Famous Missions of California - W. H. Hudson

Of Junipero Serra

And the Proposed Settlement of Alta California

On the 1st of July, 1769 a day forever memorable in the annals of California—a small party of men, worn out by the fatigues and hardships of their long and perilous journey from San Fernandez de Villicata, came in sight of the beautiful Bay of San Diego. They formed the last division of a tripartite expedition which had for its object the political and spiritual conquest of the great Northwest coast of the Pacific and among their number were Gaspar de Portola, the colonial governor and military commander of the enterprise and Father Junipero Serra, with whose name and achievements the early history of California is indissolubly bound up.

This expedition was the outcome of a determination on the part of Spain to occupy and settle the upper of its California provinces, or Alta California, as it was then called, and thus effectively prevent the more than possible encroachments of the Russians and the English. Fully alive to the necessity of immediate and decisive action, Carlos I. had sent Jose de Galvez out to New Spain, giving him at once large powers as visitador general of the provinces, and special instructions to establish military posts at San Diego and Monterey. Galvez was a man of remarkable zeal, energy, and organizing ability, and after the manner of his age and church he regarded his undertaking as equally important from the religious and from the political side. The twofold purpose of his expedition was, as he himself stated it, "to establish the Catholic faith among a numerous heathen people, submerged in the obscure darkness of paganism, and to extend the dominion of the King, our Lord, and protect this peninsula from the ambitious views of foreign nations." From the first it was his intention that the Cross and the flag of Spain should be carried side by side in the task of dominating and colonizing the new country. Having, therefore, gathered his forces together at Santa Ana, near La Paz, he sent thence to Loreto, inviting Junipero Serra, the recently appointed President of the California Missions, to visit him in his camp. Loreto was a hundred leagues distant; but this was no obstacle to the religious enthusiast, whose lifelong dream it had been to bear the faith far and wide among the barbarian peoples of the Spanish world. He hastened to La Paz, and in the course of a long interview with Galvez not only promised his hearty co-operation, but also gave great help in the arrangement of the preliminary details of the expedition.

California missions


In the opportunity thus offered him for the missionary labour in hitherto unbroken fields, Father Junipero saw a special manifestation both of the will and of the favour of God. He threw himself into the work with characteristic ardour and determination, and Galvez quickly realized that his own efforts were now to be ably seconded by a man who, by reason of his devotion, courage, and personal magnetism, might well seem to have been providentially designated for the task which had been put into his hands.

Miguel Joseph Serra, now known only by his adopted name of Junipero, which he took out of reverence for the chosen companion of St. Francis, was a native of the Island of Majorca, where he was born, of humble folk, in 1713. According to the testimony of his intimate friend and biographer, Father Francesco Palou, his desires, even during boyhood, were turned towards the religious life. Before he was seventeen he entered the Franciscan Order, a regular member of which he became a year or so later. His favorite reading during his novitiate, Palou tells us, was in the Lives of the Saints, over which he would pore day after day with passionate and ever-growing enthusiasm; and from these devout studies sprang an intense ambition to "imitate the holy and venerable men" who had given themselves up to the grand work of carrying the Gospel among gentiles and savages. The missionary idea thus implanted became the dominant purpose of his life, and neither the astonishing success of his sermons, nor the applause with which his lectures were received when he was made professor of theology, sufficed to dampen his apostolic zeal. Whatever work was given him to do, he did with all his heart, and with all his might, for such was the man's nature; but everywhere and always he looked forward to the mission field as his ultimate career. He was destined, however, to wait many years before his chance came. At length, in 1749, after making many vain petitions to be set apart for foreign service, he and Palou were offered places in a body of priests who, at the urgent request of the College of San Fernando, in Mexico, were then being sent out as recruits to various parts of the New World. The hour had come and in a spirit of gratitude and joy too deep for words, Junipero Serra set his face towards the far lands which were henceforth to be his home.

The voyage out was long and trying. In the first stage of it—from Majorca to Malaga—the dangers and difficulties of seafaring were varied, if not relieved by strange experiences, of which Palou has left us a quaint and graphic account.

Mission Carmell


Their vessel was a small English coaster, in command of a stubborn cross-patch of a captain, who combined navigation with theology, and whose violent protestations and fondness for doctrinal dispute allowed his Catholic passengers, during the fifteen days of their passage, scarcely a Minute's peace. His habit was to declaim chosen texts out of his "greasy old" English Bible, putting his own interpretation upon them; then, if when challenged by Father Junipero, who "was well trained in dogmatic theology," he could find no verse to fit his argument, he would roundly declare that the leaf he wanted happened to be torn. Such methods are hardly praiseworthy. But this was not the worst. Sometimes the heat of argument would prove too much for him, and then, I grieve to say, he would even threaten to pitch his antagonists overboard, and shape his course for London. However, despite this unlooked-for danger, Junipero and his companions finally reached Malaga, whence they proceeded first to Cadiz, and then, after some delay, to Vera Cruz. The voyage across from Cadiz alone occupied ninety-nine days, though of these, fifteen were spent at Porto Rico, where Father Junipero improved the time by establishing a mission. Hardships were not lacking; for water and food ran short, and the vessel encountered terrific storms. But "remembering the end for which they had come," the father "felt no fear," and his own buoyancy did much to keep up the flagging spirits of those about him. Even when Vera Cruz was reached, the terrible journey was by no means over, for a hundred Spanish leagues lay between that port and the City of Mexico. Too impatient to wait for the animals and wagons which had been promised for transportation, but which, through some oversight or blunder, had not yet arrived in Vera Cruz, Junipero set out to cover the distance on foot. The strain brought on an ulcer in one of his legs, from which he suffered all the rest of his life; and it is highly probable that he would have died on the road but for the quite unexpected succor which came to him more than once in the critical hour. This, according to his wont, he did not fail to refer directly to the special favour of the Virgin and St. Joseph.

For nearly nineteen years after his arrival in Mexico, Junipero was engaged in active missionary work, mainly among the Indians of the Sierra Gorda, whom he successfully instructed in the first principles of the Catholic faith and in the simpler arts of peace. Then came his selection as general head, or president, of the Missions of California, the charge of which, on the expulsion of the Jesuits, in 1768, had passed over to the Franciscans. These, thirteen in number, were all in Lower California, for no attempt had as yet been made to evangelize the upper province. This, however, the indefatigable apostle was now to undertake by co-operating with Jose de Galvez in his proposed northwest expedition. Junipero was now fifty-five years of age, and could look back upon a career of effort and accomplishment which to any less active man might well seem to have earned repose for body and mind. Yet great as his services to church and civilization had been in the past, by far the most important part of his life-work still lay before him.