Father Junipero (1713-1783), also known as the Apostle of California, was a Franciscan monk and Spanish Missionary, instrumental in the founding of the first nine missions of California. From San Diego to San Francisco, the first nine of the eventual 21 missions were established. His feast day is celebrated on July 1st, the day he first entered Alta California.
Born in Spain, he quickly became known for his eloquent preaching and his unrivaled intellect. He was quite eccentric in his preaching and was even known to beat himself with stones publicly as an act of atonement and penance, encouraging others to do the same. Considering this aspect of his personality, it is not surprising that Junipero Serra was characterized by his biographers as stoic and decidedly lacking a sense of humor.
Bruises and stern face in tow, he went to the ‘new world’ with the idea of being a missionary. In keeping with his eccentric nature, he walked to Mexico City despite seriously injuring his leg along the way. With the cooperation of the Mexican government, it was decided to claim as much as could be claimed in the region of California. King Charles III wanted to remove the Jesuits, feeling the Franciscans were more loyal to the throne. The state’s interest lay in attempting to stop Russia from claiming land via the Pacific coast, keeping California Spanish. Fr. Junipero’s mission was to convert the Natives who already dwelled there to Christianity.
To be fair, there has been recent scholarship that has shed light on the reality of what it was actually like for the converted Indians, among them the Tongva people, original inhabitants of the Los Angeles basin since 700 BC. After they were baptized, they were required to live at the mission and often suffered privation and disease. In 1832 the total native population declined from 133,500 in 1770 to 98,000.
“‘Despite innumerable lamentations, apologies, and justifications, there can be no serious denial that the mission system, in its economics, was built upon forced labor,’ historian Sherburne F. Cook wrote in his influential 1943 article, The Indian versus the Spanish Mission” (Nathan Masters via KCET.org).
The zeal and fervor, so evident in Fr. Junipero, was shared by those with whom he worked, and according to scholarship, did not give respect to a way of life that had sustained these people for centuries. Certainly good has come from the founding of the missions, but one must ask, at what cost? The question is uncomfortable, and it should be.
At the age of 70, Father Junipero Serra died at Mission San Carlos Borromeo and is buried there under the sanctuary floor. His legend and his work would become legend and veneration and the cause for his sainthood appeared inevitable.
Pope Saint John Paul II beatified Father Junipero in 1988.
From his homily that day:
Relying on the divine power of the message he proclaimed, Father Serra led the native peoples to Christ. He was well aware of their heroic virtues — as exemplified in the life of St. Kateri Tekakwitha and he sought to further their authentic human development on the basis of their new-found faith as persons created and redeemed by God. He also had to admonish the powerful, in the spirit of our second reading from James, not to abuse and exploit the poor and the weak.
The Natives in California were not poor, nor were they weak. But were they exploited? History cannot be undone, but in our efforts as missionaries of the new evangelization, how do we relate and coexist with those who already have established cultures, ways of life, and are otherwise good and holy people in their way? Are our good intentions actually good?