The Journal of San Diego History
Winter 1986, Volume 32, Number 1
Thomas L. Scharf, Editor

Book Review

Raymond Starr, Book Review Editor

Junipero Serra: The Illustrated Story of the Franciscan Founder of California’s Missions.

By Don DeNevi and Noel Francis Moholy. New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1985. Maps. Iflastrations. Bibliography. Index. 224 Pages. $14.95.

Reviewed by Raymond Starr, Professor of History at San Diego State University and a member of the Committee to Preserve Mission San Diego de Alcala.

Don DeNevi, a popular writer, and Noel Francis Moholy, a Franciscan priest, have produced a readable biography of the man many see as the “founding father” of California. Called lunipero Serra: The Illustrated Story of the Franciscan Founder of California’s Missions, the book is primarily drawn from Francisco Palou’s contemporary life of Serra and Maynard J. Geiger’s two volume Life and Times of Fray Junipero Serra, O.F.M. (1959). As a result, the book has both the merits and the defects of those two works.

They tell the traditional story of the man whose “name is written on many pages of the West Coast’s early history.” In the first third of the book, the authors show Serra’s modest origins in Majorca, his quick rise up the church’s academic ladder, and esteem in which he was held in his native land. DeNevi and Moholy also trace Serra’s decision to come to the New World as a missionary, his experiences in Mexico, and the background to his California phase. They appropriately devote the remaining two-thirds of the book to the final fifteen years of Serra’s life, when he exercised his “grand and stubborn vision” to establish Spanish civilization in Alta California.

The coverage of the California years is conventional, but clear. It shows Serra’s determination and zeal, his endurance of personal hardships, and his effectiveness. The authors also delineate Serra’s tumultous relationships with the military (and sometimes civil) authorities as he tried to protect the interests of his missions. Throughout the book, DeNevi and Moholy depict Serra’s character, his piety, his utilization of self-punishment and his devotion to the teachings of the church. The readers of Junipero Serra will come to believe that they understand the man and his motivations.

Although effective in some ways, the book is seriously flawed in others. To some extent, the flaws reflect the inadequate job done by the authors.

One of the problems is that the book is an uncritical, romanticized prochurch book. It represents the church point of view and fails to raise any issues critical of Serra or the church. It is written with the acceptance (and the expectation that readers will share the acceptance) of church assumptions, beliefs, and values, and with the expectation that readers will be familiar with church ritual. It is a book one would expect to show the imprimatur of the church and to have been published by a church press, such as the Academy of American Franciscan History. It is surprising to find such a book coming from an old-line, relatively conservative secular press as Harper and Row.

One of the reasons Junipero Serra came out that way is that there are special problems with the sources of Serra’s life-problems the authors did not overcome. One problem is that much of the evidence about Serra is seriously biased and can hardly be taken at face value. The single most used piece of evidence scholars use in writing about Serra is Francisco Palou’s work. It was written by a friend and disciple, for the purpose of glorifying Serra and the missions. It includes thoughts attributed to Serra, which shows Palou’s life to be to some extent a fabrication of the author. There is abundant other material to draw upon in writing about Serra, but DeNevi and Moholy have not researched, evaluated, questioned and analyzed their sources, so they give us essentially a summary of Palou’s worshipful account of Serra, as filtered through Maynard Geiger’s hardly critical biography.

The other side of the coin is that the authors did not research and synthesize all the secondary scholarship available on Serra and his story. They utilized primarily church related literature and did not include results of the last forty years of research by historians, anthropologists and others on the topic. The most important example of this omission can be seen in their failure to describe fully the importance of Serra and the mission system to the native populations. Since the 1940s, a large body of literature has appeared which has noted that the missions were brutal, destroyed individual freedom, caused high death and low reproductive rates, and eroded the culture and identity of the Indians. Indian opposition to the missions has also been firmly proven. DeNevi and Moholy ignore all of this. They talk about baptisms, confirmations and happy Indians; they give us almost nothing of the darker side of the mission-Indian story. No one has suggested that Serra personally mistreated Indians; quite the contrary, the consensus is that he was sympathetic and genuinely concerned for them. If however, the authors are going to give Serra most of the credit for establishing European civilization in California-then they have to also discuss Serra’s responsiblity for the destructive elements of that European intrusion.

Taken as a whole, then, it can be said that DeNevi and Moholy have produced a readable book from the church point of view which will remind you why the church is considering Serra for canonization. They have not however, produced a story representing a critical analysis of sources and all of the available scholarship. It is a shame, because one of the most important men in American and European history certainly deserves the best.