California Missions – Junepero Serra And His Coadjutors

TO the indomitable energy of Galvez, the California Missions owed much, but his work was largely initial. It required the steady, patient, constant labors of men on the ground, to see that the plans so carefully formulated were carried out. From St. Francis down, the chief aim of the members of his order has been to help mankind. Other men might work for honor or glory or fame or riches or power, but their highest endeavor was to ” go about doing good.” Self-renunciation, a prodigality of giving of one’s self for others, were the chief means of salvation to them. Not alone by praying in a cell, doing penance, and reciting prayers were their souls to be saved, but by yielding to the Spirit of the Divine One of whom one of His persecutors cried: ” He saved others, Himself he cannot save.” Oh ! for more of this divine unselfishness in those who stand as the ambassadors of God. What the world needs is men who will spend themselves freely to benefit others. Life, example, unselfish work are more effective than preaching, and many more hearts have been reached by the devotion of a sister of charity to the needy sick than by the eloquence of a cardinal.

Francis of Assisi believed this with all his soul. The order that bears his name has always been more or less full of the same spirit. In Junipero Serra St. Francis had a worthy son and follower. All through life he was simple, single-hearted, enthusiastic, a firm believer in Holy Church, with never a doubt as to its mission, and with a practical turn to his mind that was bound to make a success of everything he undertook. A firm believer in miracles, yet he knew how to plan for a long campaign of hard work with little result ; like a child in dealing with Indians, yet hard-headed enough to circumvent the plottings of indifferent and selfish politicians. This was the man chosen by his college of San Fernando, in the City of Mexico, to carry out the plans of Galvez for the christianizing of the aborigines of the new country of California.

He was born on the 24th of November, 1713, at Petra, in the Island of Majorca. His parents were devout Catholics, and the boy being of the gentle, obedient, naturally good kind, it was borne in upon them that he was especially fitted to be a priest; therefore they early sent him to Palma, the capital, there to be under the wise and benign influences of a priest of the cathedral. This devout man so led the impressionable mind of the lad that when he was seventeen years old he applied to the Franciscan Convent to be allowed to enter, and on the 14th of September, 1730, he made his profession as a novitiate. During the year of his probation he was peculiarly attracted to the lives of the missionaries to the Indians. Something in the abandon of enthusiasm with which these men gave up all the world holds dear for the salvation of the souls of these poor savages so appealed to the large-eyed, gentle-hearted, earnest-souled youth that, then and there, his vocation for life was settled. It is a remarkable proof of the power of the printed word over the very inmost soul of an ardent and impressionable youth.

On the 15th of September, 1731, he took his final vows and assumed the name of Junipero, out of love for the jovial and pure-hearted companion of St. Francis; he of whom the saint once said, ” O that I had a forest of such junipers.” Here was another sapling just growing in one of the nurseries he had established that was to lead other fervent souls to a like remark.

Before his profession Junipero writes that he was small and somewhat puny, but now he immediately sprang up, broadened out, and became well and strong. Sent to an-other college to study philosophy and theology, he worked so diligently that he was soon made a professor, and received the degree of Doctor of Divinity. He began to preach also, and the simple-minded fervor of such an implicit believer, who was yet so learned, combined with the clear-headed way he had of looking at things, soon brought him great fame as a pulpit orator. As a teacher he was equally successful. Indeed the pathway of fame and honor was clearly before him. He had but to open the door himself, and enter it. The Church of Rome has never been niggardly in its gifts to its able sons, and here was one who soon could have had pretty nearly all he might have asked. Yet he wilfully and willingly turned away from the shining pathway, and begged to be sent away to a dark and unknown road, where trials, difficulties, dangers, and possible death awaited him. He longed to be a missionary to the heathen. The theology of Dante was a real, terrible, absorbing truth to him. Only to such a belief was such work as his possible. Hell, with its dire circles of horror and terror for those who were unbelievers in the Christ he worshipped, yawned before the feet of these untamed and rude natives. If they should be trained into a knowledge of the Church and its saving ordinances by an apostolic guide, they could attain a new hereafter. Purgatory was open, and from thence, duly purged from their sin and ignorance, they might climb into the blessed regions of Paradise. Felicity untold, then, to that man who would brave their savagery, dare their treachery, love them even in their unlovableness, and thus lead them into the fold of the Church.

Who should do it? Should he, Serra, with his soul athirst for great deeds, full of bravery and heroism, stand by, in order to listen to the applause of the civilized world as his words of burning eloquence pleased cultured ears, and let some half-hearted, half-in-earnest priest go out to these degraded savages? No! The greater their need and danger, the greater the necessity for speed, power, and earnestness in the one who should go to them. So, begging to be allowed to leave the world and its vain applause, society and its caresses, civilization and its luxurious comforts, casting all these things behind him, he gladly, joyfully, and yet seriously requested his superiors to allow him to go as a missionary.

” Narrow,” some may say he was ! ” His theological conceptions crude and bigoted! ” So were Dante’s, but that did not prevent him from giving the Divine Comedy to the world. And Milton, too, cannot be designated as ” broad,” yet Paradise Lost will live when many of the valueless expressions of these days have sunken into the ” backward of time ” and been forgotten.

During his college days his close companions were Palou, Verges, Crespi, and Vincens, who were all more or less dominated by the spirit of Serra, and when, finally, the authorities allowed him to join a band of missionaries that was gathering at Cadiz, ready to go to Mexico, Palou, without hesitation, set out with him. And when, at Cadiz, he learned that three of those who were there desired to withdraw he blessed God for the opportunity and immediately begged for his other three companions to be sent in their place. This was granted, and the five, after a fearfully hard voyage of ninety-nine days, in which they were reduced to great straits for want of water, arrived at Vera Cruz. On the voyage Serra’s boundless devotion and enthusiasm would not let him rest. He recited the mass daily and spent long hours in the night hearing confessions. He took the scarcity of water as a training for the future, and naively remarked when asked if he did not suffer with thirst : ” Not specially, since I have found out the secret of not feeling thirsty, which is, to eat little and talk less, so as not to waste the saliva.”

Another proof of his determination to harden himself for his chosen work is given in the fact that he refused to avail himself of the transportation provided from Vera Cruz to the City of Mexico, but asked to be allowed to walk. When permission was given, he and a companion, without provisions or guide, started forth on that tramp of a hundred leagues, relying solely upon Providence and the goodness of the people whom they should meet. It was such simple devotion combined with practical good sense that developed the man. I say practical good sense — not common-sense, for this and that are quite different. Here was a man preparing himself for hardships that he might have to undergo involuntarily, by voluntarily entering into them. He was putting himself into training, just as an athlete does for a test of strength, and therein lay his practical good sense. He was educating himself, by overcoming obstacles now, to bravely and fearlessly meet the obstacles he knew he might expect in later life.

It was on the last day of 1749 that he gratefully rendered thanks for his safe journey at the altar of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and the next morning, New Year’s Day, 1750, he entered the portals of the College of San Fernando, of which he was ultimately to become the most famous and honored son.

To recount his life for the next seventeen years is to tell of work well and devoutly performed, a Mission successfully conducted for several years among the Indians of the Sierra Gorda, and others elsewhere, in places difficult of access ; a veritable apostle wherever he went. He was appointed to the Missions then being founded on the San Saba, in Texas, but for some reason could not go, and those who were sent in his stead were brutally murdered. The coincidence seems like a special providence. God had important work for him to do and was just ” saving his light to spend.”

And when the expulsion of the Jesuits occurred, then was the time. God unclasped His hand and let his ” glow-worm ” out to give light to those who needed it. Serra was at once chosen by the college authorities to take charge of the Lower California Missions, and, as we have seen, he and Galvez got along so well together, that Serra started for the new California with his good wishes and promises of material assistance. It is not to be wondered at that, when his superior handed him his commission, tears prevented any reply. Here was a larger fulfilment of his hopes than he had ever dared to expect. To minister was to be blessed; but to minister himself and to be able to call upon others to minister where he could not go, — this was to multiply himself many times, and it was bliss indeed.

Serra’s life in California is largely the record of its early history, and this has been set forth, with as large degree of fulness as space allowed, in the pages of this book. He died at San Carlos, August 28, 1784, and was buried in the Mission he loved so well, in the beautiful Carmelo Valley.

Palou now became the president, pro termpore, in obedience to the expressed wish of his brother friars, and yet in the records not a single act of his as president can be found. He was a fellow student with Serra and Crespi, and they remained warm friends through life. When Serra left the peninsula to take charge of the organization of the Missions of Alta California, Palou was given the official care of the Missions, and he it was who handed them over finally to the Dominicans when the partition was made. This was in May, 1773. By the end of August he was in San Diego and a little later in Monterey, and when Serra went to Mexico, Palou was acting president in his absence. At the time of Serra’s death Palou was contemplating retiring to the seclusion of his convent of San Fernando in the City of Mexico. He remained, however, mainly engaged in writing his ” Life of Serra,” until Lasuen received his appointment in September, 1785. In February, 1786, he reached Mexico, and July 18 he was elected its guardian. It is supposed that he died before 1790, though there is some uncertainty in the matter, which later research will doubtless clear up.

Undoubtedly the worthy successor to Serra’s mantle was Padre Fermin Francisco de Lasuen, born in Vitoria, Spain, and who, as one of Serra’s coworkers in the peninsula went up to Velicata in March, 1769, to bless Rivera’s expedition as it started for the founding of San Diego. His first work in Alta California was at San Gabriel, where he served from December, 1773, to September, 1775. The next year he served at San Juan Capistrano, and then at San Diego until 1785, when he was elected president. When he died, June 16, 1803, he had been thirty years a missionary in California, and for eighteen years president of the Missions. Of an entirely different type of man from the stern, ascetic Serra, he was yet as full of piety, zeal, earnestness, and purity of life, and the Missions prospered under his guidance.

On account of the long distance, both in miles and time, from Mexico, the College of San Fernando deemed it wise to elect a provisional president, whose duty it should be to assume the office in case of the absence, incapacitation, or death of the incumbent. In 1798 Estevan Tapis was furnished with the necessary document as provisional president, and at Lasuen’s death he immediately assumed the office. Three times he was appointed, though he did not deem himself fitted for the office, and finally, in 1812, when relieved, he retired to Santa Ines, where he performed the ordinary duties of a missionary. In 1815 he was- sent to San Juan Bautista, where he died and was buried in 1825.

At Tapis’s retirement in 1812 Jose Senan was elected to the office. He resided at San Buenaventura, where he had been the missionary. In 1815 he resigned, and in 1823 died at his old Mission. At the same time that he was appointed, however, a new and superior office was created, that of comisario prefecto. He was the prelate, as it were, of the Franciscans in California, and had supreme control of all temporal affairs. Sarria was elected to this office, and he and Senan worked harmoniously together. At the end of six years Sarria resigned.

In 1815 Mariano Payeras was elected president, and he exercised the office in conjunction with Sarria, as prefect, until the resignation of the latter, when, on advices from his college, he assumed the duties of president as they were exercised by Serra and Lasuen. In 1819 the position was changed again, and Payeras was raised to the position of prefect, while Senan was again elected president.

Payeras died April 28, 1823, at his Mission of Purisima, and Senan, who had been appointed by Payeras to succeed him in the higher office, also died August 24 of the same year at San Buenaventura.

Sarria was named prefect by Serum, and held both offices, on account of the refusal of the duly elected president to accept the office.

In 1825, as Sarria refused to take the oath of allegiance to the newly constituted republic of Mexico, Narcisco Duran was required to assume the duties of the presidency, though he also refused the oath. But Sarria continued to perform his official duties, his arrest being merely nominal.

In 1827 Jose Bernardo Sanchez was elected president and served until 1831, when Duran again assumed the office.

In 1833 ten new friars of the Zacatecas College of Franciscans came to take the places of the old missionaries, and it was decided to give them charge of all the Missions north of San Carlos. The College of San Fernando being composed entirely of Spaniards, and they having been banished from Mexico, the friars of a Mexican college were thus called upon to supply the Missions of California with the needed padres. They brought their own prefect with them, in the person of Francisco Garcia Diego, who, later, became the first bishop of California. Duran’s authority was confined, after the coming of Diego, to the Missions south of San Antonio.

With secularization practically came the abolishment of both offices, prefect and president, and since that time the Church has been governed in the usual way.

One thing is seldom remembered by the generality of writers upon the Missions, and that is that all the Padre presidentes were functionaries of the Spanish Inquisition. Serra, Lasuen, Tapis, SarrIa, and Payeras were all inquisitors. But in this, as in everything else, it is personality that shows, when men are not urged on by the cries of a mob. As there was no hue and cry in California, and the hearts of the padres were humane, we have the record of but one case that ever came to trial. That was of a Spanish settler in Los Angeles, named Ramon Sotilo, who was accused of ” having expressed views on religion that not even a Protestant would dare hold.” The prosecutor asked that as a punishment ” he be kept in jail some weeks and receive daily instruction from the Mission priest.” This sentence was passed upon the culprit, but in a few days he escaped from jail, and no more was ever heard of either him or his case.