The Explorers, 1492-1774

CHAPTER SEVEN: Fray Junipero Serra

Four decades of prayer and service prepared Fr. Junipero Serra for the historic tasks that were yet to lie ahead. He was born on November 24, 1713, in Petra, a small inland village on the island of Mallorca, the largest of the Spanish Balearic Islands in the Mediterranean. Life there today has changed little from what it was in Fr. Serra’s time. It has a soft climate, a lush greenness, with fishing villages, vineyards, and fruit orchards. The people, who still wear their distinctive costumes, are deeply religious, and there are many beautiful old churches.

His parents were humble and devout farmers; the whitewashed stone house in which he was born has been preserved and stands in what is now known as Calle Junipero Serra. As in any village of the old world, the cobbled street is hardly wide enough for an automobile. There is a bedroom on the main floor known as the borning room, ‘though as a boy Fr. Serra slept in a cubbyhole. As among peasant people everywhere, the animals of the farm lived near him in close relationship. The farmer’s day was from dawn to dusk; after dark the principal light was from an open fireplace in which the family meals were prepared in pots hung from hooks.

Fr. Serra was baptized in the parish on the day of his birth, named Miguel Joseph, and confirmed when he was one and a half years old. As a little boy he was encouraged by his parents to visit the Franciscan church and the Friary of San Bernadine. There at the boys’ school he studied Latin and came under the influence of the friars, and there he developed the desire to become a Franciscan himself. At the age of sixteen he was taken by his parents to Palma to study for entrance to the priesthood. When he applied for the novitiate, he was rejected because of his youthful appearance he had always been undersized and apparently often ill in early childhood. But when his actual age was finally learned, he was accepted and received a habit on September 14, 1730, at the age of 16 years and 9 months.

He himself later wrote that “in the novitiate, I was almost always ill and so small of stature I was unable to reach the lectern, nor could I help my fellow novices in the necessary chores of the novitiate.” But he was undaunted.

Many years afterward, he remarked rather wistfully: “However, with my profession I gained health and strength and grew to medium size.” But when he was in Mexico in the Sierra Gorda, it was noticed that he had to insert his mantle between his shoulder and the large beam – which he was helping a group of Indians to carry – to make himself taller. In 1943 at the Carmel Mission in California, Fr. Serra’s remains were exhumed and measured by two anthropologists, who found him to have been 5 feet, 2 or 3 inches in height.

After the novitiate came the ceremony of the profession, when the provincial sat before the kneeling novices and queried: “‘My sons and most beloved brothers, what do you ask?’ They answered in unison: ‘I desire to profess the Rule of Our Most Beloved Father Francis, confirmed by the law of Pope Honorius III, by living in obedience without property and in chastity, in order to serve God better and to save my soul.'” Each novice then became a Franciscan for life. Fr. Serra took the name of Junipero after Brother Junipero, one of the lay brothers of Saint Francis, sometimes known as “The Jester of the Lord.” This man was simple and unassuming; Serra longed to be his equal in humility.

Fr. Serra was now living at the friary of San Francisco, studying philosophy and theology at the Lullian University at Palma, which was run by the Franciscans and called “The Pontifical, Imperial, Royal and Literary University of Mallorca.” We know that he was ordained by February of 1739, and taught philosophy at San Francisco from 1740 to 1743. In his class were Juan Crespi and Francisco Palou, who had known each other since early boyhood days, and were destined to go with Fr. Serra to far-off California. It was Fr. Palou who was to write the life of the leader he so admired.

According to Fr. Palou’s history, Fr. Serra received the degree of Doctor of Sacred Theology in 1742 and was listed in university records as Dr. Junipero or Dr. Serra. He was the holder of the chair of Prince of the Subtle Master from 1744 to 1749, when he was selected to preach the sermon at the most solemn of the university feasts, the Feast of Blessed Raymond Lull, in honor of that great lay Franciscan, the patron saint of Mallorca, who was stoned to death trying to convert Moslems in North Africa. Of that sermon one of the professors said, “This sermon is worthy of being printed in letters of gold.”

Already an honored and respected teacher, student, and librarian of the monastery, he suddenly felt a call to leave his career behind him and to go, as had so many others before him, to teach the heathen and recapture the fervor felt during his novitiate. For a long time he kept his real feelings to himself – though rumors circulated that one of the fathers desired to enter the mission field – and he prayed that a companion to go with him would be forthcoming. It was at this time, apparently, that he became intimate with his former students, Frs. Crespi and Palou, and Rafael Verger. Fr. Palou says the same feeling arose in him at about the same time.

“I did not want to decide the matter without first consulting my beloved father, master and lecturer, Fray Junipero Serra. One day when he came to my cell, and when I was alone, I seized the occasion and unburdened the feeling of my heart, asking him to give me his opinion. When he learned of my intention, he began to shed tears, not of affliction as I first thought, but of joy. Then he said to me: ‘I am the one who intends to make this long journey and I have been sorrowful because I would have no companion for so long a journey, but I would not on that account turn back from my purpose … and just now I resolved to speak to you and invite you to go along on the journey.'”

Fr. Serra then wrote to the administrator for Franciscan affairs in the Indies for permission to go to America. The request was refused, as the quotas from their jurisdiction already had been filled, but it was suggested that they join one of the colleges in Spain, and as members of that college go to the Indies. Fortunately, of 33 Franciscans who had been chosen for the College of San Fernando, five had reconsidered their step for fear of the sea. As a result, there was an opening for both Fr. Serra and Fr. Palou.

After preaching a last sermon from the parish church in Petra, where he had been baptized, Fr. Serra began his farewells, though without disclosing to his aged parents where he was going. He begged forgiveness of the friars, received the blessing of the superior, and was so touched that his speech failed him and he could hardly utter a word. He went about kissing the feet of all the friars, and with Fr. Palou immediately went to the wharf and embarked on an English packet boat for Malaga.

Apparently Fr. Serra had some difficulties on the boat as the captain, an English Protestant, engaged him in theological arguments and threatened to throw the two friars overboard. According to Fr. Palou, the captain at one point held a knife at Fr. Serra’s throat. From Malaga they went to Cadiz where they were joined by Frs. Crespi, Verger and Vicens and sailed from there in August. On board the overcrowded boat were 21 Franciscans and 7 Dominicans. It was a hard voyage across the Atlantic, and 99 days before they reached Veracruz. Fr. Palou wrote that Fr. Serra constantly wore suspended from a chain around his neck a crucifix a Spanish foot in length. Apparently he never took it off during the rest of his life, even while sleeping.

The date of arrival at Veracruz was December 6, 1749. Fr. Serra was now 36 years old, and was to serve in Mexico nineteen years, from 1750 to 1768.

Old Spanish immigration records of the time describe him as swarthy, of medium height, with black eyes and hair. The weakness of his childhood must have long since disappeared, because he engaged with deep fervor in the self-inflicted physical penances that were so common in those days. He endured chest pains all his life as a result of striking himself with stones at the end of his sermons, putting a burning torch to his chest, or scourging himself until the blood ran. He kept long vigils with very little sleep. He never complained of things that came his way and seemed to invite suffering. He was very abstentious, living on herbs, fish, fruit and tortillas, disliking meat but fond of drinking chocolate.

The government had the responsibility of transporting the Franciscan fathers from Veracruz, 270 miles to Mexico City, on mule or horseback, over the same route used by the conquistadores. Because the fathers were weak from their voyage across the sea, the prohibition against riding was not applicable in such conditions. But Fr. Serra received permission to walk with one companion and, though this was not the rainy season, they ran into rains. It was on this long walk that Serra’s feet began to swell with fatigue and mosquito bites, and he received the leg affliction that remained with him to the last day of his life.

At San Fernando College in Mexico City, he was assigned to the directorship of the Novice Master. Delighted, he asked, but was denied, the right to be considered a novice again and to live in a small cell. He was eager then to get into the field, and after five months was allowed to leave for the missions in the Sierra Gorda, several hundred miles north of Mexico City, with Fr. Palou as his companion. It is believed that Fr. Crespi probably went with them. Fr. Serra walked the long route to Jalpan (or Xalpan) despite the fact that his foot was giving him trouble again.

Eventually Fr. Serra was made President of five Sierra Gorda missions. He built the Church of Santiago de Jalpan, which is still in use, and supervised the founding of the four other churches.

He lived the simple life of a dedicated servant of God, ministering to the Indians, and learning their language in order to preach to them in their native tongue and to teach them to act out religious dramas. He helped improve their agriculture and stock farming. Under his guidance the missions became so firmly established that when they were handed over to the secular clergy in 1770, they were considered models of excellence.

After he had been in that region for eight years, leaving only twice to go to Mexico City, he was recalled to San Fernando in 1758, and chosen to go to the San Saba River missions in Texas, which had been opened in 1756. Two of the missionaries had been martyred by Apaches, and Fr. Serra, willing to accept martyrdom like most of the friars, was eager to go, but again he was to be denied his wish as the government said that no more missionaries would be sent until the region had been pacified.

Fr. Serra remained at San Fernando for ten more years, available at all times to be sent to any part of New Spain. An episode that occurred while he was preaching at San Fernando and described by Fr. Palou indicates the method of preaching by Fr. Serra and others of his time.

“During one of his sermons, in imitation of Saint Francis Solanus, to whom he was devoted, he took out a chain and after lowering his habit so as to uncover his back, having exhorted his hearers to penance, he began to scourge himself so violently that the entire congregation broke into tears. Thereupon, a man from the congregation arose and hurriedly went to the pulpit, took the chain from the penitential father, descended from the pulpit and went and stood in the highest part of the sanctuary. Imitating the venerable preacher, he uncovered himself to the waist and began to perform public penance … So violent and merciless were the strokes that, before the whole congregation, he fell to the floor, they judging him dead. After he received the last Sacraments where he fell, he died.”

It was customary when the natives resisted the friars’ appeals, that the missionaries were allowed to scourge themselves in an effort to break hard hearts, though they were cautioned to be extremely prudent to avoid too dramatic methods, and warned that the temperament and psychology of the people, the conditions of the moment, environment and time, all had to be kept in mind in the choice of the means used to bring about repentance.

Fr. Serra’s missionary activity during these years was mostly in south and central Mexico, in what is modem Oaxaca, Morelia, Puebla, and Guadalajara; the region east of Sierra Gorda; and in the province of Mesquital, part of Mazatlan. The work was very exhausting, and the only rest he had was during the time required to go from one town to another or the return to the college after a mission. One time he was poisoned, someone putting rattlesnake venom in the chalice. He refused an antidote but recovered just the same.

Just how much Fr. Serra walked instead of riding is not known, but, as he was an inspired missionary with a sensitive conscience, he probably walked as much as his sore leg would allow. Whatever the method, the travels were long, difficult and painful.

In all this he never lost his humility. He continually strove to encourage his helpers in their troubles and loneliness, was full of energy and drive, and though impatient with routine, took the time to learn to sew and to cut out shirts, pants and blouses for the Indians so that he could instruct them to do things for themselves.

Fr. Serra was away from Mexico City when he was selected as president or superior of the Baja Missions, but when recalled he accepted, and with fifteen others said farewell to the College of San Fernando. When he arrived at Loreto on April 1, 1768, he was fifty-five years of age. What was the situation faced by Spain in which he was to play such an important part?

In this period the glory of the Spanish empire was fading fast. The spirit of conquest and adventure was almost dead. The long struggle of Spain, England and France for eastern North America, which saw five European wars, largely was over. Westward, Spain had managed to save Texas, and she occupied half of Louisiana as a buffer to hold back the English, and later the Americans; but Alta California was becoming a new scene of international struggle. On the east coast great waves of migrations of English, German, Swiss, Scotch and Irish had given the British colonies a population of more than a million and a half, and they were beginning to get restless and talk of independence. The Spanish colonies in most of the New World were sinking into stagnation, the missionary zeal had abated somewhat, the mystery of a northern Atlantic-Pacific passage had lost its allure, and no new fleets had been fitted out and sent up the coast for more than a century and a half. The fear that some day the English might appear from the northeast to seize California and harass the entire Pacific coast were not strong enough to arouse the Spanish from their apathy. However, Spain suddenly was to experience a partial awakening of the old fervor. This was brought about by the threat of Russia.

The Russian threat was not a new one. The explorations of the Russians along the Alaskan coast from 1741 to 1765 were fairly well known to the Spanish. The Russians for many years had coasted along the shores of the Sea of Okhotsk, until Peter I became fired with a desire to know what was beyond the sea and whether Asia and America were connected, or separated by water. It wasn’t until after his death, however, that on February 5, 1725, Capt. Vitus Bering left on the first of two expeditions sponsored by Catherine I. By the end of five years he had located and charted the eastern Siberian shore, located and named St. Lawrence Island and the Diomede Islands in the Bering Strait between Siberia and Alaska, and entered the Arctic Ocean, establishing the fact that Asia and America were separate continents. After that, he sailed to Alaska and discovered the Aleutian Islands. While the expedition ended in tragedy and Bering was killed, the sea otter skins brought back by the survivors started a rush to the Aleutian Islands.

The Russians were to develop a profitable trade in furs, mostly with China. In the reign of Catherine 11, 1729 to 1796, the first permanent Russian settlement in Alaska was established on Kodiak Island, and Sitka was founded as the capital in 1799. Eventually, the great Russian fur monopoly was to be ruled by Aleksandre Baranov, who gradually extended it down the coast and founded a settlement at Fort Ross in Alta California in 1812.

Long before the Russians had gone as far south as the region of San Francisco, the danger was beginning to be recognized by Spain, and on top of that more ships of Great Britain and the American colonies were venturing into the North Pacific.

In the more than 160 years that had passed since Sebastian Vizcaino mapped the California coast, Spain, as we have seen, had failed to heed the pleadings of the missionaries to colonize Alta California, and had failed to possess and use any of the California ports for the relief of the Manila Galleons, though always intending to do so at some future date. Nothing was done until the reign of Carlos III, who, at last, was aroused to some kind of belated action.

The official record or diario of the expedition ordered to colonize California reads: “The High Government of Spain being informed of the repeated attempts of a foreign nation upon the northern coasts of California with aims by no means favorable to the Monarchy and its interests, the King gave orders to the Marques de Croix, his Viceroy and Captain General in Nueva Espana, that he should take effective measures to guard that part of his dominions from all invasion and insult.”

Spain, well aware of her neglect and failures, was looking back now. In some measure the recognition and honor which Hernan Cortes had so sought in life was beginning to come to him in death. The plan for the establishment of a government for Baja California and parts of northern Mexico recalled that “if since the glorious conquests which the great Hernan Cortes made … effort had been made by his successors … to carry out the lofty designs of that hero, the light of the Gospel and the supremacy of the August Kings of Spain would have reached even to the farthest limits, not yet known, of this immense continent. But as the spirit of activity and of conquest was extinguished with the life of that inimitable man, with his death came to an end the rapid advances which he made in this New World…”

Jose de Galvez, the Spanish inspector general already in Mexico to inspect and reform the administration of New Spain, was given the job of planning an expedition to occupy and hold Monterey, which was known through Vizcaino’s report; San Diego was to be an intermediate base between it and Loreto. A combination of soldiers and settlers was to hold the country, with missionaries to convert the Indians.

Galvez was to be assisted by Don Gaspar de Portola, Capt. Fernando Rivera y Moncada, commander of the leather-jackets at Loreto, and Fathers Serra and Palou. The instructions were clear and explicit. Portola was to be titular head of the expedition. Fr. Serra was to head the missionaries. Lt. Pedro Fages was to be chief of the military expedition going by sea and was to retain command of the soldiers on land until the arrival of Portola. The ships San Carlos and San Antonio were to take the supplies, 25 Catalonian soldiers who had embarked from Cadiz, Spain, and part of the colonists by sea to San Diego. Portola and Rivera were to lead a land expedition in two sections. A third ship was to follow with additional supplies. Saint Joseph was designated the official patron saint of the expedition. Fr. Serra would go on to Monterey while Fr. Parron remained at San Diego to establish a mission there.

At a junta held at San Blas on May 16th, 1768, a plan of action was adopted and signed by participants: “In consequence of all this, the Illustrious Senor Don Joseph de Galvez, with the approval of all, agreed and resolved that there be made ready at once all the necessary supplies of provision, rigging, sails and whatever else is thought useful and indispensable to be put aboard the two aforementioned new brigantines which are to undertake the voyage to the harbor of Monterrey by leaving the coast and the chain of islands behind and undertaking the voyage on the high seas, thus to reach the proper latitude as far as the winds of the season will permit so as not to experience the delays, misfortunes and sicknesses which were suffered by the expeditions of Don Sebastian Vizcaino, & others made during the last two centuries.”

Both skippers had the reports of Vizcaino as to the latitude in which the port of San Diego was to be found, but they proved to be in error, and, despite all the precautions, the experiences of those going on the San Antonio and San Carlos were to turn out far worse than those of the earlier explorers.

There were many things to do in the months that preceded the start of the expeditions. The task of taking over the Jesuit missions had to be completed, and the question of authority over them between the Franciscans and the military caused some friction. Though no hidden gold or sacks of pearls had been found, stories of riches buried in some forgotten mission were to persist- into the 20th Century. What little wealth the missions had was to be in part confiscated to help the supplying of the expeditions and the establishing of the new missions in Alta California.

Portola had volunteered to lead the expeditions, and well he might; the governorship of Baja California had little to hold a man of his ability, tact and courage. He had the task of removing the Jesuits, and from this we learn much about his character. Fr. Baegert wrote that “gratitude as well as respect for his good name compels me to state here that Governor Don Gaspar Portola … treated the Jesuits, considering the circumstances, with respect, honor, politeness, and friendliness. He never caused the least annoyance, sincerely assuring us how painful it was to him to have to execute such a commission. On several occasions tears came to his eyes, and he was surprised to find Europeans willing to live and die in such a country.”

Portola obviously had no intention of living and dying in Baja California. He was an unmarried soldier of noble rank, born in Catalonia, and had seen service with the Spanish army in Italy and Portugal. His appointment as governor of Baja California was supposed to have been a promotion, but in the view of Fr. Baegert it amounted to exile: “His punishment … could not have been more severe (except death, the gallows, or prison for life) had he sworn a false oath to the king or proved a traitor to his country … His field chaplain, Don Fernandez, a secular priest, wanted to leave the country as soon as he saw that there was no one to speak to all day long and nothing to do but sit in his hermitage, to gaze at the blue sky and the green sea, or to play a piece on his guitar.”

An active and devout man, Portola proved to be an able organizer and a good leader, preferring democratic procedure to arbitrary direction, and got along well with all the missionaries. He expressed continual concern over the health of Fr. Serra and doubt whether he could stand such a long and hazardous journey; he worried lest Fr. Serra’s infected leg might cause delays and difficulties.

But he could not prevail against Fr. Serra’s sense of dedication. “Despite the fact that I remonstrated with him,” commented Portola to Fr. Palou, “and pointed out the delay it would cause to the expedition if he should become incapacitated along the road, I was unable to convince him to remain and have you go in his place. When I spoke to him of the matter, his consistent answer was that he trusted in God to give him the strength to enable him to reach San Diego and Monterey.”

The year was 1769. The expedition was divided into four sections. The San Carlos sailed from La Paz on January 9th and the San Antonio on February 15th. The land expeditions started from a gathering place named Velicata, near the present site of El Rosario, in northern Baja California, where a new mission was to be established. Capt. Rivera and Fr. Crespi left on March 24th, and Capt. Portola and Fr. Serra followed on May 15th.