After I opened the envelope which contained the book, The Man Who Founded California, The Life of Saint Junipero Serra, by M.N.L. Couve de Murville, Archbishop Emeritus of Birmingham, England (Ignatius Press), I was so excited to learn more about this saint who brought so many native Californians to Christ. Immediately, I flipped through the 130 page book just to look at some of the beautiful historical pictures that are scattered throughout the book. I am not a history buff, but I was drawn into the story of how Friar Serra came to Mexico from Spain and ultimately ended up in California. It was the story of God calling his people placing them right where they needed to be to preach the Good News of Jesus Christ.
Life Devoted to God
“Throughout his life he maintained a great devotion to that solemn promise by which he had committed himself to the service of Jesus Christ through a life of poverty, chastity and obedience…”
Set during the 1700’s, Serra was born November 24, 1713. He was the eldest child of 5 children, but only him and his oldest sister lived into adulthood. At age 15, he told his parents he wanted to be a priest, and by September 1730, Serra took on the Franciscan habit. He received his masters in Theology and also became a teacher of the faith. Junipero was a great professor of theology at Lullian University, when God took his life in an unexpected direction. In 1749, Junipero volunteered for a mission trip to Mexico and was accepted to the mission. He never returned to his homeland, but followed the path which led him to this New World.
Archbishop Murville brings us to Mexico in 1750 and shares how difficult life was back during that time. Friar Junipero spent eight years in Sierra Gorda, Mexico, spreading Christianity to the Mexican natives during many missions and building beautiful churches. After some politics and the changing environment in Europe, Spain wanted to make sure they were able to secure the land of west coast America and determined the best way to accomplish this mission was to convert the natives of California. Since it was a Spanish mission who converted them, the converts would then be considered to be a Spanish settlement. Junipero was sent and finally landed in lower California in 1769.
Murville shares so many beautiful details about the many mission trips Junipero had converting the native Californians.
“Junipero made a habit of tracing the sign of the cross on those who came to him, and he would say to them: Amar a Dios, “Love God”, so that these words became the usual greeting in the whole area, whenever the natives meat Spaniards on the way.”
Unfortunately for Junipero, conversion was an extremely challenging. First, he had to overcome the cultural and language differences (each native tribe spoke their own language) to convert the pagan natives. Junipero helped educate the natives on religion, advanced agriculture and ranching, because they could not always depend on the supply ships from Mexico. Junipero also had to keep the peace between the Spanish soldiers and natives (including some very bloody battles), who often did not get along because of high tension between the two groups. Finally, Junipero struggled with the bad influence of the Christian soldiers who would take advantage of the native women and control their aggressive behavior, which wasn’t the best example for the new converts. Junipero was so upset with the problems between the soldiers and the natives, he went back to Mexico and wrote up a long thirty-two point memorandum in March 1773. The main issue was addressed was the soldiers were not to be in charge of the converted natives, but the Missionary Fathers, so that no punishment or ill-treatment could be inflicted upon them without permission of a Father. This document along with the backing of the Spanish authorities, greatly improved the missions.
From 1775-1777 the missions expanded and grew all across upper and lower California. There was much progress in the mission conversions but as the saying goes, “two steps forward, one step back” was often the case. For example, politics between the missions and California governors often impeded the missions progress. There was also a major massacre in New Mexico which shut off the “back door to California” in 1781. This meant the only communication between California and Mexico was by sea. Fr. Junipero continued baptizing and confirming the natives until his death in August 1784. There was great sadness among the convert natives and those who worked for St. Junipero.
Because of Junipero’s leadership, the missions were able to continue to thrive after his death. Unfortunately, the mission collapsed in 1833 because as the Europeans continued to migrate to the new America, they brought along with them many epidemics which killed the native populations. Secularism of the Californian missions by Mexico also caused the decline of the missions. Finally, with the gold rush beginning in 1848, and tens of thousands of American’s looking for gold, California declared independence from Mexico, and became a state in 1850. The natives were either killed or moved into reservations with the poorest of land.
Legacy of a Saint
This book teaches us that seemly small people can make a large impact in this world. God calls each of us and guides us in directions that we would never seem possible. Young St. Junipero was on the path to be just a priest and professor, but by volunteering for a single mission to Mexico, converted the lives of thousands of native Mexicans and Californians to Catholicism. He was able to influence commanders and governors to allow him to run the missions which demonstrated Christ’s love and kindness to move pagans to conversion, rather than with force if the soldiers were allowed to just take over the land. Archbishop Murville writes, “Holiness is ultimately a communion and a resting in the beloved.” He goes on to write an account by Junipero’s friend, Fr. Palou, where no matter where Fr. Junipero slept he always held onto his crucifix which was about a foot long. He also died holding that same crucifix. This is what our goal in life should be, to always hold onto the Cross and always follow the path which God leads us.
You can purchase the book from Ignatius Press today!