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Father Junipero Serra
November 25, 2013, 05:00 AM By Darold Fredricks

Photo courtesy of the San Mateo County History Museum
Father Junipero Serra, builder of the California Mission.

Born in 1713 in Petra, Majorca, Spain, Father Junipero Serra entered the Alcantarine Franciscans, a reform movement of the order and proved to be a brilliant student of philosophy. He was appointed lector of philosophy before his ordination to the Catholic priesthood.

In 1749, at the age of 27, Serra journeyed to New Spain (Mexico) to serve the church. During his walk to Mexico City, he was bitten by a mosquito. It festered after he scratched it and it never healed, giving him considerable troubles all of his life. The Franciscans had a rule that a friar “must not ride on horseback or mule unless compelled by the manifest necessity or infirmity.” Although this was no longer a necessity, Serra nevertheless felt he must enforce it; hence he walked everywhere while in the New World. Serra became the new president of the Missions in Mexico and developed a unique method of preaching the penance to his parishioners. He flagellated himself for their sins until they cried for him to stop.

The Jesuit Order had represented Spain in the New World but the Spanish officials became suspicious that they no longer had the Spanish interest and desires of how things should be run. King Carlos III ordered them forcibly expelled from New Spain on Feb. 3, 1768 and Serra became “Father Presidente” and was ordered to take charge of Alta California. On March 12, 1768, he went with Governor Gaspar de Portola to settle missions to the north. Father Serra, nearing 60 years of age now, continued practicing the rule of not riding a horse although he suffered great pain and could hardly walk. Portola pleaded with him to ride a mule, but Serra refused. Eventually, Portola persuaded him to ride on a stretcher which the soldiers carried. To develop the mission at San Diego, the Spanish sent three ships to supply the expedition. Two of the ships arrived at the designated site but the third one was never seen again. When the ships arrived, the crews were in terrible shape. Most of the crews had acquired scurvy and, out of the 90 men sent in the ships, only eight soldiers and eight sailors were able to work. Serra and Portola took three months to trek the lower Baha to San Diego and when they arrived they found an almost everyone living in a makeshift hospital. Due to the lack of men, Portola took only half of the men he needed to reach Monterey and he left Father Serra at San Diego to found the first mission there — San Diego de Alcala. The San Diego mission set the prototype for the establishing all of the missions. A large wooden cross was erected, mass was said and the local Indians were called with the ringing of a bell and gifts of beads, etc. were given to them. Trouble followed this ritual at San Diego. The Indians resented the mission being erected on their property and it was attacked within a month. After a year of residence by the Spanish, not one Indian had been baptized.

Portola left on his expedition up the coast of California and, by November 1769, his group rested in San Pedro Valley (Pacifica). They had not recognized the Monterey Bay and returned back to San Diego somewhat embarrassed. In 1770, Portola returned to the site the explorer Vizcaino had in the early 1600s designated as Monterey and, when Father Serra arrived, the site became the home of another mission — Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo. This was designated to become the northern most mission that would allow Spain to own and have control of California rather than allowing the Russians to claim it. It was to become the seat of government for Spain and the father-president’s residence until it was changed to Santa Barbara in 1803. The soldiers, however, were more of a problem than Father Serra imagined and, within a year, the mission was rebuilt a few miles away in Carmel. It was completed in 1797. It has gone through eight transformations. In 1931, an extensive renovation of the church was done and, in 1933, the church was elevated to the status of a parish church.

Once Father Serra got settled in Carmel, many more missions were started. Originally, they were to be settled where a priest could walk to each one in a days’ journey, hence the third mission was San Antonio de Padua (near Jolon). The third mission was settled in a spot where three roads met — at San Gabriel Arcangel. Many more followed when funds and Indian settlements were sufficient for a mission.

Father Serra faced many difficulties in his duties as “Father Presidente” due to the friction that arose between the military leaders and the church. Serra’s stated policies were “that spiritual fathers should punish their sons, the Indians, with blows as old as the conquest of the Americas.” Their wards should be treated like children, including the use of corporal punishment. The women were placed in locked barracks at night and separated from the men. This didn’t bode well with the males. Once the Indians entered the mission, they could not leave and they had to follow the rules of the priests without question. The soldiers brought diseases with them to the New World and they spread unabated. Serra’s policy with the soldiers was “stay away from the Indians” although the policy was difficult to enforce. He had very little control over appointments of Mission administrators and he had to go to Mexico City to state his cases for changes. Remember that travel was slow after the Yuma Indians cut off the quickest land route to Mexico City, and administrators there lived on a different timeframe. The missions were not their main concern and funding dried up all too often and the priests worked on meager funds.

The aim of the Spanish to “civilize the Indians” did not succeed.

Father Serra died Aug. 28, 1784 at the age of 70 and is buried at Mission San Carlos Borromeio. He was beatified by Pope John II on Sept. 25, 1988.

Rediscovering the Peninsula by Darold Fredricks appears in the Monday edition of the Daily Journal.



Tags: serra, mission, father, portola, diego, spain,

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