Sep 10, 2020 Print this article

In Defense of Saint Junipero Serra

Catholics have been horrified by the recent toppling of several statues of St. Junipero Serra, the apostle of California.

Those who attack the saint accuse him of genocide, enslaving the Indians, and destroying native culture. By dint of repetition, this narrative may lead some to question his good reputation: “Maybe he was harsh on the Indians. After all, weren’t the natives living in peace and harmony before Fr. Serra and the ruthless Spanish arrived?”

The record needs to be set straight.

St. Junipero Serra was a friend and dedicated father to the natives. He improved their lifestyle and brought them Western civilization. Most importantly, he brought thousands of natives into the fold of Holy Mother Church and therefore saved many souls.

His early life

St. Junipero was born in 1713 on the island of Majorca, Spain. His parents named him Miguel Jose. During his childhood, he was frail and never enjoyed good health.

At a young age, Miguel Jose had a keen mind and excelled in university studies. He eventually entered the Franciscan Order, taking the name Junipero after St. Juniper. He became famous for his learning and was appointed to the chair of Duns Scotus at the University of Palma, the university’s most distinguished position. He had a prestigious academic career ahead of him. However, God had other plans.

“Always go forward and never go back.”

Since his youth, Junipero had a desire to go to the missions. After teaching at the university for ten years, Junipero and his friend Fr. Francisco Palou asked to go to the missions. They were denied permission, but after some friars decided not to go, vacancies opened up for St. Junipero and Fr. Palou. Before leaving St. Junipero wrote a letter to his parents, saying, “Always go forward and never go back,” which sums up his indefatigable spirit.

St. Junipero and his fellow friars finally arrived in Mexico after a daunting voyage. In his frequent and prolonged travels through Mexico, he suffered many hardships.

On one journey, he was stung by a scorpion. The poisonous sting left his leg partially crippling for the rest of his life.

For seven years, St. Junipero stayed in Mexico doing great apostolate with Indians. He was known for his fiery defense of the truth in the pulpit and his patience and compassion with individuals.

Because of his holy reputation, St. Junipero was appointed Commissioner of the Holy Inquisition of New Spain. In this role, he never had to condemn any heretics to the stake but he did root out heretical and dangerous writings. He was later sent to the missions in Baja California. During the ten years he spent in Baja California, St. Junipero was able to pacify and civilize an area where, for two centuries, others had attempted but failed. Yet our saint achieved even greater success with his next apostolate in Upper California.

The last of the Conquistadors

In 1768, Jose de Galvez led an expedition to Upper California, our current State of California. He asked St. Junipero to go with him to begin a mission system in those unsettled lands. The strong-willed and daring Galvez found Serra to be a man of his liking; together, they began to plan California’s conquest.

After dedicating the venture to St. Joseph, Galvez sent Junipero with the new Governor, Gaspar de Portola.

Arriving in Upper California, St. Junipero founded the first mission, San Fernando de Velicata, named after King St. Ferdinand III. Here the Spanish met with the pagan natives for the first time. Serra wrote of this meeting: “They [the Indians] have taken possession of my heart.”

At Velicata, St. Junipero’s leg became so swollen that he could no longer walk. Governor Portola urged him to return. However, St. Junipero was made of sterner stuff. “I have put my trust in God, who has permitted me to reach this point,” he said. “…. if He wills that I should die on the way, let me be buried where I fall; it will be sweet to me to rest in pagan earth; but nothing in the world will persuade me to turn back.”

After being carried on a stretcher for some time, St. Junipero had a muleteer apply a foul-smelling poultice (made for a lame mule) on his leg. Soon he was able to ride again.

Portola and St. Junipero reached the newly founded San Diego. In a few months, the colony ran low on food, and the Governor declared that if supply ships did not arrive, the expedition would be abandoned on March 14. St. Junipero pleaded with Portola to wait until the feast of St. Joseph, March 19. Portola agreed to leave on the morning of the 20th. St. Junipero and a few followers made up their minds that if everyone else left, they would rather stay in California and die while converting the Indians.

Serra began a novena to St. Joseph for the salvation of the San Diego colony. The evening before the Governor’s deadline, Serra saw a ship on the horizon. The expedition to California was saved by the saint’s prayerful determination.

St. Junipero experienced severe hardship. For example, on the feast of the Assumption, most of the soldiers boarded the ships to attend Mass. Only Fr. Junipero, six soldiers, and a few men stayed behind at camp. Taking notice, the Indians attacked, and St. Junipero’s native helper boy, Jose, was shot in the neck with a poisoned arrow and died in Serra’s arms. Undaunted, St. Junipero continued to push for the natives’ conversion.

St. Junipero founded the Missions San Carlos, San Antonio, San Gabriel, San Luis, San Juan, San Francisco, Santa Clara, and San Buenaventura. Many of these are now major American cities.

Were the missions like concentration camps?

St. Junipero’s missions were designed to convert, educate, and civilize the natives. However, in their attempt to rewrite history, anti-Catholic voices unjustly compare the Spanish missions to concentration camps. This claim is false.

According to the law of the time, natives could not be forced to join the missions. The natives who resided in the missions came freely. If they joined the mission, they were expected to stay in its boundaries. The boundaries of the missions were frequently the same traditional boundaries established by the natives. Therefore, the natives usually remained on the same territory where they lived. This provided a large area of land for them to live on.

The missions were typically placed under the guardianship of two priests and half a dozen soldiers. The Indians would also elect their own officials and representatives.

At the missions, the Franciscans gave the natives food, clothing, shelter, education, and civilization. The natives also learned essential skills, such as agriculture and construction. The average working day was between five and seven hours, and the natives had about ninety holidays during the year and Sundays off. Most importantly, they were educated in the Faith, and many souls were saved.

Although some Indians fled the missions and rebelled, most stayed.

Oppressor or defender?

Far from being an oppressor of the Indians, St. Junipero was their defender. Under the Governorship of Pedro Fages some Spanish soldiers persecuted the Indians by raping women, killing their husbands, and stealing. Against the wishes of Governor Fages, St. Junipero fought against these hostilities and eventually wrote a document titled Representación comprised of 32 articles to protect the rights of the Indians.

The claim that St. Junipero mistreated the natives is false. When the natives violated a religious or secular law, the penalty was the same for Spaniard and Indian alike. In fact, St. Junipero once held back the Governor’s punishing hand when a mission was attacked by rebellious Indians, which resulted in the death of Spaniards, including a Franciscan priest.

In 1784, St. Junipero was 70-years-old and residing at Carmel-at-the-Sea. His long-time friend Fr. Francisco Palou came to visit him for the last time. Suffering from Tuberculosis, St. Junipero was reaching the end of his earthly life.

The day before he died, Dr. Palou heard St. Junipero’s general confession. St. Junipero refused to receive Holy Communion in bed and made his way to the Church.

On his way, soldiers and natives followed their beloved father. On arrival, St. Junipero intoned the Tantum Ergo and received the Most Blessed Sacrament.

The next day, Serra asked Fr. Palou to recite the prayers for the dying and asked to rest. Fr. Palou left the room and returned a little while later to find St. Junipero in bed with his crucifix in his hands upon his chest. He had rendered his soul to God.

When the natives found out about his death, they surrounded St. Junipero’s hut crying in sorrow and asking for relics. While his body was exposed in the church, a guard stood by to prevent the natives from cutting his habit to pieces. About his burial, Fr. Palou writes, “The weeping of the congregation drowned out the voices of the singers.”

Were the natives weeping for their oppressor?

After fifteen years of toil in Upper California, St. Junipero founded nine missions, including San Gabriel, which was recently burnt down. Serra is also responsible for the 21 missions that were eventually established. He converted 5,000 Indians during his life and thousands more converted later due to his heroic apostolate.

St. Junipero obeyed Christ’s great commission, “Going therefore, teach ye all nations; baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost” (Matt 28: 19). This true son of the Church loved the Indians as his true children. He was their spiritual father, their most generous benefactor. His greatest desire was to save their souls.

St. Junipero Serra, pray for us!

Bibliography: The Last of the Conquistadors Junipero Serra by Omer Englebert translated by Katherine Woods, Harcourt, Brace and Company, New York 1956