Famous Missions of California - W. H. Hudson

Of the Mission of San Buenaventura,

And of the Death and Character of Father Junipero.

Though Junipero's subordinates had thus done without him in these important developments at San Francisco and Santa Clara, he still resolved to go north, both to visit the new foundations and to inspect for himself the marvellous country of which he had heard much, but which he had not yet seen. As usual, he was long detained by urgent affairs, and it was not till autumn that he succeeded in breaking away. He made a short stay at Santa Clara, and then pushed on to San Francisco, which he reached in time to say mass on St. Francis' day. After a ten days' rest, he crossed to the presidio and feasted his eyes on the glorious vision of the Golden Gate—a sight which once seen is never to be forgotten. "Thanks be to God!" he cried, in rapture (these, says Palou, were the words most frequently on his lips); "now our Father St. Francis, with the Holy Cross of the procession of missions, has reached the ultimate end of this continent of California. To go further ships will be required!" Yet his joy was tempered with the thought that the eight missions already founded were very far apart, and that much labour would be necessary to fill up the gaps.

Mission of San Francisco


It was thus with the feeling that, while something had been done, far more was left to do, that the padre returned to his own special charge at San Carlos. Various circumstances in combination had caused the postponement, year after year, of that third mission, which, according to original intentions, was to have followed immediately upon the establishments at San Diego and Monterey. Three new settlements were now projected on the Santa Barbara Channel, and the first of these was to be the mission of San Buenaventura. It was not until 1782, however, that the long-delayed purpose was at length accomplished. The site chosen was at the southeastern extremity of the channel, and dose to an Indian village, or rancheria to which Portola's expedition in 1769 had given the name of Ascension de Nuestra Senora, or, briefly, Assumpta. A little later on, in pursuance of the same plan, the then governor, Filipe de Neve, took formal possession of a spot some ten leagues distant, and there began the construction of the presidio of Santa Barbara. It was Junipero's earnest desire to proceed at once with the adjoining mission. But the governor, for reasons of his own, threw obstacles in the way, and in the end this fresh undertaking was left to other hands.

For we have now come to the close of Father Junipero's long and strenuous career and as we look back over the record of it, our wonder is, not that he should have died when he did, but rather that he had not killed himself many years before. His is surely one of those cases in which supreme spiritual power and sheer force of will triumph over an accumulation of bodily ills. Far from robust of constitution, he had never given himself consideration or repose, forcing himself to exertions which it would have appeared utterly impossible that his frame could bear, and adding to the constant strain of his labours and travels the hardships of self-inflicted tortures of a severe ascetic regime. He had always been much troubled by the old ulcer on his leg, though this, no matter how painful, he never regarded save when it actually incapacitated him for work; and for many years he had suffered from a serious affection of the heart, which had been greatly aggravated, even if it was not in the first instance caused, by his habit of beating himself violently on his chest with a huge stone, at the conclusion of his sermons—to the natural horror of his hearers, who, it is said, were often alarmed lest he should drop dead before their eyes. The fatal issue of such practices could only be a question of time. At length, mental anxiety and sorrow added their weight to his burden—particularly disappointment at the slow progress of his enterprise, and grief over the death of his fellow-countryman and close friend, Father Crespi, who passed to his well-earned rest on New Year's Day, 1782. After this loss, it is recorded, he was never the same man again, though he held so tenaciously to his duties, that only a year before the call came to him, being then over seventy, he limped from San Diego to Monterey, visiting his missions, and weeping over the outlying Indian rancherias, because he was powerless to help the unconverted dwellers in them. He died at San Carlos, tenderly nursed to the end by the faithful Palou, on the 28th August, 1784 and his passing was so peaceful that those watching thought him asleep. On hearing the mission bells toll for his death, the whole population, knowing well what had occurred, burst into tears; and when, clothed in the simple habit of his order, his body was laid out in his cell, the native neophytes crowded in with flowers, while the Spanish soldiers and sailors pressed round in the hope of being blessed by momentary contact with his corpse, He was laid beneath the mission altar beside his beloved friend Crespi but when, in after years, a new church was built, the remains of both were removed and placed within it.

It is not altogether easy to measure such a man as Junipero Serra by our ordinary modern standards of character and conduct. He was essentially a religious enthusiast, and as a religious enthusiast he must be judged. To us who read his story from a distance, who breathe an atmosphere totally different from his, and whose lives are governed by quite other passions and ideals, he may often appear one-sided, extravagant, deficient in tact and forethought; and, in the excess of his zeal, too ready to sacrifice everything to the purposes he never for an instant allowed to drop out of his sight. We may even, with some of his critics, protest that was not a man of powerful intellect; that his views of people and things were distressingly narrow that, after his kind, he was extremely superstitious; that he was despotic in his dealings with his converts, and stiff-necked in his relations with the civil and military authorities. For all this is doubtless true. But all this must not prevent us from seeing him as he actually was—charitable, large-hearted, energetic, indomitable; in all respects a remarkable, in many ways, a really wise and great man. At whatever points he may fall short of our criteria, this much must be said of him, that he was fired throughout with the high spirit of his vocation, that he was punctual in the performance of duty as he understood it, that he was obedient to the most rigorous dictates of that Gospel which he had set himself to preach. In absolute, single-hearted, unflinching, and tireless devotion to the task of his life—the salvation of heathen souls—he spent himself freely and cheerfully, a true follower of that noblest and most engaging of the mediaeval saints, whose law he had laid upon himself, and whom he looked up to as his guide and examplar. Let us place him where he belongs—among the transcendent apostolic figures of his own church; for thus alone shall we do justice to his personality, his objects, his career. The memory Of such a man will survive all changes in creeds and ideals; and the great state, of which he was the first pioneer, will do honour to herself in honoring him.