 60.

It was a reflective period for Serra, and upon hearing the good news from Lasuén at San Diego, that at last the mother mission seemed to be getting on firm basis, he wrote that he was “espe­cially pleased … with what you have to say about the happy de­livery of Anna, sterile for so many years: I mean your fine mission with its many encouraging and copious fruits and blessings.” But with dry humor, he added that he foresaw greater things ahead, and “the best thing for us to do is to give the saints something to be busy about. They have had plenty of rest, you know.”

The pains in his chest were increasing in intensity, but on Aug. 19, as he had done each year for 14 years, he celebrated a High Mass in honor of St. Joseph. It was on this feast day that a ship had arrived with supplies and saved the first Christian settlement at San Diego in 1770. Fr. Palóu was with Serra at his death and he has told the story in these words, in part:

“On August 26, he arose, weaker still. He told me he had passed a bad night. As a result, he desired to prepare himself for whatever God might decree with regards to him. He remained secluded the entire day, admitting not a single distraction. That night he made his general confession to me amid many tears, and with a clear mind just as if he were well. When this was over, after a brief period of reflection he took a cup of broth and then went to rest, his wish being that no one remain with him in his little room.

“As soon as morning dawned on the 27th, I went to visit him and found him saying his breviary, since it was his custom always to commence Matins before daybreak. On the road he always began it as soon as morning dawned. He said he would like to receive the Most Holy Viaticum, and that for this he would go to the church. When I told him that was not necessary, that his cell could be fixed up in the best way possible and that the Divine Majesty would come to visit him, he said, ‘No,’ that he wanted to receive Him in church, since if he could walk there, there was no need for the Lord to come to him.”

He walked to the church, a distance of more than 100 yards, accompanied by the commandant of the presidio, the soldiers of the mission and all the Indians of the town and mission. Fr. Palóu goes on to say:

“When he was finished, he returned to his little cell accompanied by all the people. Some shed tears from devotion and tenderness, others out of sadness and sorrow because they feared they would be left without their beloved father. He remained alone in his cell in meditation, seated on the chair at the table. When I beheld him thus absorbed, I saw no reason to enter to talk to him.

“I saw that the carpenter from the presidio was about to go in, but I stopped him. He said the father had called for him to make a coffin for his burial, and he wanted to ask him how he wished it made. This affected me. Not permitting him to enter and talk with the father, I gave him orders to make it like the one he had made for Father Crespi.

“During the night he felt worse, and he asked to be anointed. He spent the entire night without sleep, the greater part of it on his knees, while he pressed his chest against the boards of his bed. When I suggested that he lie down awhile, he answered that in that position he felt more relieved. Other short periods of the night he spent seated on the floor, leaning against the lap of some of the neophytes. All night long his little cell was filled with these neophytes, drawn there by the great love they had for him … When I saw him in this state of exhaustion and leaning against the arms of the Indians, I asked the surgeon how he thought he was. He answered, since the father appeared to be in a very critical state, ‘It seems to me that this blessed father wants to die on the floor.’

“I went in soon after and asked him if he wished absolution and the application of the plenary indulgence. He answered ‘Yes,’ and prepared himself. On his knees he received the plenary absolution, and I gave him also the plenary indulgence of the Order, with which he was most happy. He passed the entire night in the manner described. The feast of the Doctor of the Church St. Augustine dawned, Aug. 28, and he appeared relieved. He did not experience so much congestion in his chest. During the whole night he had not slept or taken anything. He spent the morning seated on the rush stool, leaning against the bed. This bed consisted of some roughhewn boards, covered by a blanket serving more as a covering, such as was customary at our college. Along the road he used to do the same thing. He would stretch the blankets and a pillow on the ground, and he would lie down on these to get his necessary rest. He always slept with a crucifix upon his breast, in the embrace of his hands. It was about a foot in length. He had carried it with him from the time he was in the novitiate at the college, nor did he ever fail to have it with him. On all his journeys he carried it with him, together with the blanket and the pillow. At his mission and whenever he stopped, as soon as he got up from bed he placed the crucifix upon the pillow. Thus he had it on this occasion.”

About 10 o’clock in the morning on that feast of St. Augustine, the officers of the frigate came to visit him. They were the Captain and Commandant, José Cañizares, who was very well known to Serra since the first expedition in 1769, and the Royal Chaplain, Don Cristóbal Díaz, who also had met him at Monterey in 1779. He received them with extraordinary greetings, and ordered that a solemn ringing of the bells be given in their honor.

“To them, he said, ‘Do me this favor and work of mercy; throw a little bit of earth upon my body, and I shall be greatly indebted to you.’ And casting his eyes upon me, he said: ‘I desire you to bury me in the church, quite close to Father Fray Juan Crespi for the present; and when the stone church is built, they may put me wherever they want.’

“Within a short time he asked me to sprinkle his little room with holy water, and I did. All of a sudden very frightened, he said to me: ‘Great fear has come upon me; I have a great fear. Read me the Commendation for a Departing Soul, and say it aloud so I can hear it.’ I did as he asked, while all the gentlemen from the ship assisted. Also present were his priest companion, Fray Matias Noriega, and the surgeon, and many others both from the ship and from the mission. I read for him the Commendation for a Departing Soul, to which the Venerable Father, though dying, responded as if he were well, just sitting there on his little rush stool. As soon as I finished, he broke out in words full of joy, saying: ‘Thanks be to God, thanks be to God, all fear has now left me. Thanks be to God, I have no more fear.’

“He walked to his little room where he had his bed. He took off only his mantle and lay down over the boards covered with a blanket, with his holy crucifix mentioned above, in order to rest. We all thought he was going to sleep, as during the whole night he had not slept any. The gentlemen went out to eat. Since I was a little uneasy, after a short time I returned and approached his bed to see if he was sleeping. I found him just as we had left him a little before, but now asleep in the Lord, without having given any sign or trace of agony, his body showing no other sign of death than the cessation of breathing; on the contrary, he seemed to be sleeping. We piously believe that he went to sleep in the Lord a little before two in the afternoon, on the feast of St. Augustine in the year 1784, and that he went to receive in heaven the reward of his apostolic labors.”

Two funeral services were held, one on Sunday, Aug. 29, and a second on Sept. 4. The mission bells tolled throughout each day and at half hour intervals the San Carlos fired a salvo which was answered by the guns of the presidio. The room at the San Carlos Mission in which Serra died has been restored. It is a cell about 12 feet square, with thick adobe walls, a tile floor, and one narrow window. There is the bed of rough planks, with wooden pegs for legs, and one blanket, “to mortify the flesh.” Serra’s body lies between those of his two companions, Crespi and Lasuén, in front of the church sanctuary.

Palóu temporarily assumed the presidency of the California missions, though he was reluctant to do so, and a year later the College of San Fernando selected Fr. Lasuén of San Diego as president. Serra had left California with nine missions — San Diego, San Juan Capistrano, San Gabriel, San Buenaventura, San Luis Obispo, San Antonio, San Carlos, Santa Clara, and San Francisco. There were now four presidios — San Diego, Santa Barbara, Monterey and San Francisco, and two towns, or pueblos — Los Angeles and San Jose.

California was a closed province — bounded by Baja California and Mexico on the south, and locked off by high mountains and deserts on the east. To the north were the Russians. But the sea was an open door. On the morning of Sept. 15, 1786, two French vessels, the Boussole and the Astrolabe, under command of Jean Francois de Galaup, Comte de La Pérouse, put into Monterey. These were the first foreign ships to visit a California port. On a scientific and exploring journey around the world, they were received by Gov. Fages with grace and assistance in the way of supplies. The Frenchmen had been given careful instructions on what they were to do and report, and particularly, as regards the possibilities of the fur trade which the Russians had been exploit­ing far to the north.

Capt. Cook in his round-the-world voyage had reported on the extent of the sea otter fur trade along the northwest American coast, of which the Spaniards were aware but failed to do much about it. The instructions to La Pérouse, couched in careful lan­guage, expressed France’s deep friendship and regard for Spain but, in the true spirit of foreign relations, suggested he look around and see just how many forts and guns were protecting California -just in case:

“If in the survey which he is to make of the north-west coast of America he finds at any points of that coast forts or trading-posts belonging to His Catholic Majesty he will scrupulously avoid everything which might give offence to the commandants or chiefs of those establishments; but he will use with them the ties of blood and friendship which so closely unite the two sovereigns in order to obtain by means thereof all the aid and refresh­ment which he may need and which the country may be able to furnish. . . . So far as it is possible to judge from the relations of those countries which have reached France, the actual possession of Spain does not extend above the ports of San Diego and Monterey, where she has built small forts garrisoned by detachments from California or from New Mexico. The Sieur de La Pérouse will try to learn the condition, force, and aim of these estab­lishments; and to inform himself if they are the only ones which Spain has founded on those coasts. He will likewise ascertain at what latitude a begin­ning may be made of procuring peltries; what quantity the Americans (Indians) can furnish; what articles would be best adapted to the fur-trade; what facilities there might be for a French establishment, all this relating of course chiefly to the northern coast.”

After an investigation, La Pérouse came to the conclusion that the fur trade could prove more profitable to the Spaniards than the richest gold mines of Mexico and reported that Fages said he easily could furnish 20,000 skins a year and even more with new establishments to the north. On a visit to San Carlos Mission, La Pérouse wrote that:

“. . after having crossed a little plain covered with herds of cattle,… we ascended the hills and heard the sound of bells announcing our coming. We were received like lords of a parish visiting their estates for the first time. The president of the mission, clad in cope, his holy-water sprinkler in hand, received us at the door of the church illuminated as on the grandest festivals.”

It was all very colorful, but La Pérouse, though he had praise for the character, zeal, and motives of the missionaries as indi­viduals, and acknowledged the shortcomings of the aboriginal Indians, thought the Franciscan establishments bore an unhappy resemblance to the slave plantations of Santo Domingo.

“With pain we say it, the resemblance is so perfect that we have seen men and women in irons or in the stocks; and even the sound of the lash might have struck our ears, that punishment being also admitted, though prac­ticed with little severity.”

The French were soon on their way, crossing the Pacific, visiting the Philippine Islands, coasting past Japan and China, losing 11 men to savages at the Navigator Islands, and then, after touching at Botany Bay on the coast of New Zealand, where the rest of La Pérouse’s journal was left behind, vanishing from sight. Nothing further ever was heard of the ships or crew.

La Pérouse’s report of the extent of Russian operations along the northern American coast caused Spain once again to stir into some kind of action. Two ships were sent as far as the Alaskan coast, and José Martinez reported seeing Russian and English activity. He was sent back the next year, found one American and three English ships at Nootka Sound, and an armed trading post on shore. He seized the English ships, confiscated their cargoes, took some of the officers prisoners — and brought about a diplo­matic crisis which almost caused another war between Spain and England. But Spain, already in decline and unable to call on her ally, France, torn by revolution, eventually gave up and withdrew all her claims to territory north of the present California line.

Spain did send a scientific expedition of its own to California, which compiled extensive data which, however, in so typical a man­ner, found its way into the files of no concern. This was the expedition led by Capts. Alejandro Malaspina and José Busta­mante y Guerra, and which is known historically as the Malaspina Expedition. Most of the scientific work was done at Monterey in 1791, and the expedition never stopped at San Diego, but, evi­dently, working with available information gathered in California and from previous expeditions, it reported that San Diego “offers to view a pleasant variety of trees, shrubs and fragrant plants, and near the beach some beautiful meadows,” … and with cooling winds to soften the summer heat, “nature always different, always wonderful, had lavished here her gifts for the well-being of man.” Artists with the expedition produced some excellent drawings of California bird and animal life, Indian costumes, and the,way of life and dress in the early Spanish days. In the following year a man, identified as a naturalist named José Longinos Martinez, with an escort of soldiers, reached San Diego, and reported that “the summit of the little mountain on the point of the Port of San Diego is strewn with opaque garnets.” This didn’t seem to excite anyone.

The situation at San Diego was quiet. Little happened to disturb the routine of frontier life. Work at the mission progressed and affairs at the presidio were under the capable direction of Lt. Zúñiga. In a letter to his mother, the thoughtful and devoted Zúñiga wrote that:

“He had the pleasure of informing her that in the course of the past year a beautiful church had been commenced at the presidio under his charge and an image in honor of the pure and Immaculate Conception provided for; that he had been instrumental in accomplishing the work and had him­self personally labored as a mason and as a carpenter and had painted the whole with his own hands; and that he thanked God that she would thus see that her son, who had done things that were evil, was now zealous in doing things that were good.”

Twenty-one years after the founding of the first mission, there were about 1000 white persons in California. In the San Diego dis­trict, which included the Missions of San Diego, San Juan Capis­trano and San Gabriel, as well as the Royal Presidio, there were 220 persons. The presidio population was about 125. The pueblo of Los Angeles had 73 men and 51 women.

In the north, Fages, tired and ill, resigned his post as governor, and this brave but quarrelsome officer, a reckless horseman and eager hunter, passed out of the history of California. He hoped to go back to his home in Spain but it is believed he died in Mexico.

It is to an Englishman that we now turn, for the next chapter in the story of San Diego.