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

Faithful Service to the End

Junipero arrived about the middle of June in the valley of the Carmello, at his mission San Carlos. His home-coming could not have been other than sorrowful. It was the first time in many years that the welcoming embrace of his old friend Crespi was not given him, the first time that the sight of the padre's familiar figure and benevolent face did not cheer him, as he passed, weary from his long travels on foot, through the palisade gates of his mission.

Besides his grief, another had come to him on the day of his arrival. Riding at anchor in the blue bay of Monterey was the long expected transport. Junipero's joy at this sight had changed to bitter disappointment when he learned that not a friar had come with the vessel. Instead of the six missionaries he had expected, he received letters from the guardian of San Fernando, the contents of which plunged him into deeper dejection. To a man, every friar in the college had declined to serve in California! The reason of this amazing refusal was made known to him and he learned for the first time of the new system to be inaugurated in the missions. With this system in force, the friars resolutely declined to undertake missionary labors in California.

Here then was the end of Junipero's beautiful dream. He would never see completed his bella cordona  of missions, for which he had prayed and worked unceasingly. Even the links in the chain he had already forged with so much pains, were threatened with destruction. A clause in the new reglamento  provided that in case of a missionary's death, or retirement, no one should be appointed to take his place. This was intended gradually to reduce the number of friars from two in each mission to one. So terrible a fate was this considered for the surviving friar that in his letter to Junipero, the guardian declared it would be better to abandon a mission than to subject a priest to such a life.

Sick at heart and sick in body, Junipero seems to have lost his usual clear perception of things. We find him, now, adding to the real anxieties harassing him the wholly unnecessary fear that unless he ordered the abandonment of San Buenaventura, he would be guilty of disobeying his superior.

He wrote to the friars of the missions nearest to his own and requested them to hasten to San Carlos for a conference. In response to his letter four friars came. Among them was Palou. The presence of this intimate friend was a comfort to Junipero; it gave him that support and loving human sympathy for which the feeble old man had, all unconsciously to himself, perhaps, been pining. He now read to the assembled missionaries the guardian's letter. Then he asked, must San Buenaventura be abandoned? And if not, will the instructions contained in the letter be complied with?

The missionaries, as may be supposed, did not find the question a difficult one to answer. The president was assured that San Buenaventura might continue to exist without the least infringement of the orders he had received. `Thus some of the soreness of his soul was relieved. To have abandoned a mission already established would have been to Junipero an almost insupportable sorrow.

These matters being settled, the friars returned to their several missions, leaving their president consoled.

In the autumn Junipero learned of the return of his old enemy, Don Pedro Fages, as governor of the province. It appears that in September Governor Neve had joined Fages, for the purpose of entering upon a campaign against the Yumas. Neve did not return to California. He received the appointment of Inspector General of the Provincial Internas, while Fages succeeded him as governor of California. The events connected with the Indian campaign cannot be related here, except to state briefly that it was in every respect a complete failure. The Yumas were not subjugated; the chieftains and their warriors were not captured; the Indians remained independent and hostile, and neither pueblo nor mission was again established on the Colorado, while traveling by that route became more dangerous than ever before.

When Fages entered upon his new duties as governor, he was instructed to continue the policy which Neve had inaugurated. But before long it became evident to the home authorities that affairs were not flourishing in California. The persistent refusal of the guardian to permit the founding of new missions and the fact that only with such aid could the savages be peacefully controlled, compelled, after a certain lapse of time, a restoration of the old system. This was a distinct triumph for the friars. But Junipero's consolation was small. He still was unable to continue his chain of missions for want of missionaries. At San Fernando College the friars numbered scarcely more than eighteen and only two missionaries could be spared for California, until longed-for reinforcements arrived from Spain.

Junipero dared not hope that he would live to welcome these friars from the mother country. Since his return from the south he had been growing continually weaker. To the old trouble in his leg was added a painful affliction in his chest, which caused him intense suffering, and brought on spasms of suffocation. This infirmity was due to those "acts of contrition" it had long been his custom to impose upon himself, in which he beat, burned, and bruised his chest without mercy.

Though weak and suffering he refused to rest. By the end of a year his excessive toil had brought on an acute and most grievous attack. He was not expected to live. But the arrival of the two friars from Mexico seemed to infuse new vitality into his bruised and suffering body. He now had someone to substitute for him at San Carlos, when he again went abroad to administer confirmation.

He began immediately to make preparations for leaving. Nothing could check him, not his own feebleness, not the earnest remonstrances of the friars. He felt that he would never be stronger, that on the contrary, his malady would steadily grow worse and it behooved him to make all possible haste, for his license to confirm would soon expire. The bull of Clement XIV. granting Junipero his power was void after July 16, 1784. It was considered improbable that it would be renewed. He had therefore but one year remaining in which he could administer confirmation. The sick old man therefore, was determined not to defer a single visit.

Before setting out for the southern mission he wrote to Palou. From this letter it is evident that he himself did not expect to survive the fatigue of his journey, for after giving his friend certain instructions, he concludes with these words: "All this I tell you because my return may be but a letter, for I find myself so much worse in health. Commend me to God."

With a fresh breeze the ship sped swiftly out to sea. She rounded Point Pinos, the rocky, pine-covered termination of the Santa Lucia Mountains, which, extending out into the sea, formed the bulwark of the Bay of Monterey, and sailed southward. The weather continued propitious. After a comparatively short voyage, for those days, the travelers saw the low, rounded hills of San Diego. It was the time of year when this part of California presents a uniform picture of yellow and brown; when the grasses and wild oats are parched and withered by the heat of rainless summer days. On the clean sandy beach an immense quantity of kelp added to the brown and yellow effect of the scene.

When the friar landed, he went immediately to the "mother mission," as the Spaniards called the San Diego establishment, and regardless of fatigue, or intense heat, began his work of confirming neophytes. Then, without resting, he started on his overland journey on foot, northward, intent only upon reaching each mission in order that he might give the sacrament to every new convert, each of whom he conceived as pining for this consolation. From San Juan Capistrano he passed on to San Gabriel. He found the missions prospering. Herds of cattle could be seen grazing on the tall grasses, wild oats, and California clover. Along the trail, now broadened into a highroad, were clumps of prickly pear, rising sometimes to the height of ten feet, which later would bear a beautiful purple fruit, exceedingly refreshing to the thirsty traveler. Here also were dense fields of wild mustard, growing to a great height, their yellow feathery tops quivering in the hot, still air.

As Junipero approached San Gabriel, he saw the large, flourishing fields of grain, the orchards, the vegetable gardens, and the busy neophytes in their midst. San Gabriel was one of the richest missions of California. The soil and climate were particularly favorable to the culture of grapes, and later this fruit became the most important production of the mission, over 100,000 vines being grown in the vineyards.

These vines bear enormous bunches of fruit, weighing from one to three pounds and more. Several varieties are cultivated but all of them are said to have been brought by the Padres from France and Spain. * * * There are fine clumps of palm trees near the Mission, and three grand vineyards, containing nearly two hundred thousand stocks. There are also four superb orchards and kitchen gardens and an immense garden of olives and another containing four hundred orange trees. The vineyards, gardens and orchards were surrounded by an impenetrable hedge of prickly pear, or Barbary figs. [Duflot de Mofras, Exploration du Territore de l'Oregon, Des Californies et de la Mer Vermeille, I. p. 350]

At the time of Junipero's last visit, San Gabriel, while prosperous, had not reached its period of greatest opulence. While he was painfully limping from mission to mission, confirming neophytes and baptizing Indians, Governor Fages was following leisurely in his wake, creating wherever he passed a certain pleasurable excitement, for he was accompanied by his young wife, Dona Eulalia de Callis, and his little son, Pedrito. The senor governor had with difficulty prevailed upon his lady to come to California. Dona Eulalia had not an adventurous spirit, moreover her honeymoon was past, and her interpretation of wifely duty did not include following her husband into the wilderness, exiling herself in a land leagues upon leagues away from Spanish civilization, where her only diversion would be riding through dark forests or roaming over pine shadowed cliffs by the sea. But after meeting General Neve in Sonora and being assured by him that California was no longer a "land of barbarism," that it was on the contrary, a delightful place in which to live, she yielded to her husband's entreaties to join him in the new province. Accordingly they journeyed to Loreto, where the happy Don Pedro met her and together they traveled up to Alta California. Writes the governor to his wife's mother:

The journey was delightful. Everywhere along the route padres, Dominicos and Fernandinos, troops, settlers and even Indians vied with each other in showering attentions upon the travelers. The Senora Gobernadora is the Benjamin of all who know her; she is getting on famously, and Pedrito is like an angel, so rest assured, for we live here like princes. Dona Eulalia, a native of Catalonia, like her husband, belonged apparently to a family of considerable position and influence, a fact which I suspect had something to do with Don Pedro's rapid promotion and good fortune at court. She was the first woman of her quality who ever honored California with a visit. It is related that on arrival she was shocked, and at the same time touched with pity, at the sight of so many naked Indians, and forthwith she began to distribute with free hand her own garments and those of her husband. She was induced to suspend temporarily her benevolence in this direction by a warning that she might have to go naked herself, since women's clothing could not be obtained in the country. Nevertheless, after a long residence at Monterey she left a reputation for her charities and kindness to the poor and the sick. [Bancroft, History of California, I. p. 390]

Whether Junipero personally welcomed Fages and the young "Senorita Gobernadora," on their arrival in Monterey, is doubtful, for the vital spark within him was nearly out. His license to confirm had expired on the sixteenth of July. When that day dawned Junipero had administered the sacrament to 5,036 persons and had baptized 5,800 Indians. His work was done. He was ready to die. The same day on which his license expired the yearly transport anchored in the harbor of Monterey. It had always been Junipero's custom to announce the arrival of this vessel to the missionaries and to forward to them the letters and packages they had received. He did so on this occasion, adding to every friar's mail a letter from, himself in which he bade them an eternal farewell. In these letters "seemed distilled drop by drop the very soul of the dying man."

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


The missionaries of San Antonio and San Luis were sufficiently near to come to him without great effort, and this he begged them to do that he might give them his farewell blessing. His letter to Palou was carried on the transport which sailed to San Francisco.

Promptly on receiving this message from his dying friend Palou left his mission and traveled hurriedly to San Carlos, where he arrived ten days before Junipero's soul took flight from his tired body. He found his old friend very weak and suffering intense pain in his chest. Towards evening he rallied and went to vespers. He conducted the services himself and concluded with singing a hymn in "celebration of the assumption of the Virgin."

As Palou listened to his rich, sonorous voice, in which no trace of weakness was apparent, his own hopes revived again. Turning to an old soldier who had known Junipero since the year 1769, he said to him: "The Padre President, it seems to me, is not so ill." The man, however, knew better. "Do not let yourself be deceived, father," he returned kindly, but with a conviction which dashed Palou's hopes, "he is very ill, but when this blessed padre prays or sings he always appears well; nevertheless he is going to die."

Five days before the faithful padre's death, the transport returned from San Francisco and dropped anchor in the bay. It was probably due to a hurried summons from Palou that the ship's surgeon passed immediately over to Carmel to see Junipero. The surgeon decided it was necessary to cauterize the sore chest. To this treatment the suffering old man consented.

When St. Francis was dying he also submitted to the application of the white-hot iron. There was however a difference in the manner in which these two remarkable men bore the cruel ordeal. Of St. Francis we read:

When the poor patient saw them bring in the brazier and the instruments, he had a moment of terror; but immediately making the sign of the cross over the glowing iron, "Brother fire," he said, "you are beautiful above all creatures; be favorable to me in this hour; you know how much I have always loved you; be then courteous today." [Sabatier's Life of St. Francis, p. 312]

Junipero, on the contrary, showed no fear, made no sign. He remained calmly standing while his ulcerated chest was burnt. He bore himself with a fortitude almost superhuman; not a muscle of his face quivered, not a sound escaped his lips.* The only result of this treatment, said Palou pityingly, was to afflict more that weary body.

No sooner was the chest burnt than Junipero went diligently to work cutting out garments for his neophytes from bolts of cloth which had arrived on the transport. So unmindful was he of his pain that we find him laughing cheerfully with Palou over some tale of the past. It had been brought to mind by the entrance into their apartment of an old Indian woman, more than eighty years of age. Before she left, Junipero, with his usual kind-heartedness, desired to give her a last token from himself. He had little left to give. Stepping into his cell, he returned with the blanket from his bed. His visitor was old; the blanket would help to keep her warm.

When the woman, well pleased with her gift, had gone, Palou said with a smile: "Are you paying her for the chickens?"

Junipero laughed and replied, "Yes."

It appears that years before, when San Carlos was first founded, Junipero had in his mission a solitary hen with her brood of chickens. This little feathered family the friar tended carefully, seeing in them many future lively cacklers, who would lay eggs and furnish food for his mission. But Fate decreed otherwise. An Indian woman with a palate apparently formed for delicacies, even those unknown to her—for chickens were never seen in California until the Spaniard's advent—ordered her small son to kill the entire brood, together with the mother hen. The culprits then enjoyed their feast. But the loss to Junipero's mission was great. The Indian who had killed and eaten the chickens was now cheerfully hobbling off with the friar's blanket.*

In the meantime the missionaries from San Antonio and San Luis failed to arrive. Their absence was a disappointment to Junipero. He told Palou that he feared his letters had not reached them. This proved to be true, for Palou, after making inquiries at the presidio, was informed that the president's letters had been "forgotten "and were still unforwarded. A courier was immediately dispatched to the two friars, bearing an urgent request from Palou to hasten to San Carlos; but the summons was too late.

The day before his death, Junipero expressed a wish to receive the viaticum—the sacrament administered to the dying. He announced his intention of going to the church for this purpose. In vain Palou urged him not to make the painful effort.

"I will adorn your cell as attractively as possible for the visit of His Divine Majesty," he said. But the dying man replied: "I desire to go to church. Since I am still able to walk, there is no reason why the Master should come here"—faith and veneration beautiful and touching.

When Junipero went to church that morning, it was as if he were officiating at his own obsequies. The commandant and soldiers from the presidio  came over to San Carlos to attend the solemn ceremony, and all the mission neophytes were present. Palou describes the scene.

He [Junipero] left the Sacristy attired in the vestments and went to the Altar. When he had prepared the incense for the holy office, this zealous Servant of God intoned the verse Tantum ergo Sacramentum. Though his eyes were filled with tears his voice was as strong and sonorous as when he was in health. He administered to himself, the sacred viaticum, with all the ceremonials of the ritual, and when he concluded the pious feast, which under such circumstances I have never before witnessed, he remained in the same posture on his knees giving thanks to the Master. He then returned to his cell, accompanied by all the people. Many were weeping, some because the service had affected them, others because of the pain and sorrow they felt that soon they would be without their beloved Padre. He remained alone in his cell, seated upon the chair by the table, in spiritual meditation. Seeing him thus I did not allow anyone to enter and disturb him. [Palou, Vida, pp. 271, 272]

It was well that Palou thus protected him, or the dying man would have been disturbed and in a manner that might have tried the fortitude of the most pious.

A well-meaning, but blundering carpenter attempted to enter the cell to ask the dying man how he would like his coffin fashioned. Palou, suppressing his tears, told him to make it as he had made Padre Crespi's.

Night fell. Silently a little flock of neophytes crept into the cell; they wished to be with their friend and protector to the end.

Junipero did not sleep, nor did he seek his couch. Part of the weary night he spent upon his knees, supporting his poor chest against the boards of his bed, a position which somewhat alleviated the fearful pain which tortured him.

We have another pathetic picture of him, lying upon the floor, his head resting in the arms of a devoted neophyte. The long night passed. Dawn broke, and still the worn, pain-racked body refused to die. Slowly the hours flowed by, while friars and neophytes watched.

As the morning advanced, the sufferer was cheered by the unexpected visit of two friends who knew him well. They were officers of the navy whose ship had arrived in the harbor of Monterey. Hearing of Fray Junipero's illness, they had hastened over to Carmel. Their coming seemed to reanimate the dying man. He rose and embraced them, greeting them with many expressions of pleasure, and ordered the mission bells to be rung in honor of their visit. Then seating himself again, he immediately asked concerning their recent voyage to Peru. He displayed a lively interest in the accounts they gave of their cruise. It was one of Junipero's charms, one of the many striking traits of his character, that he never failed to take a keen and sympathetic interest in others and this he did even now, when his eager spirit was preparing to take its lonely flight into eternity. Those about him, seeing him so animated, began again to hope. But Junipero, after hearing all the officers had to relate, said to them:

"And now, senors, I must give thanks that though so long, a time has passed since we last saw one another and though you have been so far away on your voyages, you have yet arrived in time to throw a little earth upon my grave." [Palou, Vida, p. 274]

Then, turning to Palou, he gave for the first and only time instructions concerning his burial.

"Let me be laid in the church by the side of Fray Juan Crespi; afterwards when the new stone church is built, they can put me where they will."

For a time profound silence reigned in the cell. Then happened a terrible thing. Junipero, still seated in his chair, suddenly called aloud in a voice of anguish, "I am afraid! I am afraid!" Turning his terror-stricken eyes on Palou he begged him to read the Recomendacion del alma. When the reading was over peace returned to the heart of Junipero.

"Thank God, thank God," he said, "now I am no longer afraid," and taking his diurno  he began to pray. It was now past high noon. For thirty-two hours Junipero had not slept or reclined upon his bed; he had endured incessant pain and had suffered fearful mental anguish, and still the vital spark within him continued to burn, now fitfully flaring into brilliant flame, now flickering so faintly it scarce could be discerned.

"Now I will sleep," he said and walked to his bed, formed of two rough planks fastened together. Without removing his monk's habit he lay down, placed his large wooden cross on his arms and peacefully closed his eyes to the world.

So died Fray Junipero Serra, in the seventy-first year of his age.

When the neophytes heard that their old padre was dead, they scattered into the woods and fields to gather for him the wild flowers he loved so well. This tribute of affection would have pleased Junipero more, could he have known of it, than all the honors bestowed upon him at his funeral. He had never sought or desired tokens of honor in his life-time; he had more than once evaded them. The motto of the Brothers Minor applied to him with equal truth as it did to St. Francis, "But God for-bid that I should glory save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ."

It was, however, fitting that so brave a soldier of the Cross should be accorded the honors given to a general of the army. The guns of the ship in the harbor were fired at half hour intervals during the day, and their solemn booming was answered by the presidio  artillery and the dull tolling of the mission bells.

Officers, soldiers, mariners, and Indians attended the funeral services, which were conducted with great pomp and ceremony, and repeated again on the seventh day after his burial.

Little more remains to be said of Fray Junipero. The early history of California is necessarily that of Junipero; he was the heart and soul of the conquest; whatever was done to further the cause of civilization in California during his life, was done by him. He had brought into existence nine missions, four presidios  and two pueblos.

The resources of his own internal force accomplished for California what the combined efforts of his contemporaries in the province could not have succeeded in accomplishing. He contended with official blunders and official ignorance, with narrow pride, with petty jealousies of rival authorities, with disheartening failures, and he contended successfully.

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


It has been discerningly said that the great feature of the character of Hernando Cortes was constancy of purpose, "a constancy not to be daunted by dangers nor baffled by disappointment, nor wearied out by impediments and delays." What was true of the great warlike conqueror of Mexico was equally true of the peaceful conqueror of California. Nor is it to be forgotten that his first thought was always for the savages, whose fate affected him more nearly than his own. No man ever lived who strove harder to attain spiritual perfection than Fray Junipero Serra. He never spoke ill of anyone. He hated lies and all manner of hypocrisies. Neither in his youth nor manhood did he succumb to the temptations to which he, like other men, was exposed. He was full of tenderness, of genuine simplicity, of sincerity. If in enforcing the rules of the church, in punishing moral laxity, he was often severe, he was none the less a gentle, kind man, quick to note the good traits in others as he was quick to admit faults in himself, which may be said to be the only time he ever bestowed a thought upon himself. He was by nature neither hardy nor adventurous, possessing little, if any, of that passion for travel, that burning desire to visit strange lands, which has distinguished the labors of many a good and zealous missionary. He was a student, eminently fitted both by nature and inclination to remain in the peaceful shelter of his convent, absorbed in theological and dogmatic studies, preaching on Sundays and fete days to the people of the town. Yet out of an unutterable compassion for his fellowmen, he deliberately left this peaceful life he loved to travel many thousands of miles across seas and unknown lands, to endure hardships and unceasing toil.

Second only to his spiritual grandeur, was his intellectual greatness. Modest monk as he was, he was yet a born leader of men. Had nature framed him for a soldier instead of a friar, his men would have followed him into battle as devotedly as his loyal brethren followed him into exile in strange lands.

Had he been civil governor instead of president of an order only, his executive ability would have been known in high places. As it was, being but a simple friar, he was California's greatest pioneer, the first civilizer of our western coast.