Why Did Father Serra Travel to California?
At fifty-four years old - a little older, a little grayer - Father Junipero Serra is summoned to appear at the Apostolic College in Mexico City to be apprised of a new assignment - he is to be the new president of missions formerly run by the Society of Jesus, in Baja California.
Now Baja, by no stretch of the imagination) would be considered a plum of an assignment! This stretch of narrow land is surrounded by nothing but water; its air and land made desolate by its unyielding aridity earned it the fond title of “the last corner on earth.” The missions had been placed in the custody of the Franciscans by the King of Spain, Charles III, and all Father Serra could do was obey!
When Serra arrived at his new post, the 40,000 Indians reported by the Jesuits were now a mere 8,000. Serra, who loved the Indians dearly, described them as a handsome people. But sadly, the huts were so poor and conditions so deplorable, 1000 Indians were dying each year, and the death rate of infants 100%. It is believed that Indian women were purposely aborting their babies rather than have them starve to death. Disease finished off those Indians who did not die of starvation. Father Palóu prophesied, if conditions remained as they were, Baja would be left without a single soul. Father Serra’s year here, which had begun with so much enthusiasm, ended with disappointment. At first, not in keeping with the other missions in Mexico, the missionaries were to have a say in only the spiritual aspects of the missions. When the newly appointed inspector general saw the impossible conditions, he most willingly handed over all the responsibility to Father Serra and the missionaries. No sooner did Serra begin to work on change, than he was summoned to engage in the evangelization of what was called then Alta California (or California).
In 1542, an explorer in the service of the Crown of Spain, while serving with Cortes, claimed the coast of California from San Diego to Monterey for Spain. Then another Spaniard came in 1579, and he laid claim to Alta California in the name of Spain. In 1579, Sir Francis Drake claimed San Francisco for England.
For a least 100 years, lacking the resources, Spain did nothing about her claim. Then in 1760, the Crown of Spain could feel Russia’s hot breath on their necks, ready to strike. The threatening Bear from the East12began blazing a trail, along the Northwest coastline of the New World, first colonizing Alaska, and then advancing ominously southward, with the rapid establishment of settlements extending to Point Reyes.13Now as Point Reyes is just north of San Francisco and Britain was showing a sudden renewed interest in San Francisco, Spain could see two colonizing rivals closing in on her and her possessions to the south (Mexico - then called New Spain). The Crown decided to act. Still no better off financially, Spain enlisted the aid of the Franciscan missionaries to settle Alta California.
In 1769, when Friar Junípero had been transferred to Baja or lower California, although man thought it was for him to run the fifteen missions seized from the Jesuits, God had another idea.
Father Serra was informed, barely one year after having arrived in Baja that he was to pioneer the settlement of missions in Alta or upper California.
On July 1, 1769, he arrived in San Diego, and on July 2nd, he celebrated the first Mass in what is now known as the famous California Missions. At 56 the biggest challenge of his life faced him, all that he had received in education, all the spiritual preparations he had made, the austerities he had practiced most of his life would be for this one act, this his last gift to the Lord and His Mother. California would be consecrated, every hill, valley, mountain, village, every street would be blessed.
I shall not turn back!
It took Father Serra almost twenty years, from the time he was first summoned to come to the New World and serve in the missions, before he got to his first California Mission in San Diego, in what is today the State of California. Those twenty years prior to arriving at San Diego were at times a painful prelude, filled with joy and sorrows, readying him for his biggest challenge, setting up missions a day’s walk apart up the coast of California. The missionary who worked furtively his last years on earth was tired and more dead than alive. When one of his companions begged him to stop, his legs so badly swollen and in pain that he could not celebrate Mass standing, Father Serra refused saying,
“Please do not speak of that, for I trust that if God will give me the strength to reach San Diego, as He has given me the strength to come this far, I shall not turn back. They can bury me wherever they wish and I shall gladly be left among the pagans, if it be the Will of God.”
It had taken him almost three months to reach San Diego from Baja California. Half dead, most of the time, he never turned back!
December 26, 1770, Father Serra performed his first baptism in California. In addition to San Diego and San Carlos del Carmel, Father Serra went on to found San Antonio de Padua in July, 1771; San Gabriel in September, 1771; San Luis Obispo in September, 1772; San Francisco in October, 1776; San Juan Capistrano in January, 1777; and San Buenaventura in March 1782.
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