When Saint Junipero Serra was traveling northward to California, he encountered a group of natives along the way. Serra’s journal account of that meeting reveals his deep commitment and emotions. He says that as twelve “gentiles” (the term used for unbaptized natives) approached, “I praised God, kissed the ground, and gave thanks to Our Lord for granting me the opportunity to be among the gentiles in their land, after longing for this for so many years.”
Then he blessed each one: “I placed my hands on the head of each gentile, one at a time, as a sign of affection,” promising them protection and friendship. And in a reference to Jesus’s invitation to his disciples to become shers of men and women, Serra expressed the hope that “it would not be long before they allowed themselves to be gathered together in the apostolic and evangelical net.”
This is the essence of the life of Saint Junipero Serra. This is what motivated his life and drove him forward. He was falling in love with the native peoples of California and bringing them the greatest gift imaginable: a relationship with Jesus Christ, a gathering into his Church, the gift of eternal life.
Padre Serra began his diary of the expedition to San Diego and Monterey with a statement of purpose: “Diary of the expedition to the ports of San Diego and Monterey for the greater glory of God and the conversion of the infidels to our Holy Catholic faith.” For Serra, faith in Jesus Christ was God’s greatest gift to humanity, a gift he had a desire and responsibility to share. And for the remaining fifteen years of his life, the tireless friar continued to live out his motto: “Always forward, never back.”
Between 1769 and 1782, Serra worked in tandem with the Spanish military authorities to establish the first nine of the eventual twenty-one California missions: San Diego, San Carlos Borromeo, San Antonio, San Gabriel, San Luis Obispo, San Francisco, San Juan Capistrano, Santa Clara, and San Buenaventura. In principle, “cross and crown” were to work in harmony for the evangelization and “civilization” of the native peoples. As agents for the crown, as well as missionaries for the Church, the Franciscans followed the directives contained in the Recopilación de Leyes de las Indias, published in 1680. This compilation of Spanish royal decrees—a multi-volume guide found in the mission libraries and familiar to every early missionary—concerned the governance of Spain’s territories in the Americas.
Among its statutes were regulations meant to ensure the spiritual and material welfare of the Indians. Missionaries were instructed not to allow “the Indians to be forced, robbed, injured, or badly treated.” If such occurs, “by any person, regardless of his position or condition,” such excesses must be “punished with all rigor.” Further, “the Indians are to be favored, protected, and defended from whatsoever harm, and these laws are made to be observed very exactly.”
In practice, however, the tremendous distances and poor communication between Spain, Mexico City, and the California missions bred misunderstandings and disputes. At times, it took nearly a year to ask a question and receive an answer. And, predictably, men in habit and men in uniform, those shouldering the cross and those bearing arms, clashed. Serra fought repeatedly with the military governors over the mistreatment and exploitation of the Indians. Writing to the Spanish viceroy in Mexico City, he was graphic in his outrage: “The soldiers, clever as they are at lassoing cows and mules, would catch an Indian with their lassos to become prey for their unbridled lust. At times some Indian men would try and defend their wives, only to be shot down with bullets.”
In October of 1772, after Serra as Father-President had founded five missions in California, he realized he was at the crossroads of the mission enterprise. He had made an overland journey from Monterey to San Diego, and there the deteriorating relationship between him and Governor Pedro Fages—an inexperienced administrator and a rigid disciplinarian—had arrived at a point of crisis. The lines of authority between Serra and the governor were not well drawn. Impatient with unnecessary delays, frequent bickering, disorderly soldiers, and above all, scandalous mistreatment of the Indians, the zealous Serra made the decision to return to Mexico to confer with the Spanish viceroy, Antonio Bucareli. It was a decision that would alter the course of California’s history.
In February of 1773, Bucareli received Serra cordially and listened intently. The viceroy told Serra to put his petitions in writing to present to the court, so Serra returned to San Fernando College and began writing his report about the needs of the California missions. When the representación was complete, its thirty-two points covered practically every phase of activity related to the missionary enterprise, and Serra requested the replacement of the military governor and new regulations for soldiers, lest the development of the missions be impaired. Above all, he asked that the management, command, correction, and education of baptized Indians be conducted by the missionaries exclusively. Only “crimes of blood” would be relegated to the military for punishment—and punishment inflicted only after consultation with the missionaries.
After considering all the points spelled out by Padre Serra, Bucareli and his council approved them. Serra wrote, “Thanks be to God, in everything I was given a favorable hearing by His Excellency; he granted me all I asked for; and with that, I hope with the help of God that our holy Faith will be speedily and greatly extended, and the dominions of our Catholic King enlarged.” In writing this document and guiding its approval, Serra became the sponsor of the first body of law to govern early California. He was the first defender of the human rights of California’s native peoples.
Before returning to California, Serra bade farewell to his brother friars at San Fernando College. Asking to perform an act of humility and respect toward them, he kissed the feet of each of them, begging pardon for his faults. His departure was his last, and he would spend the remaining years of his life in his beloved California. “California is my life,” he wrote, “and there I hope to die.”