Junipero Serra—the Man and his Work - A. H. Fitch

Brothers Meet and Part

A new policy in the military and civil administration of California had been in contemplation by the central government for some years, but it was not put into actual operation until now. When Jose De Galvez, the great visitador general, was in New Spain, he realized the difficult, if not impossible, task confronting a viceroy residing in the City of Mexico, who was called upon to govern vast territories lying thousands of leagues distant from the capital. He accordingly formulated a plan which was intended to remedy this difficulty, and laid it, when completed, before the King for his royal approval. The plan provided for two independent powers in New Spain. Eight provinces, including the two Californias, to be called the Provincias Internas—because they were in the interior as regards the City of Mexico—were to be ruled by a governor entirely independent of the vice-royalty of New Spain, and responsible only to the King. His Majesty approved of this plan. A royal order, dated Aug. 22, 1776 put it into effect.

The first governor of the Provincias Internas  was General Theodore de Croix, commonly called the Caballero de Croix. He was a nephew of the former viceroy, de Croix. He took up his residence in Neuva Vizcaino the following year. He himself wrote to Junipero announcing this change of administration. Though his letter was dated August 15, 1777, Junipero did not receive it until June, 1779, two years after it was written. This change of administration caused the venerable president not a little sorrow and anxiety. Bucareli had proved himself a firm friend of the Franciscan missionaries. He had given his hearty support to Junipero. In the frequent disputes between the military and ecclesiastic authorities, his decisions had invariably been favorable to the latter.

There had, of course, been long and vexing delays, and the uncertainties due to the great distances separating California from the central government, but this Junipero could bear patiently, assured in the knowledge that Bucareli's decisions, whatever they were, would never be prejudicial to mission progress nor heedless of the welfare of the province. Whether the Caballero de Croix would be equally friendly to mission interests, time alone would tell. Had Junipero been a few years younger, it is not improbable that he would have journeyed to Neuva Vizcaino, as once before, he had journeyed to Mexico, to personally solicit the interest of the new ruler in the California missions. But years of hard labor, years of pain, of sickness, of lameness, had made of him, at sixty-six, a very feeble, broken old man. His wonderful energy and enthusiasm were, to be sure, not a whit less than the day he first put foot on California's soil; but his body, wasted with disease and hardships, could no longer respond as formerly to his bidding. We see him now, pathetically anxious not to lost a moment of that earthly time which he felt was for him fast drawing to a close. He journeyed and, as was his habit, on foot, to every mission north and south, confirming neophytes and sons of Spanish soldiers in the presidios.

He was occupied with these duties when couriers arrived, bearing tidings of the death by pleurisy of Bucareli in Mexico, and of Spain's declaration of war against England.

Governor Neve received orders to strengthen the defenses on the Californian coast, and in event of any act of aggression on the part of English ships, to make prompt reprisals. These orders, though made public with the customary. formality, failed to create the least ripple of excitement in the province. Strange ships had never yet been seen off the coast and the Spaniards had no intentions of disturbing themselves with gloomy apprehensions because war had been declared by the mother county against a foe thousands of miles away.

Though the routine of their lives was, in point of fact, not affected then or afterwards because of Anglo-Spanish hostilities, yet these colonists were to learn later that Carlos III. had no mind to let any of his royal subjects in this remote California forget that he was waging war. Every Spaniard was asked to contribute his prayers and also two substantial dollars to the cause, and every mission was called upon to donate produce in proportion to the number of its male neophytes. The flourishing condition of the settlements is shown by the manner in which this royal request was answered. The amount sent out from Alta California was $2,683. In addition to this sum, Governor Neve personally contributed $2,000.

Junipero ordered public prayers said for the success of Spanish arms. But this distant war disturbed him far less than the death of Bucareli. Notwithstanding that California had been removed from the Viceroy's jurisdiction, his influence would still have been expended for the benefit of the province. Bereft of this influential friend, Junipero suddenly felt the responsibilities of his position weigh heavily upon him. Governor Neve's attitude towards him was not a friendly one. It would appear that two men, both ambitious for the good of California, both peculiarly adapted by their keen, practical intelligence to advance the march of civilization in a new country would have worked together harmoniously for this end. This unfortunately was far from the case.

The governor, while sagacious and broad-minded in many respects, was, nevertheless, neither sagacious nor broad-minded enough to tolerate in his little realm a missionary friar given to the senseless habit of self-torture, a man whose religious emotions took the form of hysteria, and whose lameness was the result of persistent refusal to accept medical treatment, who when urged thereto by anxious friends, responded, medicinam carnalem nunquam exhibui corpori meo. (I have never given carnal medicine to my body.) The sane qualities of Neve's mind revolted against all this, while his vanity was immensely hurt by the knowledge that in this fanatical friar existed intellectual forces superior to his own. It is difficult to ascribe any other motive than jealousy to Neve's actions. We find him, soon after the appointment of de Croix, writing to him complaining letters of the friars, accusing them of teaching the Indians to disregard the authority of secular officers, and to consider the padres' rule supreme. Again he writes that the padres had on four occasions surreptitiously conspired against the government; he attributes the failure of their efforts to his own policy and moderation. It is impossible to determine on what evidence the vigilant governor based his accusations. The most diligent student of early California history will find nothing to indicate that either Fray Junipero or his friars entertained the least desire to plot against the government whose support was absolutely essential to the continuance of the work to which they had dedicated their lives. The absurdity of the charges is altogether too self-evident to need refutation.

It is but necessary to follow Junipero's career as president of the California missions to recognize the utter incompatibility of these accusations with the character of the man. The governor was finally compelled to go far afield to seek a quarrel with Junipero, and we have the sorry spectacle of a singularly petty, unjustifiable interference on his part with the president's ecclesiastical prerogatives. He began by peremptorily questioning Junipero's right to confirm. In view of this fact it will not be amiss to relate here how he obtained his privilege. When Junipero first came to Baja California, he found in the archives of the expelled Jesuits a papal bull signed by Benedict XIV., conceding the power of confirmation to California missionaries, of the order of the "Society of Jesus." The right to confirm belonged exclusively to bishops, but as these church officials seldom, if ever, visited the remote peninsula, the Pope did not hesitate to grant one of their prerogatives to priests of lower grade, in order that settlers and neophytes should not be "deprived of the consolation of confirmation." Fray Junipero promptly forwarded this papal bull to the guardian of San Fernando and begged him to obtain a similar privilege for the Franciscan missionaries in California. The guardian sent the document to Rome, and Clement XIV. renewed it in favor of the Franciscans. It was then submitted to the royal council of the Indies for approval.

The papers, properly certified, were finally dispatched to America; and Junipero, many years after he first applied for the privilege, received his patente, permitting him to confirm. He lost no time in entering zealously into his new duties. He had confirmed 2,432 persons when Neve challenged his legal right to do so, in a manner curiously harsh and arbitrary, demanding to see the papal bull conceding Junipero his power.

As the original documents were in the archives of the Rev. Father Prefecto, in Mexico, Fray Junipero found himself unable to comply with this demand. He, however, offered to submit the papers he had in his own possession, including a letter from the viceroy Bucareli in which he was congratulated on having received the "faculty to confirm." This did not satisfy Neve. The provinces, he reminded Junipero, were no longer ruled through the channels of the viceroyalty, but were governed by the Comandancia General  and through him by the governor of California, namely himself.

"Then Senor," pleaded the old prelate, "in that case, cannot you remove the difficulties, by taking my papers and affixing to them your official seal, so that the poor people need not be deprived of confirmation?"

But Neve insisted that the original documents alone would satisfy him, and that until he had communicated with the Caballero de Croix on the matter, all confirmations must cease. In writing to de Croix, Neve expressed his belief that Junipero had in his possession the original documents, and that he deemed it useless to try to acquire them by searching the friar's papers, for Junipero "with his unspeakable artifice and shrewdness would only succeed in hiding them." It seems strange that the governor should have allowed his prejudice against Junipero to go to such lengths, and stranger still that de Croix should have sustained, even authorized, this petty persecution of an aged missionary, concerning a matter which surely could not have been of vital consequence to the secular authorities. It would be evident to anyone not blinded by prejudice, that had Junipero possessed the original documents, he would unhesitatingly have submitted them for inspection. He would have done this not only to avoid a suspension of his privilege, but to prevent the harm and the gossip which such a suspension would give rise to among the neophytes, when it became known that the legality of his sacraments was questioned.

Junipero wrote to the guardian of San Fernando, informing him of the situation and begging him to forward with all possible dispatch the required papers. Pending their arrival, he remained in seclusion in his mission. Broken in health, deeply humiliated, and full of anxiety for the future, the time passed sorrowfully enough for the old man. Finally, by the time de Croix had received and inspected the documents, sent to him by the guardian from Mexico, and found them to have been properly approved by both the crown and the church, and had communicated the fact to Governor Neve, more than a year had elapsed. In September, 1781, Junipero received a notification from Neve, stating that there were no longer any obstacles to his administering the sacrament. Thus ended this curious incident. Palou, after chronicling the bare facts, adds (with a spirit of generosity, the more praiseworthy in view of the warmth of his affection for Junipero) that "it is not to be supposed that this Senor (Governor Neve) was influenced by malice, but rather, lacking advisors, he acted as his judgment dictated."

When the president received Neve's letter, he lost no time in celebrating confirmation in his mission. Immediately afterwards he went to San Antonio for the same purpose, then returned to San Carlos to prepare for a tour of confirmation to the northern establishments. He was accompanied on this journey by his old friend Padre Crespi, who had long keenly desired to visit San Francisco, which he had seen only as a primeval wilderness in 1769.

With sandaled feet, coarse brown capote, and peaked cowl, the cord of St. Francis knotted about their waists, and a rosary and crucifix hanging at their sides, the two old friars set forth upon their journey one bright October day. They traveled slowly, stopping no doubt frequently to rest, for Padre Crespi was waxing feeble and, though younger than his friend, he felt the weight of years more heavily.

Fray Junipero was at this time in his seventieth year; Fray Juan Crespi, in his sixty-second year. As they approached the new pueblo, San Jose, Crespi noted with astonishment the change a few short years had wrought in the land. He came in view of a very different scene from the one which had greeted the eyes of the weary explorers in 1769. On the wide expanse of luxuriant plain, watered by the Guadalupe River, were cultivated fields of grain and fruitful orchards, while roaming through the woodlands and rich meadows were herds of sheep, goats, cows, mules, and horses. The pueblo itself, was but an assemblage of small earth-roofed houses of plastered palisades, suspended hides not infrequently doing service for front doors. Yet even then San Jose must have given promise of the beautiful flower-decked city which now spreads its palms beneath the friendly skies.

[Illustration] from Junipero Serra by A. H. Fitch


Sixty-six settlers formed the original population of the pueblo; among their number were a few women and children—a rare spectacle in early California days. The friars may have arrived in the settlement when the cows were being milked, in which event they saw a familiar scene oft enacted, no doubt, in their mission.

The Spanish-American cow had a character of her own. She was candid and not very civil—(a rare combination is candor and civility anywhere)—and the Spanish-American pioneer, who understood riding far better than milking, found her more difficult to manage than an unbroken colt. She was descended from the hardy cows who had tramped thousands of miles to California; she had all their mettle, independence, and muscular strength, and was, in fact, to be reckoned with when her milk, not her beef, was wanted, for it required the combined efforts of three men to draw it from her. Here, indeed, was a conspicuous absence of the proverbial pretty milkmaid with her shining pails and wooden stool! The men were carefully distributed.

One held the cow by the head: a second held the reata  confining her hind legs, and battled with the hungry calf, while the third milked with one hand holding the receptacle for it in the other. Milk-pails were unknown, and the rancho's  assortment of crockery was small, so that, if several cows were milked all the tumblers, tea-cups and bowls were brought into requisition. Meanwhile the ranchero, his wife and children, the unoccupied servants, and the stranger within the gates, assisted as spectators. [Bancroft, California Pastoral, p. 369]

The missionaries, however, learned to manage better with their cows, for we read further that in 1815 one of the San Francisco friars offered to supply the Russian explorer and naval officer, Otto von Kotzebue, whose ship was in the harbor, with two bottles of milk, at the same time assuring him that he was the only man in that part of the country who, after many difficulties, had succeeded in obtaining milk from cows!

Fray Junipero and Padre Crespi, after stopping a few days at Santa Clara mission, continued their journey, promising on their return to assist at the laying of the corner stone of the new church.

They traveled on up the coast, over undulating lengths of land densely covered with the knotted chaparral, the thirsty looking sage, the bright-berried cascara bush, sweet smelling little yerba buena, and with the rosemary and marjoram. They passed through wonderful forests of redwood, through smiling valleys and broad and fertile plains, and never far away the great Coast Mountains reared their rugged heads. Finally they came upon the eagerly anticipated shining sand dunes of San Francisco.

Where the dry loose sand had been thrown into wave-like hills, covered with a thick growth of dwarf trees and shrubs, stood the mission dedicated to Saint Francis of Assisi. The mission was built on the Laguna de los Dolores, a fact which explains its later nomenclature—the mission Dolores, the name the old church still retains. The church was of frame and plastered with clay. It was fifty-four feet long. The mission-house, also of frame and plastered, was thirty by fifteen feet. Besides these buildings, there were the barracks for the guard and a few small huts for the converts. The presidio  overlooked the blue-gray harbor of the "Golden Gate," one of the most beautiful harbors in the world.

It was a fair day in October, when the two old friars, weary, but happy, passed through the mission gates. Palou was overjoyed at seeing them.

It was for me an occasion of extraordinary gladness to see again both my well-loved superior and my dear school fellow, Fray Juan Crespi. In view of what was soon to occur it was as if he had come to bid me farewell till eternity. [Palou, Vida, p. 230]

They remained two weeks in the mission, during which Fray Junipero confirmed all the neophytes prepared to receive this sacrament. "When they left," wrote Palou, "the pain of parting was for me, I believe likewise for their reverences, equal to the joy caused by their arrival." Palou never saw his old schoolfellow again. A few days after their return to San Carlos, Crespi was seized with a mortal illness, and on New Year's day, 1782, he peacefully passed into eternity. Junipero had remained in constant attendance upon him to the hour of his death. "He was the first of us to be called by God," says Palou sorrowfully. He was buried in the mission church, within the presbytery on the gospel side. The commandant of the Monterey presidio, together with all the troops, attended the funeral services. But the tears of the neophytes were the highest tribute paid that day to the memory of gentle Padre Juan.

The death of his old friend and companion was a severe shock to Junipero and one from which he never wholly rallied. The journals kept by Crespi during his life in California contribute valuable records for the present day historians of that country; and, although they are frequently but a dry chronicle of the happenings of each day, his unwearying, faithful labors in the cause of the conquest shine through them all.