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The True Story of St. Junipero Serra and the Missions

Breaking Through Popular Misconceptions

Recent scholarship has denounced the mission system of 18th century Alta California. Howard A. DeWitt, Professor of History at Ohlone College and author of The Fragmented Dream: Multicultural California claims, “The mission system was a tragedy that destroyed Indian culture.” However, in actuality, the mission system was relatively peaceful and created a microcosm of culture and a form of protection against the presidios.

A Cultural Interchange

In 1768, military and missionary expeditions to Alta California began, in order to secure Spanish claims to the land before a Russian or English presence. Alongside the presidios or forts, missions were set up in Alta California to bring Christianity to its indigenous people. However, in addition to a church, each included cultivated fields, vineyards, gardens, orchards, a nearby rancho, and livestock.

The result was a cultural interchange. Under the mission system, fruit trees, mules, methods of tilling the soil, and planting seeds were introduced to the Native Americans. They learned to write and were taught different crafts, such as pottery, carpentry, and weaving. Music also flourished. The Native Americans learned to play the string and wind instruments that the Spanish brought; the friars taught them to sing Gregorian chant in Latin and Spanish, as well as contemporary sacred music. The indigenous people were also involved in the painting of the beautiful churches, a combination of Moorish, classic, and Spanish styles, while Fermín Francisco de Lasuén was father-president.

Likewise, the Spanish learned much from the Indians, such as methods of tanning hides. Father Junípero Serra, a friar called upon by José de Gálvez, the King’s visitor general for New Spain, to lead the friars in the Alta California expedition of 1769, found “cleverness in everything that [the Indians] did.

St. Junipero Serra & Baptisms

Father Serra, who founded nine missions extending from San Diego to San Francisco, baptized 6,000 Indians. No forced conversions to Catholicism occurred. Father Serra belonged to the Franciscan Order, an organization of peace and poverty. Serra stated that Indians had to come voluntarily for baptism and education at the missions.

After baptism, an Indian became not only a member of the Church but a Spanish citizen with all the rights that that entailed. In fact, he asked the indigenous people for permission to use their land. Further respect was shown by his emphasis on gaining the approval of the elders. This was an “exception to the intolerance in Europe at the time. The indigenous people who joined the missions were provided with food, clothing, and shelter.

Although some have attacked the friars’ reference to the Indians as “adult children,” St. Serra himself has been viewed very much like a child of God who, when he arrived at Alta California, kissed the ground … just like a boy. His student and biographer, Francisco Palóu, described his work on the missions as done with a child’s enthusiasm. Father Serra himself viewed the Native Americans as a people clever, sociable, and friendly and wrote that they had stolen his heart away. He did not consider them to be pagans, but gentiles or the unchurched.

Defender of Human Rights

Father Serra served as a force against the violence of the soldiers at the presidios or forts set up near the missions to ‘protect’ them. As the true “Protector of the Indians,” he fought for their rights as both human beings and people under Spanish Law. The Law of the Indies, introduced by Bishop Bartolomé de las Casas, had called for better treatment of the Indians, who were “both rational and fully human” and thus worthy members of the Church and Spanish society.

Serra worked against the abuse of the military governors, who forced the Indians to work for them “without proper pay.” In 1773, Serra traveled 4,000 miles from Carmel to Mexico City in order to appeal to Viceroy Bucareli for better treatment of the Indians by the military. He traveled mostly on foot despite respiratory difficulties and the pain that his ulcerated leg caused, a journey that would be repeated.

The result was “the first significant legislation for California,” a “bill of rights for the Indians.” The missionaries were then given complete responsibility for the baptized Indians’ education and maintenance. The mission at Monterey was moved partly because of a desire to maintain distance from the presidio and, thus, protect the Indians.

When Indians set fire to the San Diego Mission and murdered its priest, Serra asked for their lives to be spared. The instigators were allowed to live at the mission and were “treated with kindness.” In fact, after the incident, Serra wrote to his superiors, making the request that “no revenge or retaliation for [his] death be taken” if he should suffer a similar fate “at the hands of the Native peoples.” He wished that, instead, they be taught “the love and forgiveness of our Lord Jesus Christ.” He set a precedent for the mission system that continued after his death in 1784, and included a “kind of polytechnical school,” with tile factories and other forms of manufacture.

The Legacy of the Missions

Despite claims to the contrary, the mission system served as a balance against the harsh treatment of the Indians by the soldiers of the presidios. St. Junípero Serra and his followers fought for the rights of the indigenous people, resulting in a bill of rights, among other developments. The contact between the cultures of the Spanish missionaries and Native Americans resulted in much development artistically, agriculturally, intellectually, and musically. Love and forgiveness better defined the missions than a “tragedy” as some scholars claim.

Gina Marinello-Sweeney is the author of The Veritas Chronicles, a popular YA trilogy. I Thirst is the compelling first book, followed by the exciting sequel, The Rose and the Sword, and the powerful conclusion, Peter. Buy at least two books in her trilogy together and receive FREE shipping!

Works Cited:

Bowden, Henry Warner. Serra, Junípero. Grolier, 2006.

Davis, Thomas. The Humanity of Junípero Serra. Santa Clarita: 1985.

DeWitt, Howard A. The Fragmented Dream: Multicultural California. Dubuque: Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company, 1996.

Father Serra and the American West. Edwin Newman, commentator. NBC News. VHS 58” (1985).

Rawls, James J., and Walton Bean. California: An Interpretive History. New York: The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc., 1968.

California Missions. “Father Junipero Serra at Carmel Mission Basilica.” Beach 
California. (accessed February 15, 2010).

Scerbo, Fr. Joe. “Telling the Story of Padre Serra.” TeaHouse Media. (accessed February 15, 2010).

Scerbo, Fr. Joe. “The Life and Legacy of Padre Junipero Serra OFM, STD.” Junipero Serra Franciscan. (accessed February 15, 2010).

[author name="Gina Marinello-Sweeney"]

Gina Marinello-Sweeney

Gina Marinello-Sweeney is the author of The Veritas Chronicles, a contemporary YA trilogy that has been compared to the writing of L.M. Montgomery. The first book in the series, I Thirst, received the 2013 YATR Literary Award for Best Prologue from Young Adult Teen Readers. Gina lives in Southern California with her husband, where she is at work on a fairy tale novel and short story collection. Visit for more information.
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