California Forming – the life of Junipero Serra

California is a state of contradictory perceptions: the golden land of opportunity on one hand, the diseased home of the tarnished American dream on the other. So it’s no surprise that Junipero Serra, the man who could be called the founder of California, should attract a similar range of views. But who was Junipero Serra and how did he earn such differing evaluations?

Junipero Serra
Junipero Serra

The facts are straightforward enough. He was born in 1713 in Majorca and entered the Franciscan order at the age of 16. For 20 years he followed the usual path for a bright Franciscan: study, ordination, teaching. If he had continued in that vein Serra would have merited no more than a footnote in obscure textbooks of theology. But the man wanted something more and, inspired by the missionary example of St Francis, set off to Mexico to…do more of the same for the next nine years. But a hint that that would not remain the case forever was given by the fact that he walked from the port all the way to Mexico City, some 200 miles. Another was his unusual practice, when preaching on repentance, of pulling his habit down from his shoulders and whipping himself. Apparently this was done not only to mortify himself but to encourage contrition in his congregation.

And sure enough, things did change for Serra. Spain, worried about a Russian claim on the Pacific coast (remember that at this time the Tsar still owned Alaska), wanted to establish priority in Alta (upper) California and to this end the governor agreed to fund missions there. Serra was placed in charge, setting off at the age of 56 and, 24,000 miles, nine new missions and 14 years later, he died at Mission San Carlos Borromeo. The missions he founded, including San Francisco de Asis (or Dolores), were linked by El Camino Real, a dirt road that eventually stretched some 600 miles, along the length of present-day California.

And here’s the controversy. Was Serra the ecclesiastical face of Spanish hegemony, pulling the free-spirited Native Americans of the coast into a life of stifling monastic discipline in the missions, the unwitting vector of the exotic diseases that killed thousands of natives and the general of the forces of cultural genocide? Or was he a man burning with an ideal of love that we find today hard to comprehend, a priest who continually fought with the secular authorities to protect the Indians  and who offered up his life and labours for their salvation? The question seems inextricably bound up with our as yet unresolved questions about the nature of our own society, and because of that the legacy of Junipero Serra seems likely to remain uncertain for many years to come.


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