St. Junípero Serra Between Conversion and Colonialism

Sometime after eight o’clock in the evening of December 13, 1775 the commander of the Spanish Presidio in Monterey California, Fernando de Rivera y Moncada, personally undertook a five-mile journey through the darkness to Mission San Carlos Borromeo in Carmel. There he told the president of the California missions, Fr. Junípero Serra, that he had just received word that Mission San Diego de Alcalá had been destroyed by an attacking force of the local Kumeyaay people and that one of the missionaries there, Fr. Luis Jayme, had been killed. Rivera gave Serra a letter from the surviving missionary that described the attack and Jayme’s death.

Serra was deeply shaken. He had personally founded Mission San Diego five and a half years earlier. He had known Jayme since that missionary had arrived in California four years earlier. Serra had used Jayme’s written report about the abuse of indigenous women by local Spanish soldiers when he journeyed to Mexico City in 1773 and successfully entreated the viceroy to replace the current military commander.

The next day Serra celebrated a High Mass for the repose of Jayme’s soul. On the following day he wrote a letter to the viceroy whom he had met two years earlier. He summarized what had happened in San Diego and added,

One of the most important things that I requested of the Visitor General [José de Gálvez, who had organized the 1769 expedition from Baja California to San Diego and Monterey] at the beginning of these conquests was that, if the Indians were to kill me, whether they be gentiles or Christians, they should be forgiven. And now I request the same of you. I was negligent in not requesting this sooner . . . If they [the Indians] have already killed the missionary, what are we to gain with military campaigns? . . . Let the murderer live so he can be saved, which is the purpose of our coming here and the reason for forgiving him. Help him to understand, with some moderate punishment, that he is being pardoned in accordance with our law, which orders us to forgive offenses and to prepare him, not for his death, but for eternal life.

This letter neatly summarizes two of the most significant issues that dominated Junípero Serra’s activities during the fifteen years he served as the Father President of the California missions. First, Serra wrote to the viceroy, the highest official in New Spain. This underscored the fact that Serra was an integral part of a three-century Spanish colonial project. Second, his fundamental concern was for the conversion of the indigenous people to whom he was ministering. These two concepts—colonialism and conversion—do not coexist easily with each other in our present discourse. Much of the misunderstanding surrounding Serra, especially concerning his recent canonization by Pope Francis, stems from a presentist, and therefore inadequate, view of those terms. They meant something very different in the seventeenth and eighteenth century Spanish world that Serra inhabited. A brief look at his biography will serve to set the scene.

Miguel Serra was born in the small agrarian village of Petra on the eastern side of the Mediterranean island of Mallorca in 1713. As a boy he worked the fields with his father and attended a grammar school run by the Franciscans in a local church. At the age of sixteen he entered the Order and served his novitiate not far from the island’s capital city of Palma. When he took his vows he changed his first name from Miguel to Junípero, in honor of Brother Junípero, one of the original companions of St. Francis.

This was an unusual step, but it probably meant that Serra, even as a teenager, realized that the virtues for which Junípero was celebrated in the Franciscan tradition, humility and patience, were virtues that he would need heavenly assistance in attaining. After the normal seminary training in philosophy and theology, Serra was ordained a priest in 1737. He spent the next few years in advanced theological studies. He became an expert in the thought of John Duns Scotus. He eventually attained an important academic position in the Franciscan University in Palma and became one of the best-known teachers and preachers on the island.

At some point in his mid-30s, Serra seems to have become somewhat dissatisfied with academic life. Influenced by the example of Ramón Llull, a Mallorcan member of the Third Order of St. Francis who had done some missionary work in North Africa, he volunteered for the missionary enterprise in the Americas. He left Mallorca in 1749 and arrived in Mexico in December of that year. He walked from Veracruz to Mexico City and was able to pray at the shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe on New Year’s Eve. The next day he presented himself at the Franciscan missionary headquarters in Mexico City, the Colegio de San Fernando.

Since he was considerably older than most of the Franciscans studying there, he was quickly sent to the missions. He served eight years in the Franciscan missionary field in the Sierra Gorda, a rugged area roughly two hundred miles north of Mexico City, near the city of Queretaro. He spent an additional eight years serving as a member of a group of Franciscans who traveled throughout various regions in Mexico giving missions attempting to restore religious fervor in regions where the local bishop thought that Christian commitment had waned.

When the Jesuits were expelled from Spain and the Spanish Empire in 1767, the Franciscans were chosen to take over some of the former Jesuit missions. One such former Jesuit chain was in Baja California, and Serra was sent there as the head of the Franciscans who were to administer the former Jesuit churches. Soon after he settled there, Visitor General José de Gálvez arrived with word that the Spanish government had decided to extend its colonial frontier northward. It had received word that the Russians were moving pretty quickly across Siberia. The fear was that when the Russians reached Alaska they could come down the western coast of North America quite easily and establish themselves in Alta (Upper, as opposed to Baja, or Lower) California.

Spain desired to establish a presence there in an attempt to forestall any Russian move. Gálvez asked Serra if he would send some of the Franciscans presently in Baja California on the expedition north. Serra enthusiastically agreed and told Gálvez that he himself would go. The expedition, led by Gaspar de Portolá, reached San Diego in June 1769 and Monterey in June 1770. At both places Portolá established a presidio and Serra established a mission. Serra stationed himself at Monterey, which was to become the regional capital. Within a year he moved the mission away from the presidio to the banks of the Carmel River.

Serra remained Father President of the Alta California missions until his death in August 1784. During his presidency he supervised the founding of seven additional missions, from San Francisco de Asís in the north to San Juan Capistrano in the south. During this period, the military authorities also established two additional presidios, at San Francisco and Santa Bárbara, and two civil settlements, or pueblos, at San José and Los Angeles. By the time of Serra’s death, the outlines of the Spanish presence on the West Coast of North America had been firmly planted.

However, to understand how this presence operated, we must realize that before 1846 California was actually not part of “North America” as we currently understand that term. Rather, California was part of Latin America. Therefore, understanding the concepts that appeared in Serra’s 1775 letter to the viceroy demands an understanding of what “colonialism” and “conversion” meant in Latin America during that era. That historicized understanding has been tremendously lacking in much of the recent discussion of Serra.

Rather, Spanish colonial policies in California have too often been approached as if they were simply extensions of the better-known (at least in the United States) British colonial policy. And, in terms of native indigenous people, that British policy was very clear: push them away and/or kill them. William Bradford, the governor of Plymouth, described the burning flesh of over four hundred Pequot Indians killed at the 1637 Mystic River massacre as “a sweet sacrifice” to God. Much of the current discussion about California seems to assume that these policies were also the policies of the Spanish. This link was made explicit in a polemical 1992 book American Holocaust, in which the author described the Indian policy of California and its missions by using a quote from a seventeenth century New England Puritan. Such a conflation of British and Spanish colonialism has been implicit in much public discourse since then.

But Spanish policy toward the indigenous peoples of the Americas, including those of California, was markedly different from British policy. There were cruelties towards natives in the Spanish colonies, but the Spanish versions of a Bradford celebrating these cruelties were always challenged. As early as 1511 Antonio de Montesinos, a Dominican priest in Santo Domingo mounted the pulpit on the first Sunday of Advent and castigated the conquistadores in his congregation. He exclaimed,

You are in mortal sin, and live and die therein by reason of the cruelty and tyranny that you practice on these innocent people. Tell me, by what right or justice do you hold these Indians in such cruel and horrible slavery?

A young priest in the city, Bartolomé de las Casas, was influenced by Montesinos. He became a Dominican himself and lived the rest of his life as a passionate defender of the indigenous peoples. His efforts, including his classic work A Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indies sparked a series of Spanish laws intended to protect the Indians from silver mine or hacienda owners who sought to oppress them with harsh and unrequited labor. These laws were only intermittently enforced, but from the beginning of the 1500s until the end of the Spanish Empire, over 15,000 Spanish clerics—Franciscans, Dominicans, Augustinians, Jesuits, and others—journeyed across the Atlantic to staff a loose network of missions. There they attempted to gather the Indians together in order to protect them from the ravages of the conquistadores and their successors.

These missionaries were colonial officials. Their salaries were paid by the government, and the task of the missions was fundamentally a colonial task: to assimilate the indigenous people so that they could eventually become productive members of the Spanish Empire. Two elements of their intended assimilation were conversion to Catholicism and engagement in European-style agriculture as members of close-knit and stable village communities.

There were constant quarrels between the missionaries and settlers who wanted greater and unrestricted access to indigenous labor. In the first half of the eighteenth century, the Bourbon monarchs of Spain de-emphasized the mission system. They were responsive to settler critiques that indigenous assimilation could be more speedily accomplished if the indigenous peoples had greater contact with a wider variety of Spanish colonists. They also argued that the missionaries, in an attempt to maintain their privileged position in the sometimes very prosperous missions, were deliberately retarding indigenous progress. Indeed, Alta California was the last frontier in New Spain where missions were a significant element in Spanish colonial expansion.

But the very existence of this mission system, and arguments in Spain and in the Americas about its successes and failures, underscore an important point: in Spanish America indigenous people had a place in colonial society. It was, to be sure, an inferior place. But it was a place. In British and later US North America, there was virtually no interest in indigenous assimilation and native people were accorded no place at all.

Junípero Serra inherited the strengths and difficulties of the mission system. We know that he very much believed, with las Casas, that genuine conversion needed to be voluntary. In 1744 he had preached a series of Lenten sermons to a convent of Poor Clares in Palma. He took as his text the verse from Psalm 33, “Taste and see that the Lord is good.” That verse also served as a shorthand for his basic missionary strategy. He believed that people ought to be attracted into Christian communities by the example of the good and generous lives that people already living in those communities witnessed to others. So, for instance, a mere two weeks after Portolá had established the presidio in Monterey in 1770, Serra wrote that this location was not going to be suitable for mission. The reason was simple:

There is no ranchería [indigenous settlement] at all in the vicinity of the sport. Because of this, if we see that they are determined to accept our holy faith, we need to recognize the special difficulty they will have in taking up residence here. It might be necessary to leave the Presidio here, and, with a few soldiers of the escort, move the mission close to the Carmel River.

The river, of course, was where the indigenous villages were. Serra wanted to place his own community close to the indigenous people so that they could “taste and see” the advantages of the Christian way of life. He realized that this process would be a gradual one and he maintained his patience with that process. A few years later, for instance, Commander Rivera wrote Serra that a boat had just arrived in Monterey. He told Serra to send some Indians to come over to unload it. In reply, Serra said that the indigenous people who had come into the mission were still in the process of trying to figure out what Christianity and mission life entailed and he did not want to disrupt the rhythm of their own discoveries. He told Rivera,

The work the Indians do here is their own work. Even though they are never asked to work without receiving food and clothing in return, they are so wary that at times from a group of fifty, we are lucky to get even a dozen who are willing to work . . . We are tolerating this and are carefully trying to encourage them so that little by little they will learn.

He did not want to disrupt this gradual assimilation by forcing them to perform the tasks Rivera was requesting. So he refused to send them.

Along with most eighteenth century Europeans, Serra believed that indigenous people were like children compared to Europeans. So he adopted what he believed was a benign paternalism in dealing with them. Besides allowing them to learn at their own pace, that paternalism also demanded strictness at times. As he had remarked to the Poor Clares in his 1744 sermons,

But you will say, how can the tender love of a father for his child be reconciled with punishing and afflicting him? Actually, a harmony between love and strictness is what characterizes a true father. It is precisely because the father loves him that he teaches him to obey. When he misbehaves, the father scolds and punishes him so that the son can correct his mistakes.

It is undoubtedly true that most indigenous people did not regard themselves as children and did not think that the punishments they received in the mission were justified. The punishment was most commonly applied if native people left the mission without permission or remained away longer than they had been given permission to do. Most mission residents were given annual permissions to visit their home villages and renew acquaintances with their families and friends. Undoubtedly, the missionaries generally hoped that they would give good reports about mission life and thereby entice additional people to seek catechetical instruction and eventual baptism. But it is very unclear why any particular person or group chose baptism. One person might decide to be baptized simply to be polite or because another family member had done so.

In addition, at all the mission sites, the presence of Spanish herds of sheep, goats, and horses was destroying the environment that had sustained the indigenous people for centuries. The fruits, berries, nuts, and game were being diminished. So, as time went on, a number of people undoubtedly entered the missions and were baptized because there was at least food for themselves and their children there. It was undoubtedly also the case that the missionaries, including Serra, did not fully explain to people who were receiving instruction for baptism that, from the point of view of Catholic theology, baptism was a perpetual commitment. While the missionaries believed that the choice to enter the missions involved embarking on a one-way journey, it is not clear that this was understood by the people who were receiving the sacrament.

So, people often absented themselves without permission or for longer periods than they had been allowed. When this happened, the missionaries would send out soldiers to bring them back and if they were found and captured they would be punished. The punishments often involved whipping and other forms of bodily injury, administered by the local military. There is no evidence that Serra or most other missionaries actually ever administered this type of punishment themselves to any indigenous person. But they accepted and urged strict punishment. At one point, as he was referring to some Indian prisoners in the presidio with Rivera, Serra remarked, “If you do not have shackles on hand, if you let us know, they can be sent from here.”

Thus, Serra’s missions were places of coercion and punishment as well as conversion and community. He would not have regarded these two aspects as being in tension with each other, but as two sides of the same coin. We, of course, regard this matter differently now, and the use of such severe measures is not condoned. For instance, Los Angeles Archbishop José Gómez has recently written with regret, “It is sadly true that corporal punishment was sometimes used in the missions.”

But Serra’s goal was always conversion, freely offered and freely accepted. When he was able to visit San Diego after the destruction of the mission, he was able to prevail upon Rivera and military commander José Francisco de Ortega to treat the indigenous people who had been arrested for participating in the rebellion with leniency. Rivera originally wanted to exile a group of prisoners to San Blas, on the western coast of Mexico. Serra argued that such a punishment would irretrievably turn many Kumeyaay in the San Diego area against the missions. He asked Rivera what type of benefit “would one achieve by shipping them off? For those left behind, it would be tantamount to seeing them hanged.” He feared that such a punishment would cause the people around San Diego “to take up arms and initiate hostilities again.” He urged that leniency would be the best way to regain the trust of the local indigenous people.

His arguments were eventually accepted and the Indians were pardoned and released. A few years later, when he was in San Diego administering the sacrament of confirmation, he was delighted that a number of people who had participated in the rebellion were receiving the sacrament. He wrote, “The two brothers who were the ringleaders of the uprising behave with such loyalty that the Padres trust them the most. They have already been confirmed.” And when Serra passed away at Carmel in 1784, his longtime friend Francisco Palóu wrote that when the news that he had died in his room became known, “So great was the crowd of people, including Indians and soldiers and sailors, that it was necessary to close the door in order to place him in the coffin.”

When Serra died, the missions were in their infancy. As they developed, they were far from perfect. The close living conditions meant that diseases to which the indigenous people of California had not developed immunities were able to spread widely and quickly. Other diseases introduced into the region in the nineteenth century by Canadian and American fur trappers made matters worse. The indigenous death rate grew and in all the missions it eventually far exceeded the birth rate. In addition, some missionaries, albeit a small minority, were very cruel in their treatment of the indigenous people.

But Serra’s fears that the Indians would be greatly and systematically oppressed in non-mission environments proved well-founded. The Mexican government ended the missions in the 1830s. Even though the missionaries insisted to the end that the mission lands actually belonged to the native people, the land was divided up among the California elites, who turned it into cattle raising ranchos, California’s version of Mexican haciendas. The rancheros consistently raided Indian villages to capture additional workers. They usually defended these raids as retaliation for various offenses, but no one really believed that. As one Swedish visitor wrote in the 1840s, “Whenever a ranch requires laborers, you hear of some Indian outrage, followed by the taking of prisoners by the Californians.”

In the decades after his death, Serra eventually became the virtual symbol of everything that happened in the mission era, even though he was not even alive for most of it. This was partly because Palóu published a laudatory biography of him in Mexico in 1787. Parts of that work were translated into English in California in the 1880s. Since he was a virtual symbol, Serra’s legacy was deeply influenced by the overall assessment of the mission era.

In California in the early twentieth century the Spanish Revival Movement led to a fantasy-based romantic view of the era. Serra was accordingly portrayed as a faultless and heroic figure. Starting in the 1940s, a greater emphasis on the indigenous past led to a different view. One California writer offered the analogy of missions as “concentration camps” and in this version, Serra tended to be portrayed as a sadistic architect of violence and death.

Both of these particular views were one-sided, incomplete, and dismissive of human complexity. Junípero Serra lived in a colonial system that none of us would want to replicate in the present or future. However, he tried to make that system more humane and equitable than it would otherwise have been. Serra was a person composed, as we all are, of light and shadow. He was a man who, in the context of the actual times in which he lived, tried to stand for decency against cruelty, for justice against oppression, for grace against sin.

Featured Image: Portrait of Junípero Serra, used by permission of the Santa Barbara Mission Archive-Library.


Robert Senkewicz

Robert M Senkewicz is Professor of History Emeritus at Santa Clara University. Together with Rose Marie Beebe he is the author of Junípero Serra: California, Indians, and the Transformation of as Missionary.

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