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

Youth and Early Manhood

There still clings to the name of California a pleasant halo of romance, although the mystery which some two hundred odd years ago lent a subtle charm to that name has long since departed, together with those dauntless Spanish spirits who sailed the seas, to plant the emblem of the church and Spain on Californian soil.

The names of Cortes, of Cabrillo, and Vizcaino, those intrepid discoverers and explorers of the Pacific by the coast of California, are familiar to all. But how many of us, beyond the boundaries of that western state, have heard the name of Fray Junipero Serra? And yet, had it not been for this Franciscan friar, the history of these United States of ours might have been strangely altered. The Russians—the ever-present bugbear of Spain and her American colonies in the Eighteenth century—might finally have swooped down from the far North and raised the standard of the Czar in Alta California. Or England, incited thereto by reports from her many sailor adventurers, might have sent forth to that land of sunshine and flowers the nucleus of a thriving English colony.

In their isolated state, it is doubtful if the people of such a colony would have dreamed of claiming independent sovereignty. The surrounding country was filled with savages, while on beyond stretched eastward for thousands of miles a continent unknown, unexplored, and full of fearful mystery. By sea, too, the Californian colonies were not much nearer the Atlantic coast, for the voyage around the Horn, which in our time can be made in sixty days, could not then be made under one hundred and fifty or two hundred days. It is safe to say that England would have been sure of her Californian possessions and so would have retained, perhaps permanently, her foothold in these states.

But a brown-frocked friar from the terraced island of Majorca has made of such possibilities idle, fruitless conjectures. It was because of his daring determination and intrepid spirit that California was not abandoned by the Spaniards. And it was owing to his ceaseless toil that later the long chain of missions was laid which carried civilization from the wilds of San Diego to the oft fog-enshrouded sand dunes of San Francisco harbor. Spain took possession of California, but it was Fray Junipero Serra who retained it for her, and the history of California offers us no more interesting picture than that of this Franciscan friar.

Francisco Palou, the faithful friend, pupil, and biographer of Fray Junipero, tells us quaintly that this "indefatigable servant in the vineyard of our Saviour began his laborious life the twenty-fourth day of November in the year 1713, at one o'clock in the morning, in the town of Petra in the Island of Majorca."

There are probably no more beautiful islands in the world than the Balearic Islands. The ancients gave to them the name of Aphrodisiades, or Islands of Love. Majorca is the largest and loveliest of them all. It was counted at one time the great market of Europe. In the eighteenth century, as far as commercial importance was concerned, the islands could be numbered among the "forgotten isles." In this fair land of the orange and the ruby muscatel, the inhabitants were industrious, extremely hospitable, and of an orthodoxy that even the rationalizing spirit of eighteenth-century Europe could not disturb.

Such was the birthplace of Fray Junipero Serra. His parents were Antonio Serra and Margarita Ferrer, pious, honest peasants of exemplary habits. They named their infant son Miguel Joseph. He was baptized the day of his birth. The child was early instructed in the Catholic faith, as soon as he began to walk his parents taking him regularly to the church and convent of San Bernadino in Petra. He gained the affections of the good fathers in the convent, who taught the boy to sing, and he served as chorister and acolyte in the parish church, to the great delight of his parents. He was small is stature and not so robust as little peasant boys are generally conceived to be; but if he was constitutionally frail, he was also constitutionally intrepid. He had an ardent temperament and possessed a strength of will and intellect which would have made him an important factor in any walk of life he might have chosen.

His purpose to become a Franciscan was formed in early childhood, just as later his purpose to become a missionary was formed in early manhood. There were, therefore, in Junipero's life no wasted years in which the mind struggled blindly in a career not suited to it till it finally threw off its yoke and found its proper sphere. In another respect he was also peculiarly noteworthy. His life can be searched in vain for a single record of sin, or frivolity, or dreary waste places. He was not converted after years spent in dissipation. His soul from childhood to the hour of his death remained ever exquisitely clean and fresh.

While yet a boy, his parents, observing his extraordinary abilities, took him to Palma to pursue his studies. He became in a short time conspicuous among his fellow students for his proficiency in learning. In the evenings when other youths were dreamily tinkling their guitars in dim flower-scented patios, or gayly roaming Palma's narrow streets to serenade dark-eyed maidens with some Majorcan lyric of love, the young peasant from Petra was absorbed in his books.

His intellectual attainments made him the pride and delight of his teachers. Yet in the midst of the distraction of studies his mind harked back continually to his longing to become a monk. One day he asked the consent of the Provincial to enter the Franciscan order. His small stature, his delicate appearance caused the church dignitary to pronounce him too young to take monastic vows. As a matter of fact he was in his seventeenth year, and the Provincial, being informed of this, withdrew his objection. Young Serra took his first vows September 14, 1730. In this year of his novitiate the principal convent in Palma gave a signal proof of the high appreciation accorded him by electing him professor of philosophy, a position in which he appears to have distinguished himself markedly.

At his ordination he took the name of Junipero. The first Junipero was one of the disciples of St. Francis, who besides being distinguished for his humility was the jolliest of the "joyous penitents." His pious capers smack of a lively sense of humor. On one occasion, when forbidden to give away his cloak, (for by so doing he would have left himself naked) he said to the next beggar, "If you tear it off my back I will not resist you," and afterward cheerfully explained to St. Francis that "a worthy person took it from me and went away with it." All are familiar with the story of how he avoided a triumphant entry into Rome, prepared for him by an enthusiastic crowd, by the simple expedient of making a fool of himself on a seesaw, until, deeply offended, his admirers turned away and left him to enter the city alone. That the serious young Majorcan professor chose to call himself after this merry Franciscan throws an interesting sidelight on his character.

While still a young man, Fray Junipero, as we must now call him, obtained a degree of S.T.D. from the famous Lullian University, with an appointment to the John Scotus chair of Philosophy. He held the appointment with distinguished success until he left Spain. His doctrinal learning brought him fame, but it was his eloquence as a preacher which dominated the people, who flocked in large crowds to hear his sermons. He had a sonorous voice and a fervent delivery. A man at once so learned, so eloquent, and so possessed of the faith of a child, could not fail to stir his listeners in every fiber of their being.

He was selected by the university to deliver the panegyric on the occasion of a festival in honor of their patron and compatriot, the eminent Dr. Raymond Lully. This famous mystic and theologian had led a wild life in his youth. It is said that he once scandalized the people by entering the church on horseback to see a lady of whom he was enamored. Years afterward he was stoned to death by Mussulmans in Africa, where he had gone to obtain converts to Christianity through his peculiar system of logic.

Fray Junipero's address on the life of this acute theologian and prolific writer was so scholarly that the learned men of Palma and the university were equally amazed and delighted, and an eminent critic pronounced the discourse "worthy of being printed in letters of gold." It was at this time, when Junipero had obtained his highest renown, that he determined to devote the remainder of his life to his fellowmen in the wilderness.

Long before the Reformation, the activity of the Catholic church in every country save Spain had almost entirely ceased. Popes and princes were more absorbed in temporal affairs than in spiritual conquests. But in the Spanish peninsula missionary ardor had never abated. Spain's proximity to the Moslems, her prolonged and constant struggle with the infidels, kept the missionary spirit alive in the hearts of her people. The great maritime discoveries of the fifteenth and the sixteenth centuries added fuel to their ardor. To traverse dangerous seas, to penetrate unknown lands for the purpose of carrying Christianity to the heathen was to Spanish cavalier, and Spanish priest, one of the leading motives of their exploring expeditions.

Down to the latter end of the eighteenth century, the love of proselytizing may be said to have been one of the prominent characteristics of the Spaniard. The Franciscans were the first religious order to send missionaries to Mexico. Twelve Franciscan friars undertook the perilous task of introducing Christianity to the natives of the conquered country. In fact, from the time of the second voyage of Columbus, which several Franciscans accompanied, members of the order shared in every expedition to New Spain and established their missions. So powerful an organization did they become in Mexico, that in the eighteenth century their convents were to be found in every pueblo of importance in the country. In consequence, their influence was vast; frequently the king himself would request them to support the administration of his viceroy. By royal command the authorities in New Spain were not permitted in any way to interfere with the internal government of their order. The missionaries were wretchedly paid. The stipend allowed by the crown for carrying Christianity into remote wildernesses, for braving dangers, enduring untold hardships, was three hundred pesos  (about $150) a year to each missionary. This pittance was often grudgingly paid and sometimes not at all, according to the state of the royal exchequer.

But to poverty Junipero was as indifferent as he was resolutely blind to the allurements of ambition, fame, and power. When he determined to employ his marked abilities, his vigorous mind, to the conversion of the heathen, to give up his splendid career in Majorca for this purpose, he told no one of his resolve for he feared his plans would be frustrated. Notwithstanding that he guarded his secret jealously, a certain professor in the convent, Fray Rafael Verger, heard it rumored that one of the brotherhood was about to embark for the New World as a missionary. He repeated the rumor to his friend, Francisco Palou, and confessed that he was sorely prompted to turn missionary himself, but that the duties of his professorship made such a step impracticable. The two friends made many efforts to discover the identity of the unknown friar. Their inquiries were futile, nor were they even successful in learning whether the vague rumors which had reached them contained an element of truth. Palou's mind dwelt incessantly on the subject; it held a fascination for him. He wished to consecrate his years to missionary labor. He determined to ask counsel of Fray Junipero, his professor, whom he greatly esteemed and loved. One day when the two were alone together Palou told him his secret aspirations. As Junipero listened, his eyes overflowed with tears. They were tears of intense relief and joy. It appears that, though his own resolve had never wavered, he had not been without a great dread of future loneliness, of separation from the companions of his young manhood. He had passed long hours in prayer. He had completed two novenas to the Virgin and San Francisco Solano, in which he implored them to inspire in the heart of a friend the same ardor which burned within his own. He now felt that his prayers had been answered. He in turn unburdened himself to Palou. Before teacher and pupil separated, their plans had taken definite shape. Junipero enjoined upon the younger man the strictest secrecy. It was necessary for the friars to obtain the consent of the comisario general  of foreign missions. Junipero accordingly wrote to this functionary. In his reply the comisario  gave him small encouragement. It was difficult, he said, to arrange the matter; the two applicants were not on the mainland, moreover the complete quota of friars for the missions had already been chosen from Andalusia and would soon embark for the New World.

Though bitterly disappointed, Junipero did' not lose courage. He wrote again, asking permission to join a college on the mainland, in order to remove one of the objections mentioned by the comisario. While affairs were at this juncture, the Lenten season of 1749 was approaching, and Fray Junipero was sent to preach in the parish church of his native town, Petra. Before leaving Palma, he again cautioned Palou to guard well their secret.

Now it happened that among the friars who had volunteered and had been selected by the comisario  to go to America, were five who had never seen a larger expanse of water than the rivers flowing past their inland homes. When they gazed for the first time upon the great, turbulent ocean and heard the roar of the raging surf, they were terror stricken. Their fear overcame their zeal. They repented of their offer to Christianize benighted heathen and returned hurriedly to the safety of their homes. The comisario general  knew where he could supply the places of at least two of these timid ones, and he dispatched immediately the necessary licenses to Fray Junipero and Palou. What happened to these licenses or patentes  as they were called, is not known, but Palou intimated that they arrived safely at the monastery, then were strangely lost between the entrance door of that establishment and his cell. Whether or not the convent authorities deliberately confiscated the letters, is not known, but it is certain that they were strongly averse to losing so brilliant a member of their faculty as Fray Junipero Serra. His reputation as an acute theologian, distinguished scholar, and eloquent preacher had added in no small degree to the renown of their convent, both at home and abroad. To lose so valuable a servant in the great mission fields of the American wilderness was not to be tolerated without a struggle. It was doubtless this opposition that Junipero anticipated when he impressed upon Palou the necessity of secrecy.

Once in receipt of his patente  he well knew that his departure could not be hindered, but until then he would not be free to follow his pious inclinations if these took him from Majorca. The comisario, hearing nothing further from either Fray Junipero or Palou, and perhaps suspecting the cause, again dispatched two patentes. On this occasion he took the precaution of sending the papers by a special courier. They did not miscarry a second time, and Palou received them as he was entering the refectory. It was the last day of March. Palou lost no time. With the precious patentes  tucked carefully inside his frock, he took the road to Petra. He arrived that night. Seeking Junipero, he delivered the letter and license. His happiness, said Palou artlessly, could not have been greater had he received a mitre and been promoted to the dignity of a bishop.

It was near the end of Lent. Junipero decided to wait until after Easter before leaving Majorca. Possibly the knowledge that it was the last festival he would ever celebrate with his old parents had something to do with this decision. Palou returned to Palma to arrange for their embarkation. He seems to have had difficulty in finding a ship, but finally engaged their passage on an English packet boat soon to sail for Malaga.

Fray Junipero in the meantime preached his last sermon in the little town where he was born. He bade his friends farewell. He asked and received the blessing of his old father and mother. He did not tell them his destination. The third day after Easter he set out for Palma. When he arrived at the convent, seductive overtures were made to him by his superiors, to induce him to abandon his plans. They would make him guardian, they said, although he was young for that honor, and they would cause the appointment to be ratified at the next meeting of the prelates, which was close at hand. But neither this flattering offer nor others equally or more tempting were sufficient to induce him to give up his missionary project.

Junipero finally left the city with Palou and boarded the English packet boat, which was to carry them to Malaga. Before a fair wind the little sailing craft flew swiftly out to sea. From its deck the two friars gazed upon Majorca's lovely vine-terraced shores, which one of them at least was destined never to see again. The voyage lasted fifteen days. It proved unexpectedly exciting, though far from agreeable. Palou's account of this voyage is graphic, interesting and naive:

The captain of the vessel was a stubborn, cross-grained heretic, and so quarrelsome, that during the fifteen days of our passage to Malaga, he gave us not a moment's peace. We scarce had time to read our office because of his everlasting desire to argue and wrangle over doctrinal points. He understood no language save English and a little Portuguese, and in this latter he conducted his disputations. Holding the English translation of the Bible in his hand, he would read a text of the Holy Scriptures and proceed to interpret it according to his own whim. But our Fray Junipero was so thoroughly instructed and versed in dogmatic theology and in the Holy Scriptures, that he could in an instant point out the error and the misinterpretation and quote another text to clearly confirm this. The captain would then search in his greasy old Bible and not being able to find anything to prove his point would declare the leaf torn or that he could not find the particular verse he wanted. If another verse was quoted he would make the same excuse and although confuted and put to shame over and over again, he remained obstinately unconvinced to the last. As a result of his constant defeat he became so enraged with us, especially with my reverend brother Junipero, for it was he who had confounded him, that he frequently threatened to pitch us overboard and sail for London. Undoubtedly he would have done so but for fear of the consequences, for in one of these outbursts I told him frankly that I was not in the least afraid, for I had the security of a passport, signed by himself, and if he failed to deliver us in safety at Malaga, our king would surely demand satisfaction from the English government and he would have to pay the penalty with his head. Notwithstanding this threat, he became one night so enraged, because of a dispute which he had with our Fray Junipero about some point of doctrine, that he clapped a dagger to his throat with the evident intention of killing him, and if he did not do so, it was only because our Lord had reserved His servant for a more protracted martyrdom, and for the conversion of so many souls, as we shall see hereafter. [Palou, Vida, pp. 11-12]

In these controversies Junipero had the advantage of a temper perfectly controlled, and of an extraordinary memory. With imperturbable calm he could quote text after text from the Scriptures, while the irascible English "heretic" was rummaging in his Bible for a verse he couldn't find. That the friar had some twinges regarding his share in these fiery encounters is probable, for after the captain's last fit of anger, and when he had shut himself in his cabin for a cooling lapse of hours, Junipero said to Palou,

It consoles me that I have never started these disputes—for I consider them time lost—but it seemed to me that I had to reply to him for the credit of our Catholic religion. [Palou, Vida, pp. 12]

There were no further controversies; the captain's wrath abated, and a few days later they reached Malaga in safety. After a short stay in the convent of San Francisco the friars went to Cadiz. Here the comisario  received them with great friendliness. He expressed regret that there were hot more applicants to replace the five friars whose fear of the great, unknown ocean had so over-powered their missionary zeal as to cause them to withdraw at the last moment. Fray Junipero whereupon told him he was confident that among the brotherhood in Majorca were several who would gladly join the expedition. At the request of the comisario  he wrote to his friends, Fray Rafael Verger, Fray Guillermo Vicens, and Fray Juan Crespi, the last a school-friend of Palou's. The names of two of these friars figure prominently in the annals of New Spain. Crespi became the well known keeper of diaries of early Alta California days as Palou was her first historian, while Verger became the "Father Guardian "of San Fernando College in Mexico, a position which Palou, later, also occupied. Junipero therefore sailed for the New World accompanied by three friends whose sympathy, confidence, and hearty co-operation probably helped to make his Californian career so singularly successful. The expedition left in two detachments. The first carried among twenty other priests, Junipero, and Francisca Palou.

Their voyage to Vera Cruz lasted ninety-nine days. Before they made their first port, which was Porto Rico, they had to endure much suffering because of the scarcity of food and water. For two weeks, a scant supply of water was doled out once in twenty-four hours to every man on board. There was a great deal of murmuring, both among the priests and the laymen. Fray Junipero alone was never heard to complain. His companions inquired one day whether he, too, did not suffer from thirst. "My thirst causes me no trouble," he replied serenely.

When pressed for an explanation he said, "I have found a remedy for this thirst, it is to eat very little and to talk less—it does not waste the saliva."

We can imagine a sly twinkle in his kindly eye, as he gave this reply. The ship left Porto Rico on the second of November and a month later sighted Vera Cruz, but a furious norther came up and drove it towards Campeche.

The tempest lasted two days. On the night of the second day, the fourth of December, the friars gave themselves up for lost, and waited the end. Their situation was indeed perilous. The crew had mutinied; the ship was leaking; the pumps were inadequate; the winds and the waves thundered ceaselessly around and above them.

The tempest was at its height when the morning of the third day broke. It was a saint's day, "the martyred Santa Barbara." The little band of missionaries, Dominicans and Franciscans, gathered in the cabin. They were to cast their votes and determine which saint they should appeal to in this hour of peril. They were not long in deciding. With one accord they shouted, "Viva Santa Barbara!" It is recorded by Palou that simultaneously with the shout, the storm abated, the wind became gentle and benign and blew the ship without further mishap into the harbor of Vera Cruz, where they arrived on the sixth of December.