Always Forward, Never Back: No Mob Can Destroy St. Junípero Serra’s Legacy

Father Noel Moholy, a Franciscan friar and historian, reminded the world about Father Serra’s accomplishments and championed his cause.

Léon Trousset, “Father Serra Celebrates Mass at Monterey,” 1877
Léon Trousset, “Father Serra Celebrates Mass at Monterey,” 1877

California historian Charles Chapman on St. Junípero Serra: “He was an enthusiastic, battling, almost quarrelsome, fearless, keenwitted, fervidly devout, unselfish, single-minded missionary. He subordinated everything, and himself most of all, to the demands of his evangelical task.”

Father Noel Moholy (1916-1998) was a Franciscan friar and former resident of California’s Mission Santa Barbara, but his friends compared him to the wind: never in any one place very long. Father Moholy’s travels to and fro were spent mainly in the cause of canonization of Junípero Serra, the determined, ailing scholar from Majorca who not only opened up what is now California to Spain, but to the Catholic faith as well. Father Moholy would not live to see the canonization of “the Apostle of California” in by Pope Francis at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., in 2015, but if he had, he would have energetically approved.

Father Moholy was co-author with Don DeNevi of the informative Serra biography Junípero Serra: The Illustrated Story of the Franciscan Founder of California’s Missions. In his book, along with his public presentations, Father Moholy painted a picture of a stubborn little Spanish friar, a man who should have stayed home in Majorca, a Mediterranean island possession of Spain. He was well-suited to be a Franciscan scholar and live a quiet life. He stood only 5’2” tall and had congenital asthma, which kept him sick most of the time. He had 54 years behind him, and not nearly so many ahead of him. But Father Serra felt called to the mission field and would not be talked out of going.

With 44 other missionaries, he landed in Veracruz, New Spain, today’s Mexico. Offered the opportunity to ride the 300-plus miles to the capital, he stubbornly insisted on walking so that he could arrive at the shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe, near the capital, in the true manner of St. Francis. On the way, he received a mosquito bite that caused an infection in his leg that plagued him the rest of his life.

Father Serra spent eight years learning the life of a missionary in the Serra Gorda region of northern Mexico. After some time in Mexico City, Serra led a group of Franciscans assigned to the missions of Baja California. Serra had not governed these missions long when the authorities in Mexico City and Madrid grew worried over the move down the Pacific Coast by the British and Russians. Serra was chosen to lead a land expedition with Governor Don Gaspar de Portolá up Alta California to Monterey and establish a mission there.

When he made the journey up Baja California, the wound on his foot grew worse until finally he found himself unable to walk. Don Gaspar de Portolá, captain of the expedition, asked if Serra wished to turn back. “Even though I should die on the way, I shall not turn back!” Serra replied. Turning to a mule driver, he asked what the man would do for a mule with a bad leg.

“Why, Father, what remedy could I know of? Do you think I am a surgeon? I’m a muleteer; I’ve healed only the sores of animals,” the mule driver protested.

Father Serra replied, “Well, then, son, just imagine that I am an animal … Make me the same remedy that you would apply to an animal.”

The muleteer did and the next day Serra was able to rise and wait on the other men. Siempre adelante: “Always forward, never back!” was his cry.

“What Serra has not been given enough credit for,” Father Moholy pointed out, is that he single-handedly kept Spain in California. Without his drive, Spain would not have advanced as soon as it did. When the Americans arrived decades later they may have entered a Russian or British California, and history would have taken a very different turn.”


Mission San Juan Capistrano

In November 1775, Father Fermín Lasuén and Captain José Francisco Ortega had been frustrated in founding a mission two days north of Mission San Diego, when a group of Kumayai (De equeño) Indians attacked and burned the San Diego Mission. Serra came south from his base at Mission San Carlos Borromeo in Carmel. After beginning the restoration and rebuilding of San Diego, he came north late in the following October, 1776, to the site Lasuén and Ortega had established in a valley that ran down to the sea. 

On All Saints Day, November 1, Father Serra said Mass on a crude altar at the site of the seventh mission in Alta California, San Juan Capistrano, marking the beginning of the Catholic faith in what is now Orange County. (Mission San Juan Capistrano is today the best preserved of California’s missions, and where this writer served as a volunteer docent tour guide.) Unburying the bells that Father Lasuén had buried the previous fall at the news of the disaster in San Diego, Father Serra rang them and brought the local Ajachemen (Juaneno) people running to greet the gray-robe friars. This began a relationship that has lasted at Mission San Juan Capistrano up to this day.

But what of Serra’s relationship with the Indian populations he encountered? The year 2020 saw the pulling down of three Serra statues in California by rioters in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Sacramento, and the removal of others due to public pressure, as some declared Father Serra an abuser of the Indians. Father Moholy was well acquainted with this opinion, but would reply that it didn’t fit with the facts. The Indians Father Serra encountered grew to love him. Instead of being a missionary barging into native land, Father Serra, in fact, asked permission of each local tribe before building a mission. Once a party of Indians, out of pure devotion for the man, carried Father Serra up the steep cliffs between what is now Oxnard and Malibu. When he died at Mission San Carlos Borromeo in Carmel, the Indians wept loudly.

He set up, in the present-day San Diego area, native corporations of ownership of the farmlands and taught the Indians how to rotate crops. When soldiers mistreated Indians, Father Serra made the dangerous and grueling journey all the way back to Mexico to lobby Viceroy Antonio María de Bucareli for laws for Alta California, including a Bill of Rights for the Indian population, the Representación, in 1773. At the time, Serra also lobbied Bucareli for the removal of one military governor in favor of the appointment of another named Ortega simply because Ortega was gentle and fair in his dealings with the Indians of Alta California. After the attack on Mission San Diego, despite the death of Father Jayme, one of Serra’s missionaries, at the hands of the Indian attackers, Serra wrote to Mexico City and pleaded for — and got — a pardon for the attackers on the grounds that to do otherwise was not Christian.

The guiding principle of Serra and his missionaries was that no Indian could be forced into the Christian faith. Those who converted and after a while tried to leave the missions were forced to return, a course of action that violates many modern peoples’ sensibilities. “But you must remember,” Father Moholy said, “that once an Indian came to the Church, the Fathers believed they were responsible for the soul of the convert.” In their view, they would go to great lengths, according to the Spanish sense of discipline, to save a convert’s soul from rejecting the love of God. 

Although some today want to paint a picture of a native people enslaved with their culture destroyed, the historical records show a picture that St. Paul would have recognized: in every place the Gospel is proclaimed, some respond, some turn away, and even oppose it with violence. Even when some Kumayai attacked Mission San Diego, the first thing they had to do was cut off the village of their Christian fellow Kumayai who would have fought to save the mission. In every place Serra and his missionaries went, the Gospel came to be planted in many souls.

In the end, Father Moholy believed, that was what drove the stubborn, ailing Franciscan scholar across the deserts and through the chaparral of lower California: the love of God for a people that had not heard his name.