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

Serra's Long Land Journey

Let us now follow Fray Junipero on his long overland journey to California. He left Loreto immediately after Easter. His provisions were more than meager; they were supplied by the royal commissary who still retained charge of the mission. Junipero comments somewhat caustically on this official's display of generosity:

From my mission of Loreto I did not take more provisions for so long an excursion than one loaf of bread and a piece of cheese. For I was there all the year so far as temporal matters go, as the mere guest for the crumbs of the Royal Commissary, whose liberality at my departure did not extend further than the aforesaid. [Serra's Diary]

His first day's journey brought him to San Xavier, where he remained three days.

I tarried in this mission [he said in his journal] for many motives. Reason enough for said detention was the very especial and mutual love between myself and its minister, the Rev. Father Reader, Francisco Palou, my disciple, Commissary of the Holy Office and elected by our College to succeed me in the presidency of these missions in case of my death or long absence. This last circumstance was the principal motive of said detention to confer with him as to what was best with regard to what remained in his charge during my absence. [Serra's Diary]

When Palou met him, limping slowly, painfully into the mission, his eyes filled with tears. He was tortured with forebodings that the frail, footsore friar, his beloved friend and master, would not live to accomplish the task he had given himself. So great was this fear that he wrote to Galvez, and besought him to command Junipero to remain, while he, Palou, went in his stead. The reply he received to this letter shows another side to the practical and able visitador's  character:

I am very glad that the Rev. Father Junipero insists upon accompanying the expedition, and commend his faith and great confidence that he will improve in health and that God will permit him to reach San Diego. This same faith I share with him. [Palou, Vida, p. 68].

Finding that Galvez would not interfere, Palou, in his anxiety, appealed to Junipero himself. The older man listened without comment, till his friend had concluded, then he said quietly:

Do not let us speak of this. I have unlimited confidence in God, whose goodness will allow me not only to arrive in. San Diego to raise and fasten in that port the standard of the Holy Cross, but at Monterey as well. [Palou, Vida, p. 67].

Palou was forced to resign himself to the decision of his superior, though unable to stifle his fears lest Junipero die upon the road. He assiduously set about, however, to ameliorate as far as possible, the hardships of the journey. He supplied deficiencies in the provisions, he contributed clothing, and managed in manifold ways to provide for the traveler's well-being. Junipero said gratefully, concerning these arrangements, "Not even I myself could have managed to contrive them, though for my sins I do not cease to be fond of my convenience."

We can scarce refrain from smiling when we contrast the incongruity of this naive confession, with the rigorous, abstemious life he led. At daybreak of the third morning of his stay Junipero rose to continue his journey. He bade farewell to Palou, his "beloved since childhood." He was lifted bodily onto his mule by the two soldiers who accompanied him. His helpless condition increased Palou's grief at their parting. When Junipero turned to him for the last time and said with gentle cheerfulness, "A'dios  till Monterey, where I hope we will meet to work together in that vineyard of our Lord," he could only reply sorrowfully that he feared they were bidding one another an eternal farewell. The older man lingered long enough to reprimand Palou affectionately for his little faith, which he said, pierced him to the heart. And so the two friends parted.

As Junipero journeyed on, we hear of his stopping sometimes in missions on the way, where he lingered over night or longer, according as the business of the expedition necessitated or the great loneliness of the isolated padres moved him to bear them company for a time. Or again we find him sleeping on the ground under the bright southern stars, after a long and wearisome day during which he had halted only "at midday to take some rest or a mouthful."

On one such occasion he unexpectedly met with a sad little group of Indians. They were neophytes from a distant mission. Because of the dearth of provisions the padre had been compelled to send them forth into the mountains to seek their food. They had suffered many hardships. Their children were crying with hunger. Fray Junipero promptly appeased them with the pinole (a meal of parched corn) which he carried with him, and further consoled them with the promise that they should return to their homes, for already corn was on the way by sea, to relieve the distressed missions. The weary friar, in recounting this incident, said:

Then I took my rest and had them pray in concert, and they concluded by singing a very tender song of the love of God. And as they of that mission (Guadalupe) have with reason the fame of singing with especial sweetness, I had a good bit of consolation in hearing them. [Serra's Diary].

This picture in the wilds of Baja California, one hundred fifty years ago, is a pleasant, peaceful one to contemplate. We can see the little group of dusky natives squatting contentedly around their friar-friend, while floating skyward, through the stillness of the starlight rises a "tender song of the love of God." Apart from his religion and his work, music gave to Junipero one of the rare pleasures he had in life. Music is the revery of the soul. In the vast majority of mankind, blindly struggling, futilely striving for a happiness bounded by the life material, music—even sacred music—awakens a vague sense of sadness. It is the nostalgia of the heart for the unattainable. But to those who have trod—feebly perhaps, despairingly at times, but unwaveringly always—the sequestered paths of self-renunciation, of spiritual progress, music brings sweet solace, uplifting inspiration, and the promise of high hopes solidified into achievements.

After a restful night under the stars, Junipero set forth again, traveling "over those so painful hills," as he calls the rough mountainous trails. He met more hungry Indians. Again he furnished them with pinole  from his pack mules and encouraged them with the prospect of more food to come. Most of the missions of Baja California, were at this time in a sadly impoverished condition. Before Galvez commanded the royal commissaries to turn over the temporal arrangement of the establishments to the missionaries, the damage had been done. Fray Junipero had been justified in protesting against confining the friars strictly to the spiritual care of the neophytes. The comisarios, when not dishonestly using their power to benefit themselves, were indifferent to the needs of the Indians. So badly did they administer the finances and temporal concerns under their charge, that in many missions an actual famine existed. This condition the neophytes were pathetically unprepared to encounter. Brought under enforced civilization for many years, taught to depend upon the friars for their sustenance, these poor semi-civilized creatures Were no longer competent to provide for themselves after the manner of their untrammeled savage brethren. We read of more than one padre beseeching Junipero to permit him to withdraw from his mission, where, because he cannot furnish succor to his half-starved neophytes, he is too unhappy to remain. Even in times of plenty the padre's life in this dreary peninsula was anything but an attractive one. The missions were far apart in isolated places where the missionaries had often to endure a loneliness, a desolation which it is difficult to adequately conceive. They were men of education, some of them highly intellectual, and all possessing a mentality far from mediocre; they required the intelligent companionship of their fellowmen, as much as they required their daily food. Yet we find them stranded alone in distant frontier missions where their only associates were ignorant neophytes, or dirty, lazy, half-tamed savages. An eloquent appeal to Mexico was later made by Palou for more friars, because of this natural longing for companionship. The minister in charge of the Guadalupe mission, Junipero tells us, was "the Father Reader Fray Juan Sancho, Master of Arts, ex-professor of Philosophy and later Reader of Theology in his native land."

The arrival of Junipero at the mission caused great rejoicing in the heart of its lonely padre. He exerted himself to make the short sojourn of his superior as comfortable as possible.

Besides these favors [says Junipero with a certain childlike delight] he added the favor, by the most of esteem, which was a Spanish-speaking (ladino)  Indian of fifteen years, who knows how to assist at Mass, read and the other duties pertaining to the service. And he clothed him new for me, with his changes of clothing, leather jacket, boots, etc., and fitted him out with all the trappings to go horseback, and gave him a saddle-mule, whereat he was very contented. And thus not only the lad, but his parents took it for much good fortune, and it was agreeable to all. [Serra's Diary].

The next day a padre arrived from a distant-lying mission, situated on the coast of the Gulf of California. He came to bid Junipero God-speed on his journey, and to taste again, if but for a short time, the pleasant flavor of friendly, stimulating companionship.

If these older men required all the encouragement Junipero could give them to continue cheer fully their lonely task, far greater must have been the needs of those youthful friars, whose mad longing for companionship threatened at times to drown every other feeling within them. Junipero writes pityingly of one of these young friars, whose frontier mission was the Santa Gertrudis and who, because of his loneliness, had fallen into a deep melancholy. The mission was situated in a gloomy caņon, (caņada)  of such narrowness that in order to procure space for building the church and dwelling houses, it had been necessary to cut into the rocky sides of the canon. A few olive and peach trees had been planted in the scanty soil. In this bare, isolated spot, without a human being to talk to save half civilized savages, whose language he scarce understood, lived the young Fray Dionisio Basterra.

The Baja Californians possessed none of the more intelligent traits of the North American Indians. They were low in the scale of humanity. The Jesuit, Father Venegas, leaves the following terse description of them:

There is not a nation so stupid, of such contracted ideas, and weak, both in body and mind, as the unhappy Californians. Their characteristics are stupidity and insensibility, want of knowledge and reflection, inconstancy, impetuosity and blindness of appetite, and excessive sloth and abhorrence of all work, incessant love of pleasure and amusement of every kind, however trifling and brutal. In fine a most wretched want of everything which constitutes the real man and renders him rational, inventive, tractable and useful to himself and society.

Among such people as these, Fray Dionisio was stranded without even an Indian interpreter to bear him company. To reach Santa Gertrudis early in the day Junipero had risen before dawn, having that night slept upon the ground. As he approached the mission, he was met by the Indians with "dancing and festive demonstrations," a greeting the good padre had received at many missions. At the door of the church stood the sad-eyed young friar, dressed in his pluvial and accompanied by acolytes bearing the cross, candlestick, incensory, and holy water. Fray Junipero silently entered the church, having first "adored the cross and sprinkled holy water on the Indians." Not until the religious services were over and Fray Dionisio had doffed his vestments, did the two priests—the one young, lonely, and utterly unhappy, the other older, wiser, yet full of tender sympathy—exchange their greeting.

The eyes of both [says Junipero] overflowed with tears, (the which even now come to me anew when I write this,) without our being able to speak a word until for a long time we had paid this permissible tribute to Nature. Many days before the Father had fallen into a profound sadness over his being alone among so many shut-in Indians, without a soldier or a servant—for both the one and the other the Captain (Rivera) had taken away from him for the expedition, nor even an interpreter of any use. He had communicated to me by various letters his disconsolateness, asking me for relief, which I could not give him, much as I desired to; I tried in various ways not only consoling him, but talking with the Most Illustrious Inspector-General (Galvez), writing to the Captain (Rivera) and talking to the Governor (Portola) all without fruit, since by no one means could I procure one soldier for his escort, whereby he could have had some relief and comfort. The Governor answered that he not only could not give him a soldier, but that he was minded to leave without one the next mission of San Borja, which has had three soldiers when fewest.[Serra's Diary].

Fray Junipero had known the young friar ever since the latter had taken orders. He had him as a companion in many of his long peregrinations on the coast of Oaxaca and when he navigated the river Miges, and had tramped with him the king's highway in Mexico, when holding mission meetings in the provinces. "All this," said Junipero, "caused that tenderness which culminated in the consolation of seeing one another now at the end of a little more than a year since our arrival and last parting at Loreto."

The affection he entertained for the young priest induced Junipero to comply with Fray Dionisio's entreaty to give him a few days of companionship. Junipero accordingly remained at the mission five days, and as he himself states, not idly.

We hear no more of the sorrowful Fray Dionisio until more than a year later. It is doubtful if in the interim either priest or soldier came to relieve his loneliness, to share his solitude; for we next learn of his having fallen ill and being sent back to his college in Mexico, where we must leave the melancholy young monk, as he does not appear again in the annals of California. In the meanwhile Junipero continued on his way, traveling over many a "grievous road "and rocky hill, stopping at missions to discuss and advise with the padres concerning the vital question of how best to supply sufficient food for the neophytes, and to wring from the barren soil provision for the future. Finally on the fifth of May, five weeks from the time he left Loreto, rising "good and early" (which in Junipero's vocabulary meant rising before the first faint streaks of dawn), he arrived at Santa Maria, where Governor Portola, with part of the second land expedition, was encamped.

We were mutually glad said Junipero] to see ourselves already joined, to begin anew our peregrination through a desert land populated with only Infidelity, with innumerable Gentiles. [Serra's Diary].

Five days were spent at Santa Maria, partly to await further supplies, which were expected, and partly to give Portola an opportunity to complete the last arrangements for their march. At the end of that time they set out to join the remainder of the retinue, which had gone on in advance to Velicata where better pasturage could be obtained for the beasts. They were three days on the journey.

All this stretch of country [writes Junipero] is even less supplied than the rest of California for the poor sustenance of its inhabitants; since from Santa Maria unto here (Velicata) inclusive, I did not see even a tree of pitahaias, neither the sweet nor the sour—but only now and then a cactus, and a rare garambullo. The most are candle cactus, a tree useless for everything, even for fire.[Serra's Diary].

He kept an eager watch for savages.

By the road we saw various little ranchos of Gentile Indians and recent tracks of them. But not one, little or big, let himself be seen; their retreat mortifying my desires to talk and caress them.

As yet Fray Junipero had seen only the Indians in the vicinity of the missions, all of whom had received baptism and were partially civilized. They were, therefore, the good friar believed, in less imminent danger of perdition than their savage brethren, called by the Spaniards "Gentiles."

At Velicata Junipero decided to found a mission, which should also serve to facilitate communications between the old establishments and those to be founded in Alta California. Ina little jacal  (a hut of palisades) which the first land expedition had hastily constructed and used as a chapel, the ceremonies were held. The soldiers in their leather jackets and shields were drawn up under arms, and Junipero celebrated the first mass of the new mission which was called San Fernando. The troops at intervals discharged their muskets, the fumes of the powder supplying the deficiency of incense, while the battery of sounds served as a harsh substitute for the measured music of the organ.

The region around Velicata was thickly populated with savages, but even curiosity did not induce them to come within sight of the Spaniards. Junipero was profoundly disappointed. He had ardently hoped that on such an auspicious occasion as the founding of a mission, a few at least of the Gentiles would have approached to watch the proceedings and so gradually be drawn into the protecting arms of the church. "Perhaps," he said sorrowfully, "they are scared by so many thunders." Father Miguel de la Campa, who traveled with the expedition, was appointed minister of the new mission and was, we are assured, "very joyous in this employment." He was given the fifth part of the cattle, four loads of biscuits, 162 pounds of flour, also maize, raisins, dried figs, and a supply of chocolate, without which no Spaniard, even though he be a pious priest, can subsist. To these stores Junipero added a certain quantity of soap which he was carrying for the expedition. The fact that he took personal charge of this commodity is another evidence of his liking for the "neatness of Holy Poverty." The next morning all was bustle and excitement in camp, preparatory to an immediate departure. Junipero had said mass and had retired to his jacal  (hut) when word was sent to him that the Gentiles were approaching and were, in fact, already near.

I praised the Lord [he said]. I kissed the earth, giving His Majesty thanks that after so many years of desiring them, He had granted me to see myself among them in their land. I sallied promptly and found myself with twelve of them, all males and grown, except two were boys, one about ten years and the other about fifteen. I saw that which I had hardly managed to believe when I used to read it or they told me of it—which was their going totally nude, as Adam in Paradise before his sin. [Serra's Diary]

The good friar was quite scandalized. We can scarce repress a smile on reading further,

And so they presented themselves to us and we conversed a long while, without there being perceptible in them in all that time, the least blush for being in that manner, though they saw us all clothed! With great gentleness he put his two hands in their heads, and blessed them all in turn.

. . . in token of affection I filled both their hands with dried figs, which they at once began to eat; and we received with signs of much appreciation the regalement which they presented to us—which was a net full of meseal and four fish—although as the poor fellows had not had the advertency to disembowel them and much less to salt them, the cook said that they were already of no account. The Father Campa also regaled them with some raisins, and the Senor Governor gave them tobacco in the leaf, all the soldiers treated them and gave them to eat. And I with the interpreter gave them to know that in that very spot a Father would remain constantly, namely this one, pointing him out, and that he was called Fray Miguel; that they should come as well as the other people of their acquaintance to visit him, and that they should tell the other Gentiles not to have fear or suspicion; that the Father would be their very friend; that those senores the soldiers who remained there with the Father would do them good and no harm, that they must not steal the cattle running loose, but that if they were in need they must come and tell the Father, and he would always give them what he could. [Serra's Diary]

The astonished savages appeared to listen attentively to these arguments, even to assent to them, so that Junipero was greatly pleased, and added, "it seemed to me that they would fall shortly into the apostolic and evangelic net." By this time the day was well advanced. Farewell was said to Fray Miguel Campa, and the expedition headed by the Governor departed from Velicata. Before noon of the next day the travelers reached a place called San Juan de Dios.

It is agreeable with plenty of water and pasture, willows, tule, and a glad sky. Here for some days had been the Sergeant Francisco Ortega and some soldiers with part of their beasts. It was a consoling day, because in it all of us were united who had to go together on the expedition. [Serra's Diary]

The entire party having finally met, there was a universal desire to push forward on the journey with as little delay as possible. To the soldiers this expedition into Upper California possessed the fascination of an unknown adventure, in which they staked all their hopes of fortune and fame. They expected in this mysterious northern land to line their pockets with gold, to festoon themselves with ropes of pearls, and return richly laden to their Spanish homes. The officers cherished hopes of fame, power, and honor. Junipero, alone of them all, was not concerned for either wealth or fame, and yet was more eager than the most adventurous among their number, to push onward with the utmost possible speed.

But now occurred a difficulty which even his stout spirit might have foreseen and feared. His foot and leg had become so distressingly inflamed and swollen that they were no longer able to bear the weight of his emaciated body. With difficulty he managed to say mass the following morning. It became apparent to all except himself that he could not follow the expedition. He could neither walk, nor stand, nor sit, and was forced to remain stretched upon his bed. Fortunately for the sufferer Portola was delayed in camp, three days. The packs required rearranging and the beasts that had arrived last were in need of recuperation. In the meantime the Governor expended all his powers of argument to induce Junipero to return to Velicata, from which place he could, when able, slowly make his way back to Loreto. Portola felt that the difficulty of the expedition would be greatly increased if he were hampered by the necessity of considering the condition of a sick man. It is probable, also, that he was averse to assume the responsibility of taking with him into an unknown country, to confront unknown dangers, one whose death could, he thought, be but a mere matter of time upon so arduous a journey. His pleading and arguments were, however, in vain. Junipero would not be moved from his resolution.

"If it is God's will that I die on the road, then bury me there," he said, "and I will remain contentedly among the Gentiles. But," he added with his characteristic hopefulness, "I have confidence that God will give me strength to reach San Diego, as he has given me strength to come this far."

Had he not all his life longed to illumine the dark places of the earth by turning upon them the great beneficent light of Christianity? Year by year, month by month, day by day, this desire had burned more fiercely within him, until by now it may be said to have reached white heat. Nothing short of death itself would cause him to abandon his purpose. If Portola had but faintly appreciated the indomitable will abiding in this worn, emaciated friar, he would not have expended time and eloquence in ineffective arguments. When he finally perceived the futility of endeavoring to change so firm a resolution, realizing that neither on foot nor on horseback could Junipero travel, he ordered a stretcher constructed in the form of a coffin (defunto)  in which the friar could lie and be carried on the backs of the neophytes. When Junipero heard of the order he was greatly dejected. He reflected on the additional fatigue the Indians would be subjected to if compelled to bear him over rough mountainous trails, and through long, sand-covered stretches of hot barren plains. This thought tormented him. He spent hours in prayer, seeking divine assistance in evolving a method by which he need not burden the Indians, and yet be enabled to follow the expedition. Having prayed he sent for a certain muleteer, Jean Antonio Coronel.

"Son," he said, "canst thou give me a remedy for the ulcers on my foot and leg?"

"Father," replied the muleteer, "what remedy should I know? Am I a surgeon? I am a muleteer and know only how to cure the sores of beasts."

"Then, son, suppose me one of your beasts and that this ulcer is a saddle-gall which has caused the swelling of the leg and the pains that I feel, and that gives me no rest or sleep, and make for me the same medicament that thou would'st apply to a beast."

The muleteer smiled broadly, as did all those who heard the good friar's request.

"To give you pleasure I will do it, father," Juan replied.

He prepared an ointment of tallow and herbs and applied it to the sufferer's foot and leg. It proved an efficacious remedy. Relieved of pain, Junipero slept peacefully for the first time in many nights. The following morning, to the surprise of all, he rose and celebrated mass according to his usual custom. It was not necessary to delay the expedition for even one hour on his account.