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

Daily Life in the Missions

Junipero's mode of life in his mission never varied. He rose with the dawn. He seemed to require little sleep. The greater portion of the night he passed in prayer.

According to the verdict of the soldiers of the escolta, he passed the whole night in vigil and prayer. The sentinels were always hearing him and were accustomed to say: "We do not know when the Father Junipero sleeps." [Palou, Vida, p. 313]

At sunrise he said mass and afterwards distributed breakfast to his neophytes. This task he always refused to delegate to others. His Indians were well-fed and well-cared for. He found time to cut out all the shirts and petticoats needed in the missions and all the little garments worn by the children. During stated hours in the mornings and afternoons he instructed the Indians in the doctrines and observances of the church. In the intervals he taught the women to sew and superintended the labors of the men, tucking up his shabby friar's frock to work, himself, the better to show his pupils and to stimulate them to habits of industry by the force of his example. He was always kind to the neophytes, although he did not hesitate to punish them whenever he deemed punishment necessary. He refused to overlook, even in the newest converts, the slightest lapse from the strict code of morals he insisted upon, nor would he pardon the least carelessness or neglect in church attendance or observances. In spite of this severity the neophytes were devoted to him. They saw that he exacted from them no duty which he did not exact from himself with far greater rigor, that the punishments he inflicted upon his own delicate body surpassed in severity anything to which they were subjected. An intuition which belongs alike to children and savages, taught them that in Junipero they had, not a teacher only, but a friend, a brother, and a champion.

The routine of mission life was the same in all California establishments. Priests and neophytes rose with the dawn. Promptly at sunrise the church bells summoned all to prayer. Attendance was compulsory. The doors of the monjerias, where the girls and unmarried women slept, were unlocked by an Indian duenna called the madre abadesa, who was chosen by the padres for this office. From another building the boys and young men were released, from where they also had been locked in over night. At the same time, from out of innumerable little straw-thatched huts issued the married neophytes and the entire dusky flock filed into church. They were joined by the soldiers of the escolta, for even they were not exempt from these matutinal prayers. The services lasted an hour. In the meanwhile large iron pots were placed on the kitchen fire. In these pots was cooked a porridge called atole. It was made from barley which had been previously roasted and carefully pounded by the women, until it had attained a mealy consistency. The Indians were extremely fond of this food. Many uninvited guests were present at these meals. From the nearby rancherias  and from the mountains came hungry savages, who slipped silently into the kitchen. They were always given food. In this manner the padres encouraged their dusky visitors to return regularly, and finally, by adding gifts of beads and clothing, induced them to remain in the mission. Three-quarters of an hour was allowed for breakfast. Then work was begun. The more intelligent among the neophytes were taught to be carpenters, blacksmiths, tanners. Others were sent to cut and bring in wood for fuel, to dig in the garden, to plow, to sow, to harrow, to thresh and harvest according to the time of year. They were taught "the great human duty of work."

Their agricultural implements were of the most primitive kind. A plow was fashioned by means of a plank and a small piece of iron, and, though it successfully scratched the ground, it did not turn or cut a furrow. The plow was followed by another and yet another, each one carefully pursuing the same track, until the soil was finally sufficiently turned. It was a slow and laborious method, but remained long in use in the missions .for want of a better. The harrow was nothing more complex than the branch of a tree. Sickles were not numerous and frequently the grain was pulled up by the roots; it was threshed by horses or mules treading it out; afterwards the grain was separated from the chaff in the old Biblical manner of throwing it up in the air and letting a beneficent wind accomplish the rest.

While the men were engaged in these pursuits, the women also had their occupations. They were taught to sew, to spin, to weave, or were set to pounding grain. It was not till the visit of the French explorer, the Sieur de La Perouse, in 1786, that hand mills were introduced. A Monsieur de Langle belonging to the expedition, presented the San Carlos mission with the first hand mill used in California. "It enabled four neophyte women to do the work of a hundred in the old way," declared La Perouse.

The married women were also instructed in household affairs, particularly that part pertaining to the cleanliness of their dwellings. This must have required infinite patience on the part of the padres, for the Californians were instinctively filthy in their habits. Before they came under Franciscan control vermin abounded on their persons and their huts reeked with the vile odors of noxious impurities.

At eleven the mission bells were rung to announce the dinner hour. All work ceased. The Indians returned to their dwellings, seized their dishes of bark, and again filed into the kitchen to receive their food. Their dinner consisted of a thick porridge made of ground wheat, maize, peas, and beans. It was called pozoli  and was very nutritious. La Perouse comments on the excellency of this food and suggests that his own countrymen might with advantage "adopt this economical dish in years of scarcity." (He is quick to add however, with the precaution of a French palate, "with the addition of some seasoning.") Occasionally the neophytes were treated to an allowance of meat, which many of them ate raw, regarding the fat especially as a fine delicacy. Three hours of leisure were permitted after dinner. By two o'clock everyone had returned to his allotted duties. One hour before supper the bells summoned the workers to vespers. After a supper of atole  the Indians were free for the remainder of the evening.

During the day their religious instructions were not neglected. The same system which Junipero had followed in the Sierra Gorda missions was continued here. When we stop to consider that each mission had but two padres, that these two daily instructed hundreds of neophytes, shared and superintended their labors in the cultivation of the land, taught themselves the mechanic arts, the trades of carpenter, blacksmith, tanner, etc., and even, as in Fray Junipero's case, the difficult art of sewing, in order that they could teach their Indians; that these same two men distributed rations, cut garments, preached, baptized, assisted at marriages, burials, acted as physicians, surgeons, attended the sick and dying during any hour of the day or night—when we consider all this we cannot but marvel at such prodigious labors. In one of their efforts the friars remained for years totally unsuccessful. They could not persuade the Indians to adopt a more civilized style of habitation. Their huts were built around the church; they were six feet in diameter and four in height; the framework of each was formed by stakes stuck in the ground and drawn together at the top; bundles of straw, not very carefully arranged, constituted the walls of the primitive dwellings. To the remonstrance of the padres, the Indians placidly replied that they liked plenty of air, that it was convenient to set fire to their houses when the fleas became too numerous and devoured them, and that they could build another in less than two hours.

The greatest precautions were taken to guard the young girls. They slept in the monjeria  (nunnery) . Every evening the madre abadesa  stood at the door of this building and as the girls, laughing and jesting, passed in to their sleeping quarters she called each one by name that none could absent themselves without being promptly discovered. When then maidens were all safely housed for the night she locked the door and delivered the key to the padres. Whatever opinions may be held concerning the benefit derived by the Indian from this contact with the mission fathers, there can be no question that the condition of his womankind was infinitely bettered thereby. The Californian did not differ from any other North American savage in his treatment of woman and in the contempt he entertained for her. To the lot of the squaw fell all the drudgery. She was the slave of a husband who could divorce her whenever the whim seized him. She was entitled to neither his sympathy, his kindness, nor even to his barest consideration. To treat her otherwise than as an abject slave would have been to bring down upon himself the scorn of his companions. Nothing could surpass the degradation of her lot.

When the Franciscan fathers took the squaw under their protection, treated her with kindness, shielded her from the brutality of the men, her life once assumed a degree of security and happiness hitherto unknown to her. Thus the fathers exerted over the women an ever-increasing influence and were enabled to obtain complete control of their children, who, growing up in the missions, knowing no other life, possessing no other interests, became the most devoted and staunchest adherents of the Franciscan missionaries.

The girls left the monjeria  only when they were married. This event was generally arranged by the padres, who were careful to bestow the most desirable among the maidens upon the most industrious and best behaved of the young men. This custom was not without its effect in inducing the young neophytes to be diligent and faithful. No woman was married against her will. If she objected to the husband selected for her, she was permitted to make her own choice in the matrimonial market. Through the fathers, the Indians learned the organization of a family, which the world over is the first step towards civilization. Various methods were adopted to increase the number of converts in the missions. The one most frequently employed and according to more modern ideas the most legitimate, consisted in encouraging the savages by gifts of food, clothing, and small trinkets, to frequent the missions that they might see how well-fed and contented were their dusky brethren who lived under the protection of the fathers.

There is no doubt that to many of the savages, mission life held out strong attractions. The Spaniards possessed firearms and could secure them against the pillaging attacks of other tribes. And there were horses in the mission. Although the California Indians had never seen a horse until the Spaniards entered their country, they became, whenever the opportunity offered, expert riders in an incredibly short time. But above all, the assurance of ample food at all times of the year and without the necessity of skirmishing for it themselves, appealed to their great and natural indolence. It often happened that an Indian would induce his friends and relatives to join the mission neophytes, and they in turn persuaded others. But to these harmless methods was afterwards added one which the best friends of the friars find difficulty in either commending or extenuating. Armed bands of neophytes were sent out to corral the unsuspecting savages and bring them by force to the mission, where they were carefully guarded to prevent escape and were compelled to listen daily to the religious instructions of the well-meaning padres. It is doubtful whether this method was adopted during Fray Junipero's lifetime, but it seems by no means improbable that the conquista espiritual, as it was called, would have met with his approval.

To one who believed this life to be a period of probation, which would be followed by an eternity of bliss, or an eternity of torment according as one believed in the Christ or not, all methods which would result in saving souls must have appeared not only legitimate but righteous. Junipero had an unquestioning belief in the truth of every word in the Scriptures. He believed in the actual fall of man, in the existence of an actual hell, in a salvation through Christ alone. The effect of such a belief in a man of his character would naturally be prodigious. He would leave no stone unturned to increase the number of those who could be saved.

Fortunately for Junipero's peace of mind he, in common with the majority of the early Franciscans and Jesuit missionaries in the Californias, entertained no doubt of the efficacy of conversion, however sudden the change or politic the reason on the part of the infidel. The acceptance of baptism, the regular attendance at church, veneration of the sacred images and emblems of the Catholic faith, were sufficient in their minds to secure to an Indian full membership in the church. What the convert's mental attitude was in regard to the Catholic doctrines and symbols, was of small consequence provided he could say his paternoster, repeat the names of the saints, and cross himself on proper occasions; and it remained a minor matter whether his childish intellect comprehended even partially the religious instructions he received.

The friars depended in no small degree upon the effect produced on the mind of the savage by the paintings which adorned the churches. La Perouse, in describing the interior of the church of San Carlos says:

It is adorned with some tolerable pictures copied from originals in Italy. Among the number is a picture of hell, in which the painter seems to have borrowed from the imagination of Callot; but as it is absolutely necessary to strike the senses of these new converts with the most lively impression, I am persuaded that such a representation was never more useful in any country. I doubt whether the picture of Paradise which is opposite to that of hell, produces so good an effect upon them. The state of tranquillity which it represents and that mild satisfaction of the elect who surround the throne of the Supreme Being are ideas too sublime for the minds of uncultivated savages. [La Perouse, Voyage Round the World, Vol. II, p. 192.]

The padres also understood thoroughly the civilizing influence of music, and they did not neglect to cultivate this art in the missions. With patient care they instructed the Indians who showed a taste for singing hymns. They taught them the notes and wrote simple melodies for their use. In later years music became one of the prominent features of mission life. Many of the neophytes developed, not only excellent voices, but pronounced ability in playing musical instruments.

Sometimes the Indians became skilled artisans, and frequently moderately competent ones. To awaken their low, sluggish minds required infinite patience, infinite love, and unremitting toil. All this the early Franciscan fathers bestowed upon their friends. That they succeeded in teaching them as much as they did reflects such a vast amount of credit upon their patient labors, that criticism of their methods appears ungenerous. Yet the fact remains that the mission system was extremely defective. The Indians were completely under the control of the missionaries. Their occupation, their hours of work and recreation were arranged for them. At all times they were treated as children, they were not permitted to leave the mission without the consent of the padres; they could not own property or cultivate land on their own account; they were punished for delinquencies, rewarded for merit. From the second generation of neophytes, they became so dependent upon the friars that when left to their own resources to sustain life, they were pathetically bewildered and helpless.

Permanent civilization, under such feudal conditions, it is apparent, was impossible. The Indians were not treated like independent beings; they were never encouraged to act or think for themselves, or to be otherwise than servilely dependent upon the missionaries. They were destitute of natural rights. The system was at fault, not the friars. The ambition of the early Franciscan fathers was noble, instinct with lofty thought, with self-sacrifice and generosity.

In closing this chapter I can do no better than to quote from the letters to his government of that astute observer and enlightened, liberal-minded Frenchman, Sieur de La Perouse, concerning the Spanish missionaries in California.

It is with the most pleasing satisfaction that I speak of the pious and prudent conduct of these religious men which so perfectly accords with the object of their institution. I shall not conceal what I conceive to be blamable in their internal administration; but I must affirm, that individually good and humane, they temper by their mildness and charity the austerity of the rules which have been prescribed by their superiors.

A friend to the rights of men rather than to theology, I could have wished, I confess, that there had been joined to the principles of Christianity, a legislation, which might gradually have made citizens of men, whose state at present scarcely differs from that of the negro inhabitants of our colonies, in those plantations which are governed with most mildness and humanity. I am perfectly aware of the extreme difficulty of this new plan. I know that these men have very few ideas and still less stability and if they were to cease to be treated as children, they would escape from those who have taken the pains to instruct them. I know likewise that reasoning can produce very little effect upon them, that it is absolutely necessary to appeal to their senses and that corporal punishment with rewards in a double proportion, have hitherto been the only means adopted by their legislator.

But would it not be possible for ardent zeal and extreme patience to demonstrate to a few families the advantages of society founded on the rights of the people: to establish among them the possession of property, so bewitching to all men; and by this new order of things to engage everyone to cultivate his field with emulation or to direct his exertions to some other employment?

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


I admit that the progress of this new civilization would be very slow and the attentions necessary to be paid tedious and disgusting; that the theatre of action is very remote, and that the applauses of the enlightened part of mankind would never reach the ear of him who should thus have consecrated his life to deserve them. Neither do I hesitate to affirm that human motives are insufficient for such a ministry and that the enthusiasm of religion, with the rewards it promises, can alone compensate for the sacrifices, the disgust, the fatigues and the dangers of this kind of life. Still I could wish that the minds of the austere, charitable and religious individuals I have met with in these missions, were a little more tinctured with the spirit of philosophy. [La Perouse, Voyage Round the World, pp. 187-188]