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Fray Junipero Serra Essay, Research Paper

Miquel Joseph Serra was born and baptized on November 24, 1713 in Petra, a farming village on the island of Mallorca, Spain. As a child he attended a Franciscan elementary school. At the age of fifteen, Serra left home to enter the Franciscan University in Palma to study philosophy. When Serra was sixteen, he decided to join the Franciscan Order.

After years of preparation and careful consideration of his vocation, Serra received his Franciscan habit in 1730 and took the name Junipero which meant Jester of God. He chose the religious name Junipero, after a companion of Saint Francis of Assisi who was simple, sincere, and good-natured man. When the original Junipero was condemned by others Saint Francis was to have remarked: “My brothers, my brothers, I wish I had a forest of such junipers.” Serra was ordained in 1737. He taught for seven years at Lullian University of Mallorca. In 1744 he was named Professor of Philosophy at the monastery of San Francisco and at Lullian University. Serra was known as bright, articulate, scholar, a moving speaker, and a clear precise writer. He did not remain long in the academic venue. His dream was to become as missionary and in 1749 he responded to the call for Franciscan missionaries to the New World. His dream became a reality. He left his family and friends and sailed off to a “New World.”

Nearly 200 years earlier, Spain had established a colony called New Spain, the region known today as Mexico. Successful colonization was the result of collaboration by Spanish imperial staff and the Catholic Church. Acting as partners in efforts of exploration and settlement, both their purposes were achieved: Spain claimed a new territory and the Catholic Church claimed new members.

By the middle of the 18th century, Spanish cultural and religious influence was already evident in New Spain’s great cathedral, schools, hospitals, and seaports. This sophisticated civilization was restricted to urban centers such as Mexico City. The outlying areas were unexplored and regarded as missionary territory.

Serra landed in the port city of Vera Cruz when he was thirty-six and then traveled by foot to Mexico City to dedicate his mission vocation at the shrine of Mexico’s Our Lady of Guadeloupe. On this first part of his journey his leg became severely swollen from a mosquito bite. This sore never healed and hindered Serra physically for the remaining fifteen years of his life.

Arriving in Mexico City, he studied and prepared for missionary work at San Fernando College. Serra’s first assignment was a rugged, mountainous region of Sierra Gorda. He remained there for nine years preaching to the Indians and strengthening the two missions already in existence. While he was there he was named Presidente of the region. Serra’s second assignment was to journey out from Mexico City into coastal villages and mining camps. In those nine years, his leg still infected and ulcerated from the mosquito bite, he continued to walk over six thousand miles on foot, preaching retreats and administering sacraments. Serra then returned to San Fernando College in 1758 where he taught philosophy for nine years. In 1767, King Charles III of Spain expelled the Jesuits from Baja California and all remaining Spanish colonies. This left thirteen Jesuit missions unstaffed. King Charles also appointed Serra Presidente of the regional Missions.

Two years later, Serra was given the opportunity to establish missions under his own direction. He joined the expedition of Don Gaspar de Portola and received orders to explore and occupy new territory. He was commissioned by the King to lead the Franciscans into Alta California (present day California). Father Serra traveled across the border to Alta California on July 1, 1769 and established his first mission, San Diego de Alcala, that same month. Serra’s blessing of the side of Mission San Diego marked the beginning of the European settlement of California. It was there where Serra planted the cross and dedicated the first mission. He then began a journey by sea on the San Antonio to what he called present-day Monterey, a “pleasing stretch of land.” This was the capital of Alta California. He founded his second mission at this location, San Carlos Borromeo Del Rio Carmelo (Saint Charles Borromeo by the Carmel River). This mission became the headquarters of all California missions and served as Serra’s residence when he was not traveling and evangelizing the natives. Presidente Serra established additional seven missions during his lifetime. These are: 1771 San Antonio, San Gabriel, 1772 San Luis Obispo, 1776 San Francisco, San Juan Capistrano, 1777 Santa Clara, 1784 San Buenaventura. In his fifteen years as padre president his nine of the twenty-one missions, each about a one-day walk apart were linked by a dirt road called “El Camino Real.” By the time Father Serra died in 1784 he had established nine California missions and baptized six thousands Indians, about ten percent of the California Native American population. Junipero Serra did not die as a martyr as he had hoped. He died on August 28, 1784 of tuberculosis at Mission San Carlos. His grave has never been moved and lies today under the sanctuary floor in front of the altar of the San Carlos Mission.

Serra walked more than 24,000 miles in California, more than the journeys of Marco Polo and Lewis and Clark combined. He suffered many pains and hardships, founded nine missions over a span of 800 miles. He kept his determination to his watchword, “Always go forward and never to turn back.” He is credited with the conversion of many Indians to Christianity for the salvation of their souls. Pope John Paul II beatified Junipero Serra September 1988.

Junipero Serra is an extremely important figure in the development of the present day California. He walked thousands of miles, traveled on ships, and rode on the backs of mules, brought the Spanish language and the Roman Catholic religion to California. He introduced agriculture and irrigation techniques. His missions not only served as the centerpiece to the development of Catholicism in California, but also as a key foundation to the growth of the major California cities such as San Francisco, San Jose, and San Diego. His legacy still remains along the former El Camino Real (present day is the highway 101 and 5) in the form of twenty-one completed missions. Each has its own individual identity, history, and unique traditions.

Through the guidance of the Catholic Church and the Spanish government, Serra and the Franciscans implemented the system of missions. They were set up not only to become the primary center of evangelization to convert the Native Americans to Christianity, but also designed to train the natives to become successful tradesmen in the new Spanish society. The natives were welcomed by the missionaries into the mission system and joined the Catholic Church through the sacrament of baptism. They then received the sacrament of confirmation, and often were married at the mission; all for the salvation of their souls (during this period the Catholic Church believed the only way to heaven was through their church).

Each mission was built centered on a church structure that was usually made of a wood frame topped with a thatched roof. However a fire set by flaming arrows thrown by Indians destroyed the church at San Luis Obispo. This resulted in all missions to be rebuilt of adobe and stone. The Indians who molded wet clay around their shins to form the roof tiles. The mission included a prominent church, rooms for priests, storehouses, housing for unmarried women, solider barracks, dining facilities, and indoor workshops. They would include cultivated land for farming and cattle grazing areas. Married Indians lived in a village within close proximity to the mission. At no time did the Franciscans see mission land as their land, but as the land rightfully belonging to the Natives to be handed over when they were acclimated to society and Christianity.

In addition to evangelization, the missionaries helped to improve the lives of the natives by introducing new and more reliable food sources that they previously had most notably the modern agricultural system of raising crops and livestock. What was produced by the mission Indians benefited solely the mission population.

The Indians certainly faced terrible hardship adjusting to this new way of life. Their main suffering was abusive soldiers who were responsible for the spreading of diseases such as pox, syphilis and the mistreatment of Indians. Many today still unfairly blame Serra for the abuses. Serra tried to prevent the devastating effects, but knew the overall system would benefit the Indians. An anthropological view shows the mission life as harsh. When one realizes the mentality of the time Serra and his Franciscans held, their practices were acceptable toward the unknown civilization of the time considering the treatment of the Indians by the United States. It is important to consider what the natives would have endured without the protection of the mission system. The missionaries saw themselves as personally responsible for the conversion and care of the souls of the Natives for their own salvation. Examining this one can begin to understand the reasoning of Serra was for the benefit of the Indians.

Claims by anti-Serra activists have been made that Serra whipped Indians when they likely were corrected by something comparable to a slap on the wrist. Slapping the wrist was a common punishment in Spanish society for disobedience. The mission system provided the Indians with a reliable food source, which they previously did not have. They also gained new trades that became useful, and most importantly from the viewpoint of the Catholics assisting them, their souls were saved.

Serra saw the mission system as the best way of not only evangelizing the Christian message, but also keeping Indians safe from the Spanish conquest of Alta California. Serra indirectly made it easier for the empire to take hold of California. Serra’s concern was for the personal welfare of each native. Many activists have claimed that Serra was an unholy man who beat and tortured Indians. Never has one piece of historical documentation been found to prove these claims. If any had been found the process of canonization would have been halted. Expert, unbiased historians, after piecing through all the historical documentation and other evidence, have confirmed no abuses or mistreatment occurred by Serra. Sadly the historical facts of Serra’s life and the California Mission system are still tainted by opinion and speculation of activists without any attempt to substantiate their claims. This leads to confusion in the public spectrum and a history based on a complete misrepresentation of the truth and the reality of this time period.

Examining Serra today he is considered as one who truly cared for Indians. When other societies are compared with their treatment of the Indians it is plainly seen that others had no tolerance for Native Americans. For instance, a century after Serra founded the missions, the American government gave the public the right to kill “wild” Indians who were “in the way.”

The fact is that Serra was not out to destroy the Indian society but to protect it. This is exemplified in his call for Indian rights. Outraged over the abuses by the soldiers, especially military commander Pedro Fages, Serra traveled to Mexico City in 1773 to propose what some would call a “bill of rights.” He called for a complete missionary charge of the Indians and the removal of Fages. The Viceroy (the representative of the king in the New World) granted both requests that lead the way for the Indians to be treated fairly and justly along with enabling the missionaries to evangelize more effectively.

The only conclusive historical evidence that can be proven is that Blessed Junipero Serra was a zealous missionary devoted to the spread of the Gospel Message. He taught and lived out the Gospel message, converted thousands of Native Americans to Christianity, and was a strong and courageous leader of the natives who constantly fought for their rights and provided them with the means for adapting in this new society. Pope John Paul II remarked that Serra “is an exemplary model of a selfless evangelizer, a shining example of Christian virtue and the missionary spirit He not only brought the gospel message to the Native Americans, but as one who lived the Gospel he also became their defender and champion.”

Most character information on Junipero Serra is derived almost exclusively from a biography by his disciple Palou. Palou was a native of Serra’s homeland Majorca, a brother Franciscan monk, he came across the Atlantic Ocean with Serra and was his associate in the college of San Fernando. Palou was Serra’s companion in the expedition to California, his successor in the Presidency in New California. He was with Miquel on his death-bed, and his nearest friend for forty years. It was expected that if anyone wrote of Serra’s life it would be Palou in remembrance of his mentor and superior.

Religion was everything to Junipero Serra. All his actions were governed by the ever present idea that life was brief. Serra’s soul did not recognize this life as its home. He turned away from all sources of pleasure in which society delighted in. As a monk he had, in boyhood, renounced the joys of love, and the attractions of women. He was always very serious, never one to joke or find humor in daily events. He did not enjoy books, was never interested in poetry or art. He considered it his duty to inflict upon himself bitter pain. He ate little, avoided meat and wine, preferred fruit and fish. He never complained of the quality of his food. He often hit himself with ropes, sometimes with wire. He was in the habit of beating himself in the chest with stones, and at times would put a burning torch to his chest. He apparently did this while preaching or near the close of his sermons. His purpose was to punish himself and move his audience to penance for the own sins.


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