Catholic Culture News
Catholic Culture News

Junipero Serra, Conquistador

by Fr. Charles Dollen


This article provides an excellent account of the life and works of Bl. Junipero Serra (1713-1784), considered to be the last of the true Spanish Conquistadors.

Larger Work

Homiletic & Pastoral Review


40 – 43

Publisher & Date

Joseph F. Wagner, Inc., New York, NY, October 1963

Two hundred and fifty years ago, in the town of Petra on the island of Mallorca, Junipero Serra was born. At one o'clock in the morning on the 24th of November, 1713, the third child of Antoni and Margalida Serre was born, and on the same day he was baptized and given the names Miquel Joseph.

Of his youth, little is known for certain except for what can be surmised from the fact that he was raised by the traditional "pious, honest parents" in a strongly Catholic community. Three other men from this island were to join him later in California: Father Crespi, a trusted companion, and Father Luis Jayme, the "protomartyr" of the California missions, as well as Father Palou, his first biographer.

At sixteen, the Franciscans received him, and a year later they bestowed upon him the name Junipero. We are told that he chose this name because of his devotion to Brother Junipero, one of the closest and earliest disciples of St. Francis.

Years of study followed for Serra, years in which he was ordained and won his lectorate in philosophy and his doctorate in theology. For five years, 1744-1749, he held the chair of theology in the remarkable Lullian University. "The Pontifical, Imperial, Royal and Literary University of Majorca" was dedicated in the name of Blessed Ramon Lull and had regular courses in Scotistic philosophy, as well as Lullian, Thomistic, and Suaresian philosophy, and parallel courses in theology. Dr. Serra headed the Scotistic courses.

"The Man Who Never Turned Back"

However, this academic career was only part of the preparation that Father Junipero was making for his real work as an outstanding spiritual conquistador on Spain's newest (and last) frontier. The records indicate that the young Franciscan priest preached hundreds of sermons, conferences and missions in these years on his home island. This zeal for souls, combined with an intense spiritual life turned his eyes to the New World and to the pagan souls that still needed baptism.

In 1749, Father Serra reached the decision to go to these souls, and for the remaining thirty-five years of his life he drove himself forward with such Christ-like charity that Father Maynard Geiger, in his monumental life of Serra, is impelled to sub-title the work "The man who never turned back."

By the end of December, 1749, Father Junipero had crossed the sea, landed in Mexico, walked the fifteen-days journey from Vera Cruz to the shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and finally arrived at the College of San Fernando, which was to be his missionary headquarters. From this monastery in Mexico City the Franciscan missionaries were sent throughout Mexico and the Californias. These "Fernandinos" earned a most enviable reputation for their apostolic labors.

Within six months, Father Serra was sent to the Sierra Gordo, a wild mountainous region sixteen walking-days journey north of Mexico City. For eight years he labored there, seven of which involved the duties of Presidente of the mission field. It was a most valuable apprenticeship for the work that would crown his life in Upper California. To the constant round of teaching catechism, preaching, baptizing, and instructing, there was added the tasks of delicate diplomacy between missionaries and landowners, between Church and royal officials, between Indians and white men. Later on, in California, these tasks were to be magnified almost infinitely by the circumstances of distance from Mexico and the character of both Indians and officials encountered there.

Seed is Planted

In 1758, Father Junipero was recalled to San Fernando when it appeared that the Franciscans were to undertake a new mission field in Texas and among the Apaches, When this did not materialize, Father Serra was assigned to work in Mexico City. This consisted of pastoral work within the city and preaching missions in various dioceses throughout Mexico proper. His earliest biographer, Father Palou, devotes several chapters to a description of the success that attended Father Serra's labors.

Then, on a dark day in 1767, King Charles III signed the decree expelling the Jesuits from Spanish territories. Sixteen Jesuits, cultured, learned and dedicated priests, laboring on the barren peninsula of lower California, almost destitute, were summarily removed by the military commander. The same tragedy was being enacted all over the Spanish domains. Almost without any notice, missionaries of other religious orders, themselves overburdened by lack of personnel, found the orphaned missions looking to them. The Fernandinos rose to the challenge and took the desolate lower California missions. Father Junipero Serra was selected to be Presidente. From that time until his death in 1784, Father Serra was to carve out a new spiritual province for the Church. He was to plant the seed of nine new missions that would flourish in our time to bring forth the eight dioceses of the State of California.

Father Omer Englebert calls his biography of Serra The Last of the Conquistadors, and the appellation is certainly justified. Until 1767, Father Serra was only another missionary, successful as the world judges, and seemingly growing in wisdom and grace. But when he left Mexico for California, Father Serra caught the spirit and vision that fired the Spanish imagination and zeal throughout the previous two and a half centuries. He brought with him the same spirit of wonder over new sights, the fearlessness in the face of unknown lands, the firm purpose of spreading the Kingdom of Christ, and the unshakeable conviction that God had given to Spain the vocation to civilize and rule these new-found territories.

In 1768, Jose de Galvez arrived in Lower California to conduct an inspection for King Charles. He had orders to push into the virgin lands of upper California. As soon as Serra was told of this, he volunteered himself for the missionary work that he knew would accompany any new settlements. Visitor-General Galvez was so impressed with the spirit of the Franciscans "toiling with impoverished aborigines on incredible deserts," and so moved by Serra's zeal that he accepted the offer.

Fanning Out

A year of detailed planning went into the expedition before Galvez and Serra were ready to start. Actually two expeditions were planned for simultaneous execution, one by sea and the other by land. The mixture of challenge and romance in the work of the conquistadors, the blend of noble ideals and worldly ambitions sometimes blinds us to the hard work and realistic planning that went into the success of these adventures.

Even the naming of the new missions was the subject of a decision by the Visitor-General. The first of three projected sites was to be on beautiful San Diego Bay, and Galvez would hear of no other name than San Diego. Over one hundred and fifty years previously Vizcaino had explored the bay and named it for the saint on whose feast-day he landed — St. Didacus, or San Diego de Alcala (Nov. 12).

The second mission was to be at Monterey and was to be dedicated to San Carlos, the King's patron, "although the church title must be St. Joseph," the patron of the Visitor-General and the patron of the entire expedition. The third mission was to be named for San Bonaventura, and succeeding missions were to be named for other Franciscan saints and patrons. If a great harbor was discovered, it was to be named San Francisco.

On July 1st, 1769, Spain took possession of San Diego effectively, and the cross of Christ was planted firmly in the new territory. What Cabrillo had discovered in 1542 and Vizcaino visited in 1603 now became the first outpost to be settled on the Pacific Coast of the present United States.

While the soldiers surveyed for an encampment and the artisans marvelled at the natural beauty, Father Serra and his companions took stock of the natives. Father Serra noted the twenty Indian villages within easy distance; the influence of the wizards or medicine men; the extremely modest dress of the women; the total nudity of all the male population, adult and children. On the 16th of July the Mission was formally established with a High Mass in honor of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, and the missionaries immediately began the attack on the evils of paganism.

No Turning Back

But again the romance of conquest quickly slipped into the background. Sickness broke out among the Spaniards, and the Indians grew restless. When part of the expedition started out again on the search for Monterey, the Indians attacked. A bloody battle followed with several deaths on both sides and many wounded on the Indian side. The decisive victory by the Spanish insured peace for several years, but slowed down the work of conversions and almost completely ended the much-needed trading for food. So desperate was the situation that the decision to abandon the conquest of Upper California was actually decreed. Only Father Serra's insistence on remaining for the good of souls caused the stay of execution. Finally a supply ship arrived and a regular supply route was determined.

With this solution, the road to Monterey was opened and the conquest of California began in earnest. In 1770, San Carlos Borromeo was established at Monterrey on the Carmel River and became the headquarters for the California expedition. In 1771 San Gabriel and San Antonio de Padua were both founded. San Luis Obispo followed in 1772.

The initial success of the work brought joy to Mexico and Madrid when it was announced. But the detractors were soon at work, too. Father Serra was expanding too fast, they charged, while men and supplies were being spread too thin. The military tried desperately to slow up the Mission President's foundations, and Father Serra did have to stop and return to Mexico to mend his fences.

Upon his return to California, Father Serra founded Mission San Juan Capistrano and Mission San Francisco de Asis in 1776, and Santa Clara de Asis in 1777. Finally, in 1782, Mission San Bonaventura was established. An attempt was made to establish missions on the Colorado River among the Yuma Indians, but, to Father Serra's regret, the hostility of the Indians and the lack of personnel forced the suspension of the work. Since there were not enough soldiers to protect so distant an outpost, the governor absolutely forbade the continuance of the work.

The "martyrdom" of Father Luis Jayme at San Diego on November 4, 1775 had made the civil authorities justly cautious. At that time, it looked as if San Diego might be abandoned, and again it was at Father Serra's insistence that the Mission was re-established after an Indian revolt had included the fiery destruction of the mission compound.

He Lives On

The end came for Father Serra on the Feast of St. Augustine, August 28, 1784. He had received Viaticum in the church, returned to his cell and recited his office, then asked Father Palou to recite the prayers for the dying. After he received the plenary indulgence, he asked to be left alone. In the early afternoon he was found on his bed, his mission cross clasped in his hands, and, as Father Palou says, "with no signs of any death agony on his peaceful countenance." He was buried with all the ceremony and honors that Mission San Carlos could provide.

Agnes Repplier, in her book about Father Serra, points to the living heart and soul that he left in California. Father Palou attaches many pages to his biography on the inner life and the heroic virtues of Father Serra, told with the deep admiration of a friend and the calm distinctions of a philosopher. The State of California has placed a statue of Father Junipero Serra in the Capitol in Washington, and other statues and plaques are found all around the state.

As we celebrate the two hundred and fiftieth anniversary of Father Serra's birth, we can actually hail him as a true conqueror. He was a man of heroic vision, a man who saw life only sub specie aeternitatis. His was the triumphant service for the only King who can give eternal rewards. Certainly it is not too ambitious to hope that someday he will also rejoice in the honors of the altar.

© Joseph F. Wagner, Inc.

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