The Journal of San Diego History
Fall 1971, Volume 17, Number 4
James E Moss, Editor

Book Review

David J. Weber, Book Review Editor

A Letter of Junípero Serra to the Reverend Father Preacher Fray Fermín Francisco de Lasuen: a Bicentennial Discovery. Translated and edited by the Reverend Francis J. Weber. (Boston: David R. Godine, 1970.) 10 pages. $5.00.

Reviewed by Fr. Francis F. Guest, O.F.M., professor of Church history at the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California. He received his doctorate in Hispanic American history from the University of Southern California in 1961, and is currently doing research in the history of Spanish California. He has just completed writing a biography of Fermin Francisco de Lasuen, Second Father President of the California Missions, 1785-1803, which will be published by the Academy of American Franciscan History.

Between 1778 and 1784, the year of his death, Junípero Serra, President of the missions of Alta California, carried on an extensive correspondence with Father Fermin Francisco de Lasuen, the principal missionary at San Diego. So far, archives have yielded twenty-three of Serra’s letters to Lasuen and one from Lasuen to Serra. The document here translated is a welcome addition to the collection made by the Academy of American Franciscan History in Washington, D.C.

Serra had many reasons for writing to Lasuen. First of all, Lasuen had, next to the presidency of the missions itself, the most difficult and demanding task in the province. San Diego was the poorest of the missions at this particular time, and the Indians there were restive, rancorous, and rebellious. Secondly, Lasuen, until December of 1780, was undecided whether or not he would continue as a missionary in California. Thirdly, Serra, it would seem, was not only answering his friend’s requests for guidance in matters of mission administration; he was preparing him, from 1780 to 1784, as a possible successor to himself in the office of the presidency of the missions. For these reasons, and others of lesser moment, Serra’s letters to Lasuen make interesting reading for students of early California history.

The present letter, like all the others, deals mostly with problems of mission administration. The first difficulty Serra takes up, namely, a disagreement between Lasuen and Jose Francisco de Ortega, the presidio commander, about the price of wheat, is explained clearly and at greater length in Serra’s letter to Governor Felipe de Neve for April 18, 1780 (confer Antonine Tibesar, O.F. M., Writings of Junípero Serra, III, 429-439). The second item Serra treated was Lasuen’s request for a vacation of two weeks at Mission San Juan Capistrano. It is interesting to observe that, even in those rugged old days, missionaries were allowed short periods of rest and relaxation.

The rest of the letter deals with the provisions of a will and with the successful harvests of the missions. Serra frequently congratulated Lasuen on his agricultural achievements. And well he might. The praise was richly deserved. Although Lasuen did not succeed in making Mission San Diego self-supporting, he accomplished much more than his predecessors had in this direction. The busy, smiling, roly-poly Basque had a green thumb.

Students of Spanish California history owe Father Weber a debt of gratitude for making this letter of Serra’s available in English translation.