Home -> Philopolis Press -> Chimes of Mission Bells -> Chapter I - Junipero Serra, Leader of the Heroic Band of Spanish Missionaries of California. His Coming to San Fernando, Mexico, Thence to California

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Chapter I.

Junipero Serra, Leader of the Heroic Band of Spanish Missionaries of California. His Coming to San Fernando, Mexico, Thence to California.

Junipero Serra, whose name and labors may be termed a compendium of Christian virtues, was born on November 24, 1713, in Petra, a village of the picturesque Island of Majorca, on the northeastern coast of Spain, and a part of the Province of fair Catalonia, one of the most valuable and beautiful portions of Spain. This child, around whom our story clusters was baptized on the day following his birth, and received the names of Miguel José. His parents were poor people from a material standpoint, but gifted with a rich heritage of the noblest, and sublimest character; qualities which make the Spanish peasant so delightful.

From his tenderest youth, Miguel José evinced an ardent desire to enter the priesthood and displayed a zealous missionary spirit. His pious parents placed no obstacle in the way of their gentle boy's vocation, and being too poor to pay for his education, the Church did it for them. At the age of sixteen, Miguel José left his father's small estate and began his studies in his native village, completing them at the Franciscan College of Palma, the Capital of the Island of Majorca. He made rapid progress, and a brilliant future opened before him, while his virtuous qualities were noted by all with whom he came in contact. A proof of his worth may be seen from the facts that he was ordained before he attained his majority; also taught in different schools as professor of theology and received the degree of doctor soon after his ordination. The fame of his eloquent preaching and persuasive oratorical powers spread not only throughout Spain but reached other European countries. Still Junipero Serra (as he was known by his own choice after an humble disciple of Saint Francis of Assisi, noted for his charity) was not dazzled by his brilliant mental gifts, and his thirsting desire to evangelize the heathen savage of the New World grew apace with his fame. He declined the offer to become the Court preacher and other ecclesiastical dignities, which he would have been entirely justified in accepting, and practiced those virtues which clung to him with even more perfect maturity throughout his life; heroic virtues which enabled him to undertake wonderful things. In him too were noted those sweet simple qualities invariably found in great and holy men and women, such as gentleness, amiability, a tender affection for children and a love for the beautiful in nature; sun, moon, stars, flowers, birds, the woods and ocean, all found responsive chords within him. In a few brief lines we have endeavored to convey an idea of Serra's character, let us now follow his steps in company with the band of heroic workers who accompanied him in his voyage across the dark Atlantic, and his apostolic journeys through Mexico and California to "break the bread of life" to the unfortunate heathen. Among the notable band of missionaries was Father Francisco Paloú, life-long friend and co-laborer of Father Junipero Serra.

But why did these heroes choose Mexico and California as the vineyards of their labors? Why did they not go to Africa or other heathen shores? Here is the answer: Spain and all Europe were filled with stories of the New World since the discovery of America by Columbus in 1492, and several other Spanish discoveries in later years, among which must be remembered that in 1521, Hernando Cortes, one of the great Spanish explorers of the sixteenth century, explored the hitherto unknown land of Mexico, and as Spain always accompanied her conquests and explorations with her missionaries to evangelize the heathens, at the time that Father Junipero Serra set sail for the New World, which was in 1759, there were in Mexico an archbishopric and several missions conducted by Spanish priests, among them a well established Franciscan College in San Fernando, a settlement in the northern part of Mexico, which the Spanish explorers and missionaries so decided to name after Saint Ferdinand, a King of Spain, who lived in the thirteenth century. And to this College, Father Junipero Serra and his companions came after a perilous voyage of nearly one year; for the date of their arrival was January 1, 1760; and here they began their labor! Of the nine years which Junipero Serra toiled in Mexico, six were spent in Sierra Gorda, some distance north of San Fernando, and one of the wildest and roughest of those half explored regions. And what marvels attended the labors of Serra and the other self-sacrificing sons of Saint Francis here! With Junipero Serra at the helm, the good priests learned some of the Aztec dialects in order to convert the savages. Then what followed? With the greatest patience the missionaries acquitted themselves to the task of teaching the classic, cultured language of Spain to these poor aborigines, whose languages like those of the still cruder California Indians, did not contain expressions for even the simplest words of scripture or of the liturgy of the Church. And can we wonder at this? But what were the astonishing results of the good priests' labors? They were truly God-wonders! Daily were recorded numerous conversions, and at the close of six years many Indian congregations of those regions could be heard singing the ancient Latin hymns of the Church, and in poor but intelligible Spanish supplying in their prayers and conversations what was wanting in their dialects. It was while at Sierra Gorda that Junipero Serra became afflicted with a painful sore which broke out on his right leg and which never healed in all his eventful and laborious career. Many historians allude to this sore as a "wound," but no record is extant to indicate it as such, the most authentic conclusions being that this sore was due to natural causes greatly augmented and brought on by the hardships and climatic conditions he encountered in this missionary field.

The average person would think Junipero Serra and his companions had surely satiated their thirst for missionary labors during the nine long toilsome years they spent in Mexico, far, far away from loving home, affectionate kindred and the Old World culture to which they bade farewell when the last glistening silhouette of the Spanish Coast vanished from their view in 1759, but not so! Their pilgrimage was but begun! The pilgrimage which was to blossom heavenly and earthly blessings as beautiful and countless as the flowers which jeweled the slopes and valleys they traversed. The monstrous undertaking begun so gloriously, blessed with the benison of prayers, sacrifices, tears; blessed later with superhuman success and crowned with an immortal halo for endless days!

Here we will make a slight digression for the sake of our story. In 1548, just twenty-seven years after Cortes discovered the land of Mexico, Cabrillo's expedition had sailed up the Coast of California, and in 1602 Sebastian Vizcaino had made further discoveries accompanied by two Carmelite priests, and landed on the shores of Monterey. Both of these expeditions, however, were abandoned and California remained the "mysterious vineyard," as it was called. But Vizcaino drew a map of California placing upon it the harbor of Monterey, and wrote glowing accounts of the beauty of the spot. On Point Lobos he planted a Cross, and the Carmelite Fathers named that beautiful Valley, four miles from Monterey, Carmelo, in honor of the Blessed Virgin Mary, venerated under the title of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. Of these facts we will have occasion to speak of more fully later on in this work.

Years after these expeditions the good Jesuit Fathers established several missions in Lower California, but were recalled to Spain by King Carlos III and by this sovereign's request the Franciscan Fathers of the College of San Fernando were commissioned to take the newly vacated missions and accompany as missionaries the great and glorious enterprise of Don Gaspar de Portolá, with Vizcaino's map as guide, to further explore California and add it to the Crown of Castile and Leon.

The Father Guardian of the College of San Fernando, on receiving the letter from King Carlos, immediately appointed Junipero Serra, whose zeal and sanctity were so well known, as the Father President of the band of missionaries to set out for California. Among the missionaries who volunteered to evangelize California were Fathers Francisco Paloú, Francisco de Lasuén and Juan Crespí.

Here we will introduce a few characters, not of the missionary band, but who may well be termed faithful co-operators of their labors, men of unimpeachable honor, whose names add luster to the pages of Spanish annals. Don Jose Galvez, the Visitador General (general visitator) of the Spanish possessions in Mexico, a man as pious and noble as he was brilliant, managed the expedition of gallant Don Gaspar de Portolá and the missionaries, and gave Junipero Serra and the brave officers and soldiers much encouragement. This wonderfully managed and well equipped expedition, on which hinged the future of California, was wisely divided into two parts, one to go by sea, the other overland. The sea expedition consisted of three ships the San Carlos, the San José, and the San Antonio, the last named was a relief ship and was started after the other two. The San Carlos and San José carried a large portion of the troops, all of which received the Sacraments before embarking. On these ships were also placed the Church ornaments, provisions, camping outfits and cargoes of agricultural implements. Father Junipero Serra then blessed the ships and placed them under the guidance of Saint Joseph, whom the missionaries had chosen as the Patron Saint of California. Each ship had two missionaries on board and among the crew were bakers, cooks and blacksmiths; on the San Antonio went the surgeon, Don Pedro Prat. Simultaneously with these ships started two land parties, one in advance of the other in order to stop at La Paz in Lower California, to pick up cattle and sheep wherewith to stock the new country, also to bring some of the converted Indians of the mission in that region, to aid the missionaries and soldiers by translating the speech of the Indians of Alta or Higher California; for while the Indian dialects were numerous, there was some similarity among them. This first land expedition was in command of Captain Rivera y Moncada. The second land party was in command of the newly appointed governor, Don Gaspar de Portolá, the first governor of California, and wise indeed was the choice of this good and excellent man! This second land party was doubly blessed with the presence of Junipero Serra. Many were the dangers and hardships encountered by these sterling men both by land and sea; and as the repetition of what is noble never tires, we will again allude to the painful sore on Junipero Serra's leg, which caused him such intense suffering, that his continuation of the journey many times seemed miraculous even before he reached Saint Xavier (the mission established at La Paz). When his fellow missionary, Father Paloú advised him to remain a little longer at Saint Xavier's until he would be in a better condition to travel, his only answer was "let us speak no more on the subject, I have placed my faith in God and trust to His Goodness to plant the holy standard of the Cross not only at San Diego but even as far as Monterey." And God overshadowed the enterprise undertaken in His Name. The ship San José was never heard from, but its noble crew were always considered martyrs who brought blessings on the rest of the expedition. The San Carlos and the two land parties reached San Diego, their first goal almost simultaneously. Here was chanted the first Te Deum in California! Here Serra, head of the religious portion of the expedition, and Portolá head of the civil and military, conferred with each other on the course they were to follow. And here we will leave these incomparable pioneers to celebrate the birthday of California, July 1, 1769.

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