In Lower California the Jesuits labored for eighty years with much greater immediate results than in other regions of the Southwest; but in Alta California they had at least sowed the seeds of a harvest which is being reaped by the Church to-day, through the growth and beneficence of the noted Pious Fund created by them.
This fund was the child of their economy, and for it they had toiled until their expulsion from their field of labors, in 1767. The Franciscans assumed the task of the Jesuits; under the direction of Padre Junipero Serra, the president and spiritual father of the proposed Missions, they entered the abandoned regions in 1767, where in less than two generations they wrought out a redemption for the souls of wild men, and a unique civilization so marvelous in its benevolence and elevating tendencies, its Christianizing and ameliorating influences, and its progressive life, that all enlightened lovers of humanity have wondered at, while revering, Serra’s fame and works.
Junipero Serra was born at Petra, on the Isle of Majorca, November 29, 1713. He became a novice on September 14, 1730, and entered a convent at Palma, the capital city of Majorca. He became a broad and finished scholar, was made professor of philosophy, and later received the degree of D. D. He was splendid in oratory: “Literary men listened to him with infatuation at the brilliancy of his style and the power of his speech. An enemy once said that his sermons should be printed in letters of gold.”
He was possessed in early life of an intense desire to go among the Indians. He loved to preach among the poor and lowly; his highest aspiration was to labor and live out his days amid the wild countries and peoples of the earth, and do them all the good in his power. He might have shone and grown great in the high places of Europe, but he turned from these alluring prospects with no sigh of regret.
His hope, now ripening into a definite purpose, was that he should move in these grooves of labor and usefulness. It involved sacrifice, piety, and the dedication of all his powers to the salvation of those human beings who by some inscrutable plan seemed to have been ignored in the progress of mankind. It was not a freakish impulse born of pious enthusiasm, but the logical offspring of his education and the traditions of the monastic order to which he belonged. Besides this, he believed most intensely in the theology of his time, and the burning thought with him was to save the Indian, who was denied the atonement of divine grace by no fault of his own, from the yawning circles of Dante’s Hell.
St. Francis of Assisi, in the early part of the thirteenth century, founded the Society of Franciscans. He was a pious enthusiast of great learning and an unquenchable love for the lower classes of humanity. The cultured and the great could care for themselves; but the poor peasantry were in a pitiable condition everywhere in Europe; and he became impressed with the idea that the Church had a most solemn duty, through some special agency, to exert her potent influence to uplift into a better secular and spiritual life these down-trodden members of her fold. He cast about him for some choice spirits in the priesthood, who like himself could be inspired with a sense of the importance of this duty, and would devote their lives zealously to its fulfillment. He did not search in vain, and under the authority of the Church he organized a society. Its declared object was to shun wealth, ease, and luxury, as well as worldly rank and power, the members to give all the energies of their being to the work they had undertaken. They would be clothed in humble garb, gladly enduring hardships and the reproaches of men, that they might the more effectually labor among the lowly, the degraded, the down-trodden, the ignorant, and the superstitious in all lands. They pledged the Order to perpetual poverty, that they might not be diverted from their holy mission by earthly pleasures. Upon the cross they avowed a determination to labor for the cause of the divine Master alone, without self-aggrandizement or hope of earthly reward, and to bring to all the degraded and unfortunate the joys of His redemption. They became learned, knowing that knowledge is power, that they might call it into requisition for the better execution of their task. They studied those practical sciences and arts which might help them to meet every emergency that might arise within the scope of their mission. They were temperate in all things, that they might be able to rely on their mental and physical powers in times of trial and danger. They subjected themselves to severe tests, and trained all their faculties for success.