Blessed Junipero Serra &

the California Missions

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A Brief Biography of Fr. Junipero Serra

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Pray for the Canonization of Bl. Junipero Serra

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Junipero Serra and the California Missions

Junipero Serra is an extremely important figure in the development of present-day California. 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 metropolitan cities such as San Francisco, San Jose, and San Diego. His legacy still remains along the former El Camino Real (the present day Hwy 101&San Diego Freeway) in the form of twenty-one missions, nine of which he personally founded and developed. Each has its own individual identity, history, and unique traditions. 

The California Missions

The Mission System was implemented by Serra and the Franciscans under the guidelines of the Catholic Church and the Spanish government.  They were set up not only to become the primary center of evangelization to Christianize the Native Americans, but also were designed to train the natives to become successful tradespeople in the new Spanish society.  The natives were welcomed by the missionaries into the mission system and joined the Catholic Church through baptism. Then they were catechized, confirmed, and often married at the mission; all for the salvation of their souls.

Each mission was built in a quadrangle for security (from the outside). The mission included a prominent church, rooms for priests, storehouses, housing for unmarried women, soldier barracks, dining facilities, and indoor workshops. Married Indians lived in a village within close proximity to the mission.  Keep in mind that at no time did the Franciscans see mission land as their land, but as land rightfully belonging to the Natives to be handed over when they were comfortably acculturated 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 than they previously had; most notably the modern (18c.) agricultural system of raising crops and livestock. What was produced by the mission benefited the mission population directly or through trade.

The Indians certainly faced terrible hardship adjusting to this new way of life. They mainly suffered from abusive soldiers who were responsible for the spreading of diseases, such as pox and syphilis, and the mistreatment of Indians (though many unfairly blame Serra for the abuses). Serra tried to prevent the devastating effects, but knew the overall system would benefit the Indians. It is true when one looks at it from an anthropological view, the mission system seems inhumane. But we must remember we are looking at it through a twentieth century viewpoint. When one realizes:

  •  the societal norms towards unknown civilizations of the time (i.e. the U.S. treatment of the Indians),
  •  what the Natives most likely would have endured without a mission system, and
  •  the missionary concern for the conversion and care of the souls of the Natives for their salvation,

then one can understand and appreciate the reason Serra and his fellow missionaries saw the importance of the mission system for the native population. The claims by anti-Serra activists of Indian whippings were really comparable to a slap on the wrist (which was a common punishment in Spanish society for disobedience).

The reality of the mission system was:

  • the Natives now had a reliable food source (which they did not have prior to the missionaries)
  • learned new trades, which later would become useful in society
  • able to gain equality and adapt to European society - something other American Natives did not have an opportunity to do.
  • their souls were saved through baptism. ("No one can enter into the kingdom of God without being born of water and spirit" Jn. 3:5)

Serra’s Care for the Native Americans

Serra saw the mission system as the best way of not only evangelizing the Christian message, but also keeping the Indians safe from the Spanish conquest of Alta California. Indirectly, Serra made it easier for the empire to take hold of California, but Serra’s concern was more for the personal welfare of each native person.

Keeping in mind the attitudes of the day, Serra went above-and-beyond his contemporary historical evangelizers and pioneers. He should be viewed in California history as one who truly cared for the Indians. When we look at other societies of this time period, we find there was no toleration for the Native Americans. For instance, just one century after Serra founded the missions, the American government gave the public the right to kill “wild” Indians who were “in the way”. (This makes you wonder what would have happened to the natives if the Americans came before the Spanish!)

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 complete missionary charge of the Indians and the removal of Fages. The Viceroy (the king’s representative in the ‘New World’) granted both requests which lead the way for the Indians to be treated fairly and justly along with enabling the missionaries to evangelize more effectively.

Many activists have claimed Serra to have been a very unholy man who beat and tortured Indians. But there has never been one piece of historical documentation to prove any of their claims. (In fact, if any proof existed, his canonization process would be halted.) Expert, unbiased historians, after piecing through all the historical documentation and other evidence, have confirmed no abuses or mistreatment have occurred by Serra. But it is a true injustice that thehistorical facts of Serra’s life and the California Mission system today are still tainted by wild 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. (By truth, I am referring to facts; by reality, I am referring to the social, political, economic, and religious situation of Spanish society.)

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 remarks 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”.

Copyright 1997-2007 by Brian Grisin

Questions or Comments:


Serra Prayer for Canonization:

O Lord Jesus Christ, reward the apostolic zeal of your Seraphic son, Blessed Junipero Serra, who leaving his home and fatherland, labored for the salvation of souls in Spain, Mexico, and California.

By Your Most Holy Name may he be raised to the full honors of the altar. Through the intercession of Blessed Serra, look with favor on my special prayers which have no earthly answer.

This we pray through Christ our Lord. Amen.