Padre Fermín de Lasuén: California’s Second-Greatest Missionary

While St. Junípero Serra is widely known as California’s greatest missionary, his successor, Padre Fermín de Lasuén, is largely unknown.

Mission Santa Barbara, the 10th of California’s 21 missions, was founded in 1786 by Padre Fermín de Lasuén. This colorized photo was taken from a postcard published around 1903.
Mission Santa Barbara, the 10th of California’s 21 missions, was founded in 1786 by Padre Fermín de Lasuén. This colorized photo was taken from a postcard published around 1903. (photo: Detroit Publishing Company / Wikimedia Commons/New York Public Library/Public Domain)

Catholic evangelization in California began more than two centuries ago when Spanish Franciscans, first led by famed missionary St. Junípero Serra, traveled up El Camino Real (the king’s highway) to teach California Indians the Catholic Faith.

While Serra is commonly recognized as California’s greatest missionary, the state’s second-greatest missionary, Fermín de Lasuén, is largely unknown. Yet Lasuén played an instrumental role in continuing the work of Serra, developing and expanding the Franciscan mission chain to the benefit of thousands of 18th- and 19th-century Californians.

 

Born in Spain

Lasuén was born in 1720 in the Basque region of Spain, seven years after Serra. He joined the Franciscan order and was sent to Mexico. Before the Franciscans expanded their work into (Alta) California, he administered Misión San Francisco de Borja in Baja California for five years, the most important of the missions in the region. It was a challenging assignment, as water and other vital resources were scarce, yet Lasuén made considerable progress in meeting the temporal and spiritual needs of the several hundred Indian families living near the mission grounds.

Serra himself visited the Baja Mission in 1769, and wrote, “My special affection for this excellent missionary detained me here for the next two days which for me were very delightful by reason of his amiable conversation and manners.” 

That same year, Junípero Serra, as padre president of the Alta California mission effort, began founding missions in California. Lasuén was transferred to the San Gabriel Mission at a time when its inhabitants suffered from a severe famine that nearly forced its abandonment. His resourcefulness and capable leadership helped the mission return to prosperity within a year. (The historic buildings of the San Gabriel Mission were partially burned in a fire in July 2020.)

Lasuén found the work of a missionary difficult; among his greatest challenges was coping with loneliness. The Franciscans were highly educated men, far from home, whose chief companions were the Indians they served. While they loved their Indian charges, they had no formal education and were unable to offer the padres the intellectual companionship they craved. Lasuén wrote, “For me, the solitude of this occupation is a cruel and terrible enemy which has struck me heavily like a blow.”

In his travels, the missionary often lacked basic necessities. Lasuén, explaining one such deprivation, coped with a touch of humor: “I beg to be relieved from the great hardship which I am undergoing for lack of wearing apparel, which has already reached the point of indecency. My clothes have been in continuous use for more than five years. I have mended them until they no longer admit of mending, and moreover, I have exhausted my materials for sewing. It is perhaps on this account that the Indians care for me so much, on the principal that like attracts like, for I resemble them much in scantiness of wardrobe.”

In 1775, Lasuén and another padre established Orange County’s famous Mission San Juan Capistrano. Work had scarcely begun when word came of an Indian uprising in San Diego. Fearing a threat to the Capistrano mission, the padres abandoned the site and fled to the safety of the San Diego presidio. Serra returned himself in 1776 to found Mission San Juan Capistrano a second time, leaving Lasuén to restore peace in San Diego. Serra marveled at Lasuén’s ability to relate to the Indians, writing, “He has a perfect way of handling the Indians and his influence upon them, of which he seems strangely unaware, is deeply appreciated.”

 

Named Padre President

After Serra’s death in 1784, Lasuén was named padre president. Like Serra, he made his headquarters at San Carlos Mission, and, for the remaining 18 years of his life, traveled extensively throughout California.

The missions prospered under his leadership; he proved the ideal choice for Serra’s successor. By the turn of the century, there were 18 missions with 40 missionaries, serving thousands of Indians.

Lasuén stressed the importance of mission Indians learning trades, inviting carpenters, weavers, blacksmiths, stonemasons and other artisans to come to the missions to teach their skills. The Indian neophytes learned the rudiments of carpentry, some crude manufacturing, cattle hide tanning, weaving, how to make shoes, saddles, soap and pottery, and how to build and operate flour mills. His importation of artisans also led to the improvement of mission construction, and the development of the “mission style” of architecture characteristic of California.

Lasuén was known for his strong convictions and balanced judgment. While Serra often sparred with military authorities, Lasuén’s style was more reserved and diplomatic enabling him to maintain more harmonious relationships. When he did protest civil policies, his objections were raised in temperate language to which his antagonists were more receptive.

The missions were known for their hospitality to visitors, reflecting the generous and kindly spirit of their padre president. A Spanish commander, Alejandro Malaspina, wrote of Lasuén in 1791, “He was a man who in Christian love, mien and conduct was truly apostolic and his good manners and learning were unusual.” 

Despite the religious and political rivalry that existed between Spain and other European nations during that era, Lasuén also extended kindness to foreign visitors as well. The English seaman George Vancouver met Lasuén in 1793 at the San Diego Mission. Contrary winds delayed his departure, but the Englishman didn’t mind because it “afforded us the pleasure of a visit from our highly esteemed friend, the father president of the missionaries.” Vancouver honored his friend by naming two points in San Pedro Bay for him, Point Fermín and Point Lasuén.

In 1803, the 83-year-old Lasuén died and was buried at Mission San Carlos in Carmel, where Serra had been laid to rest in 1784. During his tenure as padre president, Lasuén founded nine missions, the same number as Serra, and ensured their continued success for decades to come.

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