Saturday, April 25, 2015

A biography of Father Junipero Serra

I just finished reading Junipero Serra: California's Founding Father by Steven M. Hackel. Serra (1713 to 1784) is regarded in California as one of its founding fathers. A Franciscan priest, he is expected to be formally declared a saint during the visit of Pope Francis to the United States later this year; it would be the first time that the formal recognition of sainthood had been performed in the United States.

One impression from the book is the  arrogance of the imperial peoples. The Spanish claimed a huge chunk of the Americas, ignoring the people who were already there; claiming Alta California, they worried about the Russians,, but not about the sovereign rights of the California Indians.

The U.S. Americans proclaimed "Manifest Destiny" almost as soon as they possibly could, bought a big swath of North America from the French, and took another big swath from the emerging Mexican state. The Spanish Catholics had little doubt that theirs was the only true religion. (What, you say that those traits are still found in American culture and foreign policy?)

I think it useful to describe the book in terms of three sections.


Serra was born in Mallorca, an island off the coast of Spain, the largest of the Balearic Islands. He grew up there, joined the Franciscan Order there (where he took the name Junipero -- Juniper in English -- after one of the followers of Saint Francis), studied and taught there, received his doctorate in Philosophy there, and was ordained a priest there.

I knew very little about the island before reading the book except that it is now favored by British tourists seeking to escape the winter weather of their islands. Author Hackel provides a brief history of the island and descriptions of life there during the 18th century. I found that discussion interesting and useful.

Mexico/New Spain

Serra volunteered to serve as a missionary priest in Mexico -- then known as New Spain. He made the long and dangerous journey there, traveling first from Mallorca to Spain. then across Spain. and then to embark on what was in the 1700s a long and somewhat perilous sea journey, and then by land to Mexico City -- again a somewhat dangerous trip.

In New Spain he first served as a teacher in Querétaro. He also conducted what sound to me like revival meetings, traveling around the country to hold meetings at which he spoke to encourage Catholics to renew their faith and live by the dictums of that faith. Later he was a leader of the Franciscan missions in Sierra Gorda, where for some nine years he truly experienced the difficulties of converting Indians to Catholicism and bringing them to mission life.


Statue of Father Serra in the
Mission San Diego de Alcalá
In 1768, after the Jesuits had been expelled from their missions in Baja California, the Franciscans took over their administration, seeking to save the missionary effort. Father Serra became the Father President for the Franciscan missionaries involved in the effort.

Serra is best known, at least in the United States, as a founding father of California. The year after the Franciscans took control of the missions in Baja California, the colonial government decided to move into Alta California (what is now basically the state of California) in order to block any potential effort to further colonize the region by the Russians. It was decided by the government to send an expedition with two purposes:
  • to establish pueblos in key locations with military presence, and
  • to establish missions to convert the Indian population to Catholicism.
The Franciscans were again put in charge of the missionary effort, and Father Junipero Serra was again made the head of the effort. Father Serra himself baptized a large number of converts; after he was granted the right to perform the sacrament of confirmation (usually reserved for bishops of the Catholic church) he also confirmed thousands of Indians (as having achieved a mature understanding of their faith), Since his landing in Mexico he had suffered from leg problems, and in the last years of his missionary work was in severe ill health.

Internet source for map
Serra and the Indians

Steven Hackel writes that there were 310,000 Indians in Alta California when Serra started creating missions there. (I don't know how an accurate estimate could have been made.) Serra sought to gather Indians to live in the mission communities, and indeed to learn Spanish farming techniques to grow their own food. Hackel notes that since the Indians had no immunity to the communicable diseases brought by the Spanish to the New World, and since the missions were in occasional contact by ship with Mexico, epidemics arrived from time to time, spreading rapidly through the relatively dense mission communities of Indians; the mortality was terrible.

I wonder whether the missions are especially to blame for the destruction of Indian culture and the decimation of Indian populations in California. In the 19th century, a large number of land grants were given in Alta California by the newly independent government of Mexico. I suspect that the result was a loss of the traditional lands of the California Indians, and that event in turn would have led to high mortality rates, especially as some would have joined communities of hacienda workers at the newly established haciendas. With the 1849 gold rush, the influx of U.S. and foreign migrants took a further  huge toll on the Indians.

I also know from long experience as a development professional that many of my efforts and those of my colleagues failed. We had hundreds of years more experience to learn from than did Father Serra, and I sympathize with the failures he must have encountered in his long career. Building new, successful communities that involve major cultural change by the people who are to live in those communities is hard, and it is marked with major failures. I give more credit to Father Serra for trying and trying again after failures, than I criticize him for those failures.

Was Serra Saintly?

Serra was a Franciscan, and accepted the simple life style and oath of poverty of that order; indeed, Hackel indicates that Serra may have been even more devote than most of his fellow Franciscans. He certainly took large risks to become a missionary, abandoning what would have been a safer and perhaps less severe life in Mallorca. In the management of his missions he clearly drove himself very hard -- to the point of illness and even death.

I think Serra believed that only Catholics had a chance of going to heaven and living in eternal bliss with God; he would have believed that the Indians of Sierra Gorda and California in their native state violated the first commandment, putting false gods before the God of Abraham and Jesus Christ; moreover, the Indians would have been violating the ten commandments in many other ways. Serra would have believed that while all people sinned, only Catholics through the Church's sacraments could repent, have their sins forgiven, and finally die in a state of grace. Thus I think he believed that while Christians had the chance of heaven, heathen Indians were doomed to the other place for all eternity.

Assuming I am right, Serra would have believed that only the conversion of the Indians to Catholicism could save their souls and give them the chance of going to heaven. Moreover, he would have believed that their chance of heaven would be greatly enhanced living at a mission where they could take the sacraments on a regular basis and benefit from the teaching and guidance of the missionaries. Moreover, I think he would have believed that an Indian that continued to live in the traditional way with his/her tribe (or who left the mission to return to tribal life) even having converted to Catholicism, was in great peril of lapsing from the Catholic religion and losing out on eternity in heaven.

Thus I think Serra was willing to brave dangers, undergo sickness and injury, and live a simple and often uncomfortable life in order to grant the gift of eternal heavenly life to others. I think he believed that he managed to do so directly to thousands he baptized and/or confirmed and indirectly to many more through his missionary work and his leadership in the creation of missions. His companions and colleagues as well as many others thought his life and accomplishments to be saintly.

It is a commonplace statement in the study of history that one should not apply the moral standards of today to the people of the past. It is at least important to try to understand what those people believed and the roots of their behavior. Even today, many people think Junipero Serra went to heaven for his behavior during his life, and indeed pray to him for help in their own lives.

Final Comments

My parents and I moved to California when I was in the third grade and I grew up there. So I studied Junipero Serra in grammer school, visited missions, and was familiar with El Camino Real (the royal highway) which connected the missions and is still honored in markers on California roads. I lived for years within 20 or 30 miles of Mission San Juan Capistrano and knew about the clock like arrival of the swallows there (commemorated in a poem and song).

I also live about the same distance from Hemet, the site of the annual Ramona padgent; Ramona, the heroin of a California novel adapted in several media, was an orphan of mixed European-Indian ancestry, who was raised by Spanish foster parents. and who fell in love with an Indian man. The story, a tragedy, is set just after the Mexican American War.

Perhaps more to the point, I was trained as a Peace Corps Volunteer to work with the Mapuche Indians in the south of Chile. As part of that training I spent a month in a town of Tarascan Indians in Mexico. There I got the chance not only to know some of the people of the town, but to visit with the town priest, the latest in a hundreds of years long chain of priests serving that community; he showed me the church records going back hundreds of years.

Tupac Katari, Ayo Ayo's most famouscitizen, leader of an Indian revoltin the 1780s.
Much later I got to visit Ayo Ayo, a town of Aymara in altiplano Bolivia. There too I got to meet some of the people, and I got to visit the church which was also hundreds of years old. The priest there (also continuing a long history of ministry to the Indians) showed me church records of births, marriages and funerals going back centuries.

I did not get to work with the Mapuche as a PCV, but my friends who did learned how hard development is for Indian communities. I had my own failures both as a PCV and later.

I have come to have a lot of respect for American Indians and their (many different) cultures. While I understand that cultures change, as Spanish and Mexican culture have changed, I also have some caution about the cultural change I advocate.

Clearly the 37 million people who live in the state of California today arrived as a tidal wave that would not be resisted by the native California Indians. Indeed, the modern Californians are healthier, longer lived, and better educated than the peoples that they displaced. Still.....

In conclusion, let me say that I learned a lot from this book, both about Father Serra and about the world in which he lived. The book is short and quite readable, but also well researched and well documented. Perhaps most important, it advanced some very interesting questions that made me think and were worthy of that work.

  • Here is a post I made to provide background information for those reading about Junipero Serra
  • Here is a brief article by author Hackel on Father Serra. 
  • Here is a video news report triggered by the Pope's recent announcement that Father Serra is to be recognized as a saint; Hackel is included as an expert.

No comments: