July 1 is the feast day of Blessed Junipero Serra (1713-84), California’s most famous Catholic missionary. The Church also celebrates the 300th anniversary of the humble friar’s birth this year — and the 25th anniversary of his beatification.

Revered by some, reviled by others, the dedicated Franciscan friar launched California’s mission system in 1769 and oversaw the founding of the first nine missions. Twenty-one missions would be founded by the Spanish priest in all.

Junipero Serra was born on the island of Majorca, a Spanish island possession off the eastern coast of Spain, and he joined the Franciscan order at age 17. He quickly distinguished himself for both his piety and learning, and he spent more than a decade preaching and teaching at the university level in Majorca.

Inspired by the example of the great missionaries of his order, he sailed for Mexico in 1749. He spent the remainder of his life evangelizing the Indians of Mexico and California.

In his 50s, he began his apostolic missionary work in California; his goal was to bring the Catholic faith to the Indians and make them citizens of New Spain. His missionaries also brought with them the crops and livestock that would make California prosper.

Pope John Paul II, concluding that Father Serra had lived a life of virtue and is a role model for Catholics, declared him venerable in 1985. In 1988, the late Pope accepted that a miracle had been worked through Serra’s intercession and beatified him. Another miracle is needed to make him “St. Junipero”; various cases are currently being examined by the Vatican.

Blessed Junipero’s contribution to California has been recognized by civil authorities as well. In 1931, a statue of him was unveiled in the U.S. Capitol.

As the Church remembers the life and work of California’s dedicated padre, Serra biographer Steven Hackel spoke with the Register about Father Serra’s life and legacy. Hackel is a professor of history at the University of California, Riverside. On Sept. 3, he will release a new book, Junipero Serra: California’s Founding Father, available through Amazon. He is also curator of a new Junipero Serra exhibit at the Huntington Library, a museum with gardens in Pasadena, Calif.; the exhibit will be on display Aug. 17-Jan. 6.


Why do you have an interest in Father Serra?

I grew up in California and have been interested in California’s history since I was a child. Much of the history I read in school focused on the founding of the 13 colonies on the East Coast of the United States, with little about the West Coast where I lived. That’s why I began studying Father Serra and the Franciscans.


There are many biographies about Father Serra. What does yours add that is different?

There are many good books out there, and I’m adding to what already exists. About the most authoritative are those by Father Maynard Geiger (1901-77) [a Franciscan priest, former archivist for Mission Santa Barbara and a defender of the California mission system], who stressed Serra’s virtues and worked to promote his canonization. There are many biographies of this type, as well as those that offer the opposing view: that Serra was worthy of condemnation.

My book doesn’t take either point of view. I look at Serra in the period in which he lives and also devote considerable time to his life before coming to California. He was already 55 when he arrived in California and had lived a full and consequential life both in Majorca and Mexico. Serra’s biography by Francisco Palóu [Father Serra’s contemporary, fellow Franciscan and first biographer], for example, has Serra out of Majorca in a few pages. This stunting of Serra’s early years is fairly common by his biographers.

I try to tiptoe through the various perspectives, not writing for either side, trying to be as objective as I can and not partisan. I want to understand who the missionaries were and who the Indians were.


In your extensive research on Father Serra, what are some of the traits that are most clearly conveyed?

The most obvious is his intense devotion to the Catholic faith. He believed it was the one, true religion and that the highest occupation or calling one could have was to convert nonbelievers into Catholics. 

He was also a clear thinker who lived by a moral code. In his writing, you can see the compelling and consistent logic in all his actions. 

He was not a man to assert or criticize something without having the facts to back up what he says. He will clearly lay out proof as to why his position is right, using the written word to compel others to agree with him. It’s interesting to see how his mind worked.

He was a good administrator, too, and knew how to turn the wheels of bureaucracy and pull the levers of power in New Spain.


What did Serra look like, and what was his personality like?

He was about 5 feet 3 inches or 5 feet 4 inches. He wore a habit of rough cloth, either gray or brown in color. He wore a cross around his neck and sandals on his feet.

He was determined, strong-willed and practiced intense self-mortification. He was an inspiration to his fellow missionaries; in fact, some of his students, like Palóu and Juan Crespi, left Majorca to join him as missionaries because of his influence.


Was he well regarded by the Spanish civil authorities in the New World?

Some viceroys thought he was a pious, inspirational figure and the right man to lead the Catholic Church into California. He did have his disputes with others, which is sometimes portrayed as a contest of wills and personalities. But that was the way the frontier was governed. It was normal to clash over resources, especially in the 18th century, when the Church was being increasingly pushed aside by the Spanish military and civil authorities.


And what did the Indians he served think of him?

Serra’s contemporaries wrote that the Indians were awed and captivated by him. This might be overstated. In fact, Serra himself knew that the Indians would come to the missions for food and trade goods. He saw his goal as: to get them to live there throughout the year, turning them into an agricultural people like those in Europe. Once they settled at the missions, they could be catechized and converted into Catholics.

Some of the Indians would have resisted and challenged the missions, but that is not unique to Serra and the Franciscans in California. Wherever you have missionaries, you have some accepting the new faith and others not.


Some say that Serra and his missionaries abused the Indians. What do you think?

That’s the $64,000 question. Whenever I give a lecture, someone always asks it.

It’s a matter of perspective; from the Franciscan perspective of the period, certainly not. But others counter that it was abuse to come in and expect the Indians to live a different way of life.

No doubt Serra approved and condoned corporal punishment for baptized Indians who ran away from the missions or who were guilty of what they believed to be sexual immorality. But Serra would have believed that that was the established way in the New World and that the Indians were their spiritual children, and a good father disciplines his children.

There is no evidence that Serra ever performed any sort of physical punishment himself, however.


If I visited a California mission during the 18th century, what would I have seen?

If you visited Mission San Carlos [Carmel Mission] in Carmel in 1775, for example, where Serra himself lived, you would have seen a few adobe buildings with thatched roofs (the quadrangles came later). Adjacent to the mission would have been an Indian village. There would have been a few soldiers. Many Indians would have been coming and going.

If you came back 30 years later, it would have been very different. You would have seen many more physical structures, including chapels and churches, warehouses and craft rooms. You would have also seen many sick Indians; the greatest challenge at the missions was the prevalence of disease. 


How might California have been different, had Father Serra not come here?

There may have been another Serra, although there would have been fewer missions with fewer provisions. I think the military would have had a stronger role.


Will your Huntington Library exhibit give visitors a good look at the life of Father Serra?

Yes. It is a remarkable exhibit. We have nearly 250 objects from lenders in the U.S., Mexico and Spain. In the show, we work to move beyond the standard polemic that often surrounds Serra and the missions. We present a picture that is equally rich in its portrayal of not only Serra’s life, but the meaning of the missions for a range of California Indians.

Jim Graves writes from Newport Beach, California.