July 2020 Print

The Father of California

By Fr. William J. Slattery, Ph.D., S.T.L.

The priest establishing the mission at San Diego in July 1769 didn’t look like someone destined to become the Father of California. Junipero Serra (1713-1784) stood just five feet two inches tall, was already 56 years of age, and suffered from asthma. Moreover, his left leg was often inflamed with huge varicose ulcers and he increasingly suffered from chest pains as a consequence. Of course, the surgeon Don Pedro Prat told him that some rest would greatly help to control these ailments, but “rest” was a word that somehow didn’t fit into the vocabulary of Junipero Serra. Only as the great man lay dying, was he heard to murmur, “Now I shall rest.”

Within 15 years, notwithstanding all the roadblocks placed by health, conquistadores, and unmapped territory, this organizational genius and heroic heart, all at once explorer, colonizer and builder of civilization, one of the greatest pioneers ever to grace American soil, working 18 hours a day, covered thousands of miles to found the missions that would one day become the cities of California.

What California Owes to Its Father

Up and down Las Californias went this frail, thin, warm-blooded priest, limping along wearily over the rough paths. Those who walked alongside him did so gladly, for they knew they were walking with a great one of the earth, for here there was not only an indomitable will, but a heart of pure tenderness, a man who brought peace to the just, but who breathed priestly fire on politicians and soldiers alike if they disobeyed his stern warning “Stay away from the Indians.”

California owes much to its father and to the other 146 priests who poured out their lives in the foundation and development of its first cities. Sixty-seven of the priests lived and died in the missions, while the others were either given other assignments after their ten-year term came to an end, or else had to return to Spain because of illness. What the Protestant historian Herbert E. Bolton said of the co-founder of San Francisco could be said of all those priests:

“Fray Palóu was a diligent student, devout Christian, loyal disciple, tireless traveler, zealous missionary, firm defender of the faith, resourceful pioneer, successful mission builder, able administrator, and fair-minded historian of California.”

Junipero Serra was born on the island of Majorca and entered the Franciscans at the age of 16. After ordination he taught theology and became known as a powerful preacher. Yet he yearned to be a missionary in the New World, and, finally, in 1749, the order allowed him to cross the Atlantic to Mexico City. In 1767 he began working in the area of Baja California where missions had been founded by the Society of Jesus.

Then in 1769 he traveled to Alta California. At San Diego he established the first mission of the 21 that would eventually line El Camino Real, the 600-mile (966 kms) road from San Diego in the south to Mission San Francisco Solano in Sonoma to the north. In rapid succession, whether by him personally or under his administration, eight others were set up: San Carlos Borromeo (1770), San Antonio de Padua (1771), San Gabriel Arcángel (1771), San Luís Obispo de Tolosa (1772), San Francisco de Asís (1776), San Juan Capistrano (1776), Santa Clara de Asís (1777), and San Buenaventura (1782). His fellow priests later launched a further 12 missions. In 1784, at 70 years of age, after traveling 24,000 miles, the Father of California died at Mission San Carlos Borromeo.

San Diego had already been baptized in honor of San Diego de Alcalá in 1602 when a mapping expedition, headed by Sebastián Vizcaíno, stopped to celebrate Mass there on the saint’s feast day. However, it was on July 16, 1769 that Father Serra planted the cross on Presidio Hill, founding the Mission alongside the military post that had been established three months earlier, making it the first permanent European settlement on the Pacific Coast of the USA. Settlers arrived in 1774, and amidst ups and downs by 1797 the mission had become the largest in California, with a population of more than 1,400.

The site of present-day Los Angeles was noticed by Fr. Juan Crespi, who, on August 2, 1769, wrote in his journal that it had the potential for a fine settlement. He was a member of Gaspar de Portola’s expedition ‘traveling through Upper California looking for suitable mission sites. The expedition entered what is now Los Angeles through Elysian Park and was welcomed by eight Native Americans. Fr. Crespi recorded in his diary:

“After traveling about a league and a half through a pass between low hills, we entered a very spacious valley, well grown with cottonwoods and alders, among which ran a beautiful river from north-northwest, and then, doubling the point of a steep hill, it went on afterward to the south.…

Although they experienced three earth tremors during their brief stay, the consensus was that it was a “delightful place,” and one that had “all the requisites for a large settlement.”

The Mission of San Gabriel

In 1771, Fr. Serra built the Mission of San Gabriel Arcángel near Whittier Narrows, in what is now known as San Gabriel Valley. Thanks to the recommendation of Fr. Crespi, the Spanish governor of California, Felipe de Neve, decided to found a settlement there. On September 5, 1781, 44 settlers, “Los Pobladores,” accompanied by two priests, four colonial soldiers, and the Governor, established the town called El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles del Río de Porciúncula. Two-thirds of these settlers were mestizo (of racially mixed ancestry), a tribute to the ethnic integration promoted by Catholic priests in the Americas.

The site for modern-day San Francisco was discovered on November 1, 1769 by Fr. Juan Crespi and Don Gaspar de Portola, accompanied by a group of soldiers, while traveling north from San Diego. From November 6 and 11 the group camped down around a giant redwood (palo alto), and the priest noted in his journal that there was “a very large and fine harbor.” Three years later in 1772, Fr. Crespi and Lt. Pedro Fages traveled along the east shore of San Francisco Bay: the first white men to trek through the area of modern Oakland, Berkeley, Richmond, Hayward, and San Leandro.

On September 29, 1775, Juan Bautista Anza and Fr. Pedro Font led 200 pioneering colonists from Sonora and Sinaloa on the first stage of a 1,600-mile journey to the Bay of St. Francis. Fr. Font, a Catalan, was a man of many talents. In addition to his knowledge of the backstaff (English quadrant) that enabled travelers to determine their latitude to within a few miles, the priest also brought music to the Californian nights of the tired travelers with his psalterio, a type of harp. At Monterey he and Anza left the group momentarily in order to travel further on and select the precise site for the mission and fort on San Francisco Bay. On March 28, 1776, the Presidio (Fort) was founded. On June 29, Fr. Francisco Palóu and Lieutenant José Joaquin Moraga founded the Mission of San Francisco. The settlement was popularly known as Misión Dolores due to the nearby creek named Arroyo de Nuestra Señora de los Dolores. Pedro Font wrote the following about the spot chosen for the Mission:

“We rode about one league to the east [from the Presidio], one to the east-southeast, and one to the southeast, going over hills covered with bushes, and over valleys of good land. We thus came upon two lagoons and several springs of good water, meanwhile encountering much grass, fennel and other good herbs. When we arrived at a lovely creek, which, because it was the Friday of Sorrows, we called the [creek] Arroyo de los Dolores … On the banks of the Arroyo … we discovered many fragrant chamomiles and other herbs, and many wild violets. Near the streamlet the lieutenant planted a little corn and some garbanzos in order to try out the soil, which to us appeared good.”

The city now often called Ventura was originally named San Buenaventura in honor of the thirteenth-century Doctor of the Church. On March 31, 1782 Fr. Junípero Serra founded the mission, in the presence of the governor, Don Felipe de Neve, and Lieutenant José Francisco de Ortega.

The city of Santa Barbara owes its name to Sebastián Vizcaíno, who, in 1602, named it out of gratitude to the saint for her intercession during a violent storm. On December 4, 1786, Father Fermin Lasuen, successor to Father Serra, founded the “Queen of the Missions” on a site in a hilly area, a mile northeast of the fort, with a splendid view of the valley and waters. Around it clustered some adobe huts, the nucleus of the future city. The priests also built a sophisticated water system—still partly in use today—with a stone aqueduct carrying the water from a dammed creek in the hills to the mission, where there was even a filtering system to provide safe drinking water.

The Conversion of the Natives

Thanks to Fr. Junipero Serra many of the Native Americans came to know and love Jesus Christ. The priest had always sought, amidst all the socio-political limitations of colonial Spain, and the mindset typical of his era, to bring only truth and goodness to the Native Californians. One enterprise succeeded another in an overflow of ardent efforts to offer the people self-sufficient missions in which they might be protected from the colonists and would prosper materially as well as spiritually. By 1830, some 40,000 Catholic Native Americans “were in possession of nearly 400,000 head of cattle, over 300,000 hogs, sheep, and goats, 62,000 horses, and farms that yielded over 120,000 bushels of grain plus the products of orchards, gardens, wine presses, looms, shops, and forges.”

The chief of the Kechis in San Luis Rey told John Russell Bartlett, a United States government commissioner working in California from 1850-1853, “that his tribe was large and his people happy, when the good Fathers were there to protect them. That they cultivated the soil, assisted in rearing large herds of cattle, were taught to be blacksmiths and carpenters, as well as other trades; that they had plenty to eat, and were happy… Now they were scattered about, he knew not where, without a home or protectors, and were in a miserable, starving condition.”

The Formation of a Catholic America

An examination of the feats of Eusebio Kino, Junipero Serra, and other pioneering priests shows not only how much they explored and founded settlements, but also how they contributed to the formation of a Catholic culture within huge regions of Canada and the United States, something that belies the mirage of almost exclusively Anglo-Saxon Protestant origins. The foundation of the first permanent English settlement at Jamestown in 1607 and the arrival of the Mayflower with the Pilgrim Fathers in 1620 were certainly events of first rank in the colonial beginnings of the nation. But to the south and in the west another sophisticated culture, a Catholic one, had already been born with the establishment of the nation’s first city, St. Augustine in Florida (1565), soon to be followed in 1608 by Santa Fe at the foot of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

Hence, while we take pride for instance in the colonial architecture of New England, we cannot but be enchanted by the pure lines of the white Spanish-style buildings of Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, and California. These we owe to Catholics who bequeathed them to the nation as a heritage that is just as characteristically American as New England colonial architecture.

And what can an unprejudiced mind think as he gazes on the lovely Misiones of California? Surely, amidst the limitations of anything human, they were the most effective racial-integration establishments in U.S. history, where the Native Americans found oases of security and where the priests preserved knowledge of the languages, lifestyles, and native handiworks of the Indians through the dictionaries, grammars and histories they composed.

A U.S. government commissioner, John Russell Bartlett, asserted that the missions of California accomplished so much “not by the sword, nor by treaty, nor by presents, nor by Indian agents, who would sacrifice the poor creatures without scruple or remorse for their own vile gains…the Society of Jesus (and other religious orders) accomplished more towards ameliorating the condition of the Indians, than the United States has done since the settlement of the country.” The track record of Catholicism in integrating the races of the Americas, both North and South, is unsurpassed. The more we are aware of this—and of so many other achievements—by our Catholic forefathers, the more forcefully will resound within our hearts the call to emulation in the present and future.