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

Mexico City and Sierra Gorda

The port of Vera Cruz was the key to New Spain. It was guarded by the fortress island, San Juan de Ulua, one mile distant from the mainland. San Juan was at this period of history the strongest fort in the New World. It had become so through dire necessity. Little more than half a century had elapsed since the famous attack on Vera Cruz by eight hundred buccaneers, led by the handsome, fair-haired devil, Lorencillo. His name was still remembered with terror in the town. Strangers were told the tale of his landing at dead of night and driving from their homes six thousand panic-stricken inhabitants, imprisoning them for three days in the churches, where the least of their sufferings was being deprived of food, water, and sufficient air, while the pirates plundered the city.

With a record like this to Lorencillo's credit, it is interesting to read the eulogy left him by one of his admiring fraternity: "his only fault was his impatience and a habit of swearing a little too frequently!"

Since the sacking of the city, San Juan de Ulua protected itself more formidably with one hundred twenty mounted guns and three mortars. Vera Cruz itself was also strongly fortified. Its walls were built of hewn stone and were six feet high, surmounted by strong double stockades. Thus safe-guarded Vera Cruz continued to thrive, though it was the most unhealthful city in New Spain. Water was scant and poor in quality. The practice of burying the dead in church vaults caused a periodical pestilence to ravage the city, while the exhalations from stagnant swamps in the neighborhood produced a malaria called by the inhabitants vomito. In the winter it was visited by a violent northwest wind, which, though it often blew the sand in such clouds as to render breathing difficult, was yet of immense sanitary benefit to the city. When the ship that carried our voyagers lowered her sails under the shadow of the great stone walls of the island fort, and was securely fastened by cable ropes attached to bolts and rings in the masonry, the passengers were transferred in small boats to the mainland.

The missionaries were hospitably received in the convents of their respective orders. Their first act on arriving was to hold a solemn fiesta  in honor of Santa Barbara, after which they sought the seclusion of the convents for a few days of much needed rest.

But not Junipero. He preached the sermon at the fiesta—amazing everyone, Palou declared, by his eloquence—and then prepared to push on to the City of Mexico without delay.

It was customary to send missionaries forward to their various destinations in some kind of vehicle or on horseback, and with the necessary commodities for the journey. Of this custom Junipero chose not to avail himself. He begged permission to travel on foot and to start immediately. He was quite able, he said, to walk the hundred leagues which lay between Vera Cruz and the capital of New Spain. There was small chance that such a request would meet with a refusal; to grant it was to save money furnished from the King's exchequer and money from that source was by no means easy to procure. Moreover the years of 1749-50 had not been prosperous ones to the inhabitants of New Spain. Unusually heavy frosts had destroyed the crops, resulting in a famine which spread throughout the country. In some of the provinces the famine had been followed by an epidemic. Nor was this all. There had been earthquakes, destructive ones, and many lives had been lost and entire towns destroyed. The religious orders in New Spain must have felt severely the effects of these calamities in the depleted state of their treasuries. When therefore Junipero expressed not only a willingness, but a desire, to travel as did St. Francis of old, without carriage, horse, or provisions, his convent in Vera Cruz made no attempt to dissuade him. He was accompanied by a friar from the province of Andalusia. Palou did not go with his friend. He was probably already feeling that insurmountable lassitude which later developed into the malignant fever of the country, and brought him close to death's door.

The two friars started forth on their journey, their sole provisions their breviary and an unlimited faith in Divine Providence. Could St. Francis himself have done better than this? In the populous European countries it required small courage for a traveling friar to depend for his sustenance on the mensa domini, or table of the Lord, as St. Francis loved to call the bread of charity. But in this New World it was an entirely different affair. The country was sparsely settled, the pueblos were long distances apart and chance travelers few. But these difficulties were as nothing to Fray Junipero's vehement will and courage. He went on his way joyfully. The roads were rough, the weather at times bitterly cold or intensely hot. Without proper preparations to meet these climatic variations, without sufficient food, and quite as often without water to quench their thirst, the friars plodded doggedly on.

They endured great fatigue and suffered many hardships. Junipero's confidence and courage sustained the drooping spirits of his companion. All through his career this is a phase of Junipero's character which stands out most prominently. Modest in his scholarly attainments, humble almost to excess in his estimate of his character, he yet possessed in an extraordinary degree a confidence, nay, an iron belief, in his ability to accomplish successfully whatever task he undertook. Without this belief, no man, it matters not what his inborn capacities or opportunities, will attain success; while with this belief, even though he be but indifferently gifted by nature, he will rarely fail in accomplishing what he has set out to do. In Junipero this confidence took the form most natural to a man of his character, training, and fanatical religious convictions. He believed in the special intercession of Divine Providence in his behalf.

On his journey to the City of Mexico he was three times in imminent danger of perishing from excessive fatigue, starvation, and the inclemency of the weather, and was three times relieved by the charitable acts of a stranger whom he unhesitatingly believed to be St. Joseph descended from heaven to succor him and his companion. Some years later St. Joseph returned with all the members of the Holy Family, for the express purpose of procuring the weary friar a good night's lodging!

Before he reached the City of Mexico Junipero's strength failed him completely. His legs became swollen from fatigue and sore from innumerable mosquito bites. It was with the utmost difficulty that he continued his wearisome limping over rough roads, under the blazing sun of low lying valleys, in the chill of steep and sometimes perilous heights. One morning after a heavy, unrefreshing sleep, he awakened to find he could not continue his journey. His foot and ankle had become grievously inflamed and ulcerated. He chafed under the enforced delay when almost in sight of his destination, but gave himself one day of rest, then set out again upon his road. During the remainder of his life Junipero was never free from wounds on his foot and leg brought on by the hardships of this journey.

It was New Year's morning, 1750, when he limped wearily into the City of Mexico, just eight months and a half from the day he left Majorca.

The capital of New Spain was at this time the largest and finest city on the American continent. It was encircled by a navigable canal which answered the twofold purpose of a drain and a military defense. The buildings were handsome, the architecture peculiarly refined. A certain kind of porphyry was employed in the structure which imparted an air of solidity and splendor to the city. The palace of the viceroy approached in size the royal edifices in Madrid, while within the palace, more often than not, prevailed a magnificence that would not have discredited a European monarch. Attached to the palace gardens was a botanical garden famous for the variety and rarity of its plants.

The residence of the archbishop was a stately pile of which an old chronicler said, "It expressed the Luster and the Quality of him that inhabits the same." The paseos, or public promenades, were the pride and delight of the people. In no part of Spain could their equal in beauty be found. Among the most famous was the paseo  of Atzcapotzaleo.

It stretched along the banks of the canal, the high road for the fruit, flower, and vegetable venders of the city. Little canoes filled with brilliant colored flowers, with luscious fruits embedded in bowers of green leaves and blossoms, floated daily down the canal and gave the scene the effect of a perpetual water carnival. In the afternoon, when the capital awoke from its siesta and went abroad the paseos  were at their brightest. A carnival of gaiety reigned. Hundreds of coaches, springless, but richly decorated, drawn by two or four horses and attended by servants in gorgeous livery, passed one another in stately procession. Here all the fashion and beauty could be seen. Dark-eyed senoras and senoritas, clad in evening gowns glittering with jewels, leaned in graceful indolence against the cushioned seats of their coaches, or sat erect, vivacious, ever ready to be amused, to gossip, to laugh at everything, at nothing, to coquette. Magnificently attired cavaliers on prancing steeds, their "saddles embossed in massive gold or silver and fringed with dangling pieces of precious metal, which jingle at every step," threw bold, admiring glances into the passing coaches, or with silver spur and dainty inlaid whip, made opportunity to display their fine horsemanship. It was the joy of a fete, a fete recurring daily, always the same, yet never palling on those limpid-eyed, luxurious women, with slender hands and little feet, and on those gaily enamored cavaliers.

Even in the preceding century the capital of New Spain was known in Europe for its habits of gaiety and luxury. The accounts of its wealth and extravagance were scarcely exaggerated and applied with equal truth to the days when Fray Junipero came to Mexico.

At present Mexico is thought to be one of the richest Cities of the World, abounding (if reports be true), in all kinds of voluptuous gallantry and bravery, even to excess. It is supposed to contain about 6 or 7 miles in compass and to consist of above one hundred thousand Houses or Families, whereof not the loth part are Spaniards, but those that are, all Gentlemen, at least as to their garb and manner of living, for they live most splendidly in all respects both for Diet and Apparel. It is no extraordinary matter to see an Hat-band or Role all of Diamonds, in some ordinary Gentleman's Hat, and of Pearl among the common Citizens and Tradesmen. The Coaches (which most Gentlemen keep) almost all covered with Gold & Silver; richly beset with Precious Stones and within lined with Cloth of Gold, or the best China Silk that can be gotten, of which Coaches, in time of year, at the Alameda, as they call it, which is, as it were, The Hide-Park of Mexico, and a place made of purpose for recreation and delight, a Man shall observe not seldom, above a thousand or two thousand Coaches full of Ladies and Gallants coming thither only to take the Air, and their Pleasure, both the one end and the other attended with a numerous Train of Servants and Mulatoes of both sexes. [America, from the Royal Copy of Charles II.]

The capital presented the two extremes of society somewhat markedly, in fact, it bristled with sharp contrasts. There were lazy, improvident natives who, when not begging or lounging around shops, where pulque was sold, were lying in the pleasant warmth of the sun, their only, garment a square blanket scarcely sufficient to cover their nakedness. There were also the indigent sick, lured often from long distances to the capital, in quest of aid from the many hospitals, which the liberality of the rich supported. And there were the half-naked hucksters swarming around wretched booths of cane and rushes, shouting out their wares or exchanging jocose greetings with one another. All these served as a striking contrast to the luxurious display of the upper classes.

We do not know what effect the splendor of this New World capital had on Fray Junipero, but it seems improbable that he was not impressed with the number and grandeur of the churches in the city. The great cathedral occupying the same site where some two hundred fifty odd years before stood the sinister temple of the Aztec war god, was then, as now, the most magnificent structure in Mexico. Here was placed the wonderful image of "Our Lady of the Assumption," wrought of gold and supported by four golden angels, and the image of "Our Lady of Conception," made of pure silver which had been presented to the cathedral by the rich silversmiths of Mexico. Junipero had at an early hour that morning said his prayers in the church of Our Lady of Guadalupe. He may have lingered afterwards to gaze about in the vaulted twilight of the interior; for this was the church the haughty viceroy Montanez, had been so zealous to complete that he had, himself, solicited alms in the streets of the capital—a spectacle rendered particularly edifying from his lordship's regal habit of driving in a carriage drawn by six magnificent horses. Had it been the hour of mass, Fray Junipero might have seen well-fed, or over-fed women leisurely sipping chocolate, for even in church they would not abstain from indulging themselves in their favorite beverage. A certain bold bishop in Chiapas, it is said, attempted to stop this singular custom. He was poisoned for his pains. This is the origin of the saying, "Beware of Chiapas chocolate."

When Junipero reached the college of San Fernando, all the friars were at prayers in the church. He appears to have been struck with the fervor of their devotions, for he afterward exclaimed to his companion, the monk from Andalusia, "To become a member of such a pious community is alone worth all the pain and fatigue I have suffered."

The guardian of the college received Fray Junipero with marked distinction. The monks were eager to show their regard for one whose reputation for piety, scholarship, and eloquence had already preceded his arrival in their midst. One of the older monks exclaimed as he embraced him, "Oh, for a forest of Juniperos!"

"Not of my kind, reverend brother," returned Junipero; "rather beg for a forest of a very different variety."

This humility was not a cloak to cover deep seated pride, for neither guile nor hypocrisy lodged under Fray Junipero's cowl. The mental attitude of those who have penetrated farthest into the kingdom of knowledge is invariably one of deep humility at the littleness of their advance into the vast realm lying unexplored before them, and the moral attitude of those whose ideals are the noblest, whose spiritual aims are the highest, is one of profound humility of heart that they are so far from attaining the gospel perfection for which they strive.

Fray Junipero was at this time about thirty-seven years old. In stature he was of medium height; his features were small and delicate; his figure slender; it did not suggest great muscular strength, nor that extraordinary power of endurance which distinguished him in his missionary career. He was very diffident when in the company of strangers. His manners were simple and uniformly kind, his bearing humble; yet there was an air of resolution about him which inspired confidence. He was always serious, so much so, that he appeared stern, even gloomy. But when he spoke his expression became gentle, sweet, and so attractive that all hearts warmed towards him. Such a character was calculated to gain the trust and devotion of his brethren in the distant missions where he later labored.

Junipero spent five months in the college of San Fernando. They were quiet, restful months, occupied with the performance of his religious duties. Yet he was not altogether happy. He had taken the long journey to Mexico to labor among the Indians, not to remain in safe tranquility in the luxurious capital of New Spain. One holiday evening when the friars were strolling in the pleasant paths of the monastery orchard, accompanied by the Father Guardian, the latter let it be known that he was seeking missionaries for the remote and craggy regions of the Sierra Gordas. Instantly Junipero turned to him.

Ecce ego, mitte me, he exclaimed with ardor.

Inspired by his enthusiasm, many others offered their services. It was soon apparent that the Sierra Gorda missions would no longer lack for ministers, as had hitherto been the case. The aw did note require a friar to serve as missionary against his will, and the Sierra Gordas had never been a favorite mission field. The Pames Indians in this mountainous region had been difficult to conquer. They were a bold, belligerent people, long a terror to the colonists in that part of the country. They made marauding raids into the very streets of the Spanish settlements; they burnt the churches and destroyed the missions. The long-continued efforts of the militia to subdue these savages were only in part successful. Finally Jose de Escandon, an officer in the Queretaro militia, was commissioned with the difficult task of pacification. A man of great nobility and integrity of character, Escandon was also a man of wealth and maintained his troops at his own expense. He was a strict disciplinarian and never permitted excesses. He appears to have accomplished the subjugation of the Sierra Gorda Indians successfully and in so humane a spirit that the vanquished savages gave him their confidence and friendship. After this wild region was brought, at last, under Spanish control, one would naturally suppose that missionary labors would make favorable progress. But this was far from true. The climate of the Sierra Gorda was humid and unhealthful. Devices to preserve health were unknown or not practicable. After short services the missionaries sickened and were obliged to retire to the hospital of their college in Queretaro. It became customary later to recall the missionaries every six months and send others in their places.

This method was not successful, for the friars, because of their short stay among the Indians, had no time to learn the native language, which was a great hindrance to spiritual conquest. In temporal matters they were equally unsuccessful. The missions, far from being self-supporting were unable to furnish maintenance sufficient even for the missionaries. It was necessary to forward provision regularly to keep the neophytes from deserting. This was particularly true of the missions Santiago de Xalpan, Purisima Concepcion, and two or three others.

Such was the condition of affairs there when Junipero offered his services. Palou had arrived in the capital, recuperated from the fever that had so nearly cost him his life. He volunteered with his friend to labor among the Pames Indians. Accordingly, the two set out one morning in early June from San Fernando College for the mission of Santiago de Xalpan, situated in a remote spot among the crags of the Sierra Gordas. They made the journey on foot, although Junipero was suffering from the condition of his foot and ankle, and although saddle mules had been provided for them. The rule prohibiting riding had long been obsolete in the order, while even in the early days of the Friars Minor, the brethren were permitted to ride on occasions of manifest necessity or under stress of infirmity. But Junipero outdid the "penitents "themselves who gathered around St. Francis at Portiuncola, in the severity of his deprivations. He had a fanatical contempt for his body, which was more than medieval, and which later in his career had, we suspect, something to do with the antagonism he encountered among the military officials in California.

On the 16th of June the friars arrived at Santiago 'de Xalpan, and were received, said Palou, with gratifying rejoicings by the neophytes. Junipero promptly set to work to learn the language of the Pames Indians. Having accomplished this, he translated into Pames

the prayers and doctrines of the Catholic church. He acquired the Indian tongue only after great perseverance and hard work. He did not possess the faculty of learning easily strange languages. In later years his linguistic troubles increased, and he spent many hours in the effort to overcome them.

He was indefatigable in temporal affairs as in spiritual matters; he appears to have managed the former so well that, under his administration, the mission became not only self-supporting but extremely prosperous. He possessed an executive ability of high order, was full of resource, of prudence, of acumen. The value of his services were soon recognized, and the Guardian of San Fernando offered him the presidency of the Sierra Gorda missions. Junipero, who all during his long life remained perfectly indifferent to worldly honors, declined the appointment. A year and a half later, the Guardian again sent him a Patente de las Missiones  and on this occasion insisted so strongly upon an acceptance that Junipero could not refuse. He retained the position, however, for three years only, then resigned.

"If this office is an honor," he said, "then let the others share in the honor also—likewise if it is a burden," he added with that touch of dry humor which he occasionally displayed.

His life in the Sierra Gordas covered a period of nine arduous years of unremitting labor. His abilities finally caused him to be recalled by the Guardian of San Fernando College, to Mexico, in order to take charge of some missions of the Rio Saba in Texas, among the warlike Apache nation. He obeyed with alacrity, although knowing the fate which had overtaken the last president of the missions. The acceptance of a charge of this nature remained always voluntary even after the appointment was made by the Guardian. But Fray Junipero was not the man to shrink from such a trust. He hastened to Mexico to receive his instructions. Before he arrived however, the Government had decided to send out a punitive expedition, and instead of going to Texas, Junipero was retained in the college. He remained there seven years, preaching in the capital, holding missions in the surrounding bishoprics, and performing the duties of his office of comisario  of the Inquisition, to which he was appointed in 1752. Of his connection with the Inquisition little is known besides the bare fact itself. It is probable that his duties of comisario  were not of great importance. The privileges of the Inquisition had been so curtailed by the reigning monarch, Carlos III, that it not only was no longer the dreaded power of former days, but, like a mortally wounded giant, was gasping for life.

It was during this period that we first hear of Fray Junipero as a sensational preacher. His sermons were now fervent exhortations to repentance. He scourged himself in the pulpit on his bared shoulders with an iron chain. He besought his auditors to examine into their own consciences and repent their sins. Every cut of the chain on his quivering flesh was a cry to repent. The emotional power of the masses is always great. Junipero's auditors were thrilled to the depths of their hearts; they sobbed and cried aloud. One day a man among them, unable longer to endure the sight of the cruel whipping Fray Junipero was giving himself, rushed to the pulpit, seized the chain from the friar's hand, and taking his stand in the chancel, stripped himself to the waist and, while unmercifully applying the chain to his own shoulders, exclaimed, "I am the ungrateful sinner, who should do penance for my many sins, and not the padre who is a saint."

So great was the force of the blows he dealt himself that he fell exhausted. He lived only long enough to receive the sacrament, and then expired. Among other methods of self-chastisement that Junipero employed was beating his bared breast with a stone, while holding aloft in his left hand a crucifix. This was called "the act of contrition." The severity of the blows he dealt himself caused many to fear he would fall dead in the pulpit. Often when he spoke of purgatory and the pains of hell, he would light a large taper having four wicks and place the burning wax next to his skin, holding it there until the smell of the scorched flesh reached his terror stricken audience.

It was not only in public that Junipero chastised himself. In the still hours of night, he often slipped from his cell and sought a remote corner in the choir gallery where he scourged himself with his chain. Sometimes the sound of the blows penetrated to the cells of the slumbering monks and awakened them. The most curious of their number then would creep to the gallery to discover the penitent, and, recognizing Junipero, would steal softly back again, filled with wonder. Not satisfied with these self-inflicted chastisements, Junipero habitually wore under his friar's frock a rough haircloth tunic, upon which were fastened small pieces of copper.

This scourging, chain-lashing, and self-torturing to which he resorted, partly to impress his hearers, partly to crush what he calls the "beast" in his own frail body, is repulsive to contemplate, and seems to smack more of the thirteenth century than the eighteenth.

It is a relief to turn from these harsh pictures to the charming one Palou gives us of the vigils Junipero kept, even in his sleep.

In leisure hours when he rested and slept his heart seemed to remain awake to glorify God and to pray, for frequently when we slept together in camp or hut I would be awakened by hearing him repeat the sweet words: Gloria Patri Filio Spiritui Sancto, and I would ask, Padre, tiene alguna novedad? (Father, is anything the matter?) and receiving no reply, I knew well that he slept. [Palou, Vida, p. 313]

His intercourse with the outside world was strictly confined to his duties as priest and missionary. During his long residence in the capital, he. ' was never known to make a social visit. This was not because worldly life was irksome to him, for he was totally unfamiliar with it, but because he moved and dwelt on a different plane from most men. His religion was alive, a glowing spark burning in the depths of his soul; it was his one great passion in life. A certain sweetness in his character, combined with his integrity, secured him the stanch friendship of many men. But women never saw the warmer, more gracious side of his character. In his intercourse with them he remained habitually unsmiling, even stern, restricting his conversation to recounting edifying incidents in the lives of saints, which were intended to inculcate lessons of sobriety, a trait the worthy friar seems to have considered absent from the average feminine bosom.

His habits were well known in the capital. When those who sought him failed to find him behind the monastery walls, they knew without making inquiry that he had left the city to preach in the bishoprics.

His journeys were not always easy or devoid of an element of danger, as when, on his way to Oaxaca, he and his companions traveled eight days in a canoe on the River Miges. They dared not venture on shore to stretch their cramped limbs or to escape the terrible heat of the sun in the shade of dense and perfumed forests, because of the "lions and tigers," (probably the puma and jaguar) which could be seen lurking near the banks. These trials were accentuated by the bites of venomous insects to which they were exposed. When they reached the first inhabited portion of that wild region, they were in a state bordering on complete exhaustion.

Many stories are told of Junipero in the various provinces where he held his missions. These stories are interesting in so far as they serve to throw additional light on the character of a man destined to occupy the most prominent place in California history.

On one occasion he had a narrow escape from death while in church. The communion wine had in some inexplicable manner been poisoned and Junipero became violently ill. He was carried to the sacristy, placed on a couch, and his vestments hurriedly removed. All who saw him believed he would die. When his condition became known, a certain caballero  of the parish hastily brought an antidote. Junipero, turning his head aside, resolutely refused to swallow the antidote. Later, when' he recovered, he explained apologetically to the well-intentioned caballero  the reason of his refusal:

In truth, senor brother, it was not because I doubted the efficacy of your medicine, nor because it was nauseous, for under other circumstances I would have swallowed it; but because I had just taken holy communion; and how could you desire that after such divine food I could take a drink so vile? I knew immediately of what it was composed, because you brought it in a crystal goblet. [Palou, Vida, pp. 50-51.]

While these missions were in progress there occurred one of those events which mark a strange epoch in the history of the Roman Catholic church, namely, the total temporary extinction of the most powerful, most influential of its organizations. As this extraordinary event had a direct bearing on Fray Junipero's future career, it will not be out of place to devote a little attention to it.