Friar Junípero Serra from Petra in Mallorca founded San Diego, Santa Barbara, Monterey, Los Angeles and San Francisco in California.
The towns started as Catholic Missions established by the Mallorcan Franciscan monk, who lived a truly remarkable life.
Friar Junipero Serra was born in the small Mallorcan village of Petra in 1713. His lifelong motto was always “Onwards, always onwards; never give up and never go back.”
At a very early age Serra became interested in a religious life and started as a novice friar at age 17, becoming a fully ordained priest at 24. He studied reading, writing, Philosophy, Theosophy, and Latin, and was awarded a Phd. in Philosophy.
From 1740 to 1743, by which time he was already generally considered intellectually brilliant, he was a Chair Professor at the San Francisco Convent situated in downtown Palma. A little later, he became a professor at the famous Llullian College established by the famous Mallorcan philosopher, scientist and mystic Ramón Llull in the 13th century.
Voyage to America
When he was 35 years old he decided to embark on a missionary voyage to New Spain, the Mexico of today, and together with his friend Friar Palou he landed at Veracruz in 1749.
He was always very strict with himself, refusing to indulge in anything, and was given to corporal mortification, whipping himself mercilessly every night. During his very first voyage on land in Mexico he absolutely refused to use the horses furnished by the Spanish authorities, preferring to travel on foot, saying that horses were too fancifull and luxurious for one such as him.
Of course he was promptly bitten by some insect (everyone knows Mexican bugs are mean), and his foot and leg swelled up horribly. He spent the night frantically scratching himself and by morning his leg was much worse and the flesh raw.
This ailment afflicted him mercilessly for more than twenty years, and during his trip north to the Californias, at age 55, he at times had to be carried on a stretcher. True to his motto he dragged his excruciantingly painful leg around, no matter what.
In 1752 Friar Serra wrote to the Spanish Inquisition formally requesting that they send inspectors to New Spain. The Inquisition responded by naming him Chief Inquisitor.
He at first worked in missions in the Sierra Gorda in Mexico, a very large mountain range with very rugged terrain, including canyons, steep mountains, deserts, and misty rain forests. He endeavoured to learn the local language but was not able to make much progress. He did not connect much with the local indians and was not making much inroads in his efforts to evangelize them.
Of all the tribes, the Pame were at first the most open towards the Spaniards and their religion, though in the 1740’s the Spanish decided to burn the original Pame villages and build their missions there, resettling the population around missions for better control. Those who did not submit either committed suicide or went to live in the mountains. Previous to Junípero Serra’s attempt to establish missions, others had also tried but failed.
After 8 years Serra had established 5 missions improving communication and control, and opening roads towards San Luís Potosí. Nevertheless, full domination was never really achieved and some of the missions were later abandoned.
In 1767 King Carlos III of Spain plotted the expulsion of all Jesuits from their missions and the Franciscan monks were entrusted with taking over the Jesuit missions along Baja California, and what is now Californa, USA.
The monks were well received by Gaspar Portolá the Governor of Las Californias, but he only conceded them authority over religious matters, retaining administrative and military powers himself.
Friar Serra was very displeased at what he considered to be gross mismanagement and finally convinced the Spanish authorities to hand over at least administrative power to the Franciscans.
In 1769, the first mission was established in Baja California: San Fernando Rey de España y de Velicatá. The founding celebrations took place “with all the neatness of holy poverty” in Junipero Serra’s own words. Gun smoke from the repeated volleys by soldiers was used in lieu of incence.
From here on he travelled constantly north to fullfill the task the Franciscans had been entrusted with.
A cure was found
Finally, when nearing San Diego in 1769, his leg was truly driving him up the wall and he at last accepted taking some sort of medicine and asked a humble muleteer, Juan, to prepare something for him. Juan explained that he only knew how to cure animals and Friar Serra told him:
“Go ahead, treat me as an animal, we are all God’s creatures”.
The muleteer prepared a poultice out of tallow and green dessert herbs and applied it overnight. In the morning Serra was much better and since then his long standing ailment bothered him only occassionally with some itching.
The group arrived in San Diego in July of that year, but of the 300 men who originally started on the voyage, only about half remained.
They were originally well received by the local Indians whom Serra in fact liked quite a lot. The Indians and missionaries exchanged articles: local foods and products for the missionaries and cloth for the Indians. Nevertheless, later on, things turned sour and at one point the missionaries were attacked by the Indians. Friar Serra prayed to God so both sides would be spared but many other members of his group were against the Indians and many battles ensued. In this atmosphere it was very difficult to establish some sort of rapport and convince Indians to convert to Catholicism, which after all was one of the aims of the whole endeavour, the other being the establishment of roads and communications with a view to political and military dominance.
In the first nine months only one single Indian couple approached Friar Serra wanting their child baptised in the Catholic Faith .
True to his motto, he refused to give up and eventually was more successful either by using his word or by devising ways to coerse the Indians into accepting “The Faith”.
A total of 9 missions in California
He did not stop at San Diego, but continued onwards establishing 8 more missions, until his death from tuberculosis at the Mission San Carlos de Borromeo, on August 28, 1784, at the age of 71.
The Franciscan monks went on to establish many more missions.
Junípero Serra was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1988 and canonized by Pope Francis in 2015 amidst a lot of controversy due to the fact that many natives were mistreated and forced into Catholicism. Controversy comes from the fact that there are very few historical documents that specifically state Serra himself acted as a zealous Inquisitor. There are also well-known cases in which he prayed for both the Spaniards and the Indians to be spared the worst in battle. It is also a fact that he considered everyone to be “God’s Creatures”. Nevertheless, it is well established in history that there were many cases of abuse of the local population at the hands of the Spaniards.
Text: Astrid A. Möller.
Friar Junipero Serra, a Franciscan monk, was born in this house in Petra. He travelled to America and founded many missions that became cities such as San Diego and Los Angeles in California.
Today there is a museum in the house where Friar Serra was born in Petra, Mallorca.
Photo: Thomas Engstrom.