The Advent of Junipero Serra

Junipero Serra came into possession of the most exalted qualifications for his marvelous work in Alta California by the inheritance of a loving soul and wonderful intellectual powers; he acquired remarkable erudition; his lofty ideals were nurtured in the discipline, precepts, and traditions of his monastic order; he attained an eloquence which alike convinced the minds and enraptured the hearts of men, were they civilized or heathen; and his gentle kindness made permanent his conquests. He had no peer among the disciples of his order since the day of its birth. With such a character, such training, and with a zeal for the conversion of the Indian more intense than the mystical fires upon the altars of the gods, it is less astonishing to enlightened faith that he fashioned a marvelous civilization in the dark realms of our Western coast. Yearning for the souls of the heathen, he was fated to find his call at last as a redeemer of the pagans of California.

On August 28, 1749, he sailed from Cadiz with a select band from the convent in Palma, who were in sympathy with his life purpose; on the seventh of December he arrived at Vera Cruz, and on New Year’s Day, 1750, he entered the Apostolic College of San Fernando, in the City of Mexico, which subsequently became the headquarters of the new Missions. His earnest soul could brook no delay, and the authorities appointed him and Father Palou to work among the Indians of Cerro Gordo, one hundred miles from Queretaro, a province many leagues in extent, a mountainous and wild region without a vestige of civilization. From here in the dawn of triumph among the natives he was withdrawn to labor among the faithless and murderous Apaches far to the north, a race with many branches, which outstripped in fiendish traits of character all other tribes of this continent. Other missionaries preceding him had been subjected to the greatest hardships and maltreatment and finally had been murdered by these savages; but with full knowledge of such perils he immediately began preparation to enter upon his dangerous mission. Yet the kindly Providence that guarded his destiny interposed; his orders were recalled, and he retired temporarily to his convent. From this center his labors were ceaseless, extending their influence everywhere for the good of the cause, with the most astonishing results, and proclaiming him a leader of men in this crusade in the unknown wilds.

In 1767 he was commissioned to take the command of the mission work in California. At fifty-four years of age he began there the great chapter of the record of his life. He had found his life work; and with what supreme energy of mind and body he toiled, suffered, and triumphed is one of the marvels of human history. In exa’ted thought, Christian kindness, devotion to his God, and in energetic action he was without a rival in the mission field. In seventeen years of arduous labor and severe trials he wore out the gifts nature had so lavishly bestowed upon him, and he died at the Mission of San Carlos, on the twenty-eighth day of August, 1784, at the age of seventy years, nine months, and four days.

Father Palou, his friend of a lifetime, said at his death:

`Here is one of whom posterity will say, `He was the greatest man that ever trod the sands of Alta California.’ ”

By sincere respect for the nature and rights of the Indian, he conquered; but he led him through. love. Force was foreign to his mind. His courage was heroic as that of a martyr. He had led a noble life: untiring labor, devotion to duty, and care for the lowly and the degraded were his ceaseless duties. He educated, controlled, guided, loved, and helped all; he gave them occupation and a spiritual and practical purpose in life; while ministering to the sick, feeding the hungry, and clothing the naked, he taught them to be self-supporting. His was the first civilization that ever dawned upon the benighted natives of heathen California, and improved the conditions of their lives by showing them how to obtain the various and generous products of their rich soil by cultivation. It is a singular and noteworthy fact that Nature had ill provided for the sustenance of the natives in these coast regions, by the fruits and vegetables of the soil, the animals of the forests, or the birds of the air. She was bountiful only in the foods found in her waters.

In a wonderful manner the trite adage, “History repeats itself,” is exemplified in the missionary work in California. Every act, emotion, thought, and experience of mankind is engraved here in the lives and labors of the padres. Their fitness for the great task before them was sufficient for every emergency. Their marvelous efficiency as instructors was shown in their teaching by precept and example to the ignorant natives more than fifty different arts, professions, and occupations known to European civilization, and with considerable skill in the adoption of models for their practical use.

Return to: The Missions of California and the Old Southwest

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