St. Junípero Serra’s California Dream

The California missions are St. Junípero Serra’s living legacy.

The statue of St. Junípero Serra in Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol.
The statue of St. Junípero Serra in Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol. (photo:

When St. Junípero Serra set foot in Alta California in 1769, he was a seasoned missionary—the founder of five missions in Mexico—in an unknown land.

Stephen J. Binz’s Saint Junípero Serra’s Camino (Franciscan Media, 2017, $18.99) is a guide to how he and his Franciscan successors impacted the New World of California. The book arranges the missions geographically with the pilgrim in mind, rather than chronologically; while the first is Mission San Diego in 1769, the second is Oceanside’s Mission San Luis Rey, founded by Fr. Fermín Lasuén in 1798. He gives the nicknames of the missions and provides information on the saints and devotions that give their names to the missions.

As a travel guide, he suggests additional attractions, like the California Missions Museum behind Cline Cellars in Sonoma, and Channel Islands National Park off the Santa Barbara coast. Binz provides California history in a chatty, easygoing manner; his passion for the subject shows in his writing.

The mission system itself is a profound subject that conjures up many associated matters. One crucial topic is what motivated the missionaries, and St. Junípero in particular. The unique missionary inspiration, and how it profoundly contrasts with the usual secular impulse, is what struck me as I read Binz’s book.

People associate the California dream with pleasure, wealth, fame and power, embodied in the Gold Rush of 1849. St. Junípero’s California dream was something altogether different. It took the secular dream and stood it on its head.

Binz shows how Serra transformed from a professor and librarian in his native island of Mallorca to an adventurer and a missionary. St. Francis Solano, one of Peru’s patron saints, inspired him. A lifelong dream of his was a mission named for this Franciscan missionary; like Moses at the edge of the Promised Land, it was achieved posthumously in Sonoma. Contrary to popular thinking, St. Junípero didn’t found all 21 missions; he founded only nine.

When St. Junípero founded his five Mexican missions in the Sierra Gorda, Mexico was part of the Spanish Empire. However, when he arrived in Alta California in 1769, it was a relatively untouched country. St. Junípero had seen the sophistication of the fallen Aztec empire. In contrast, the Californian tribes were far simpler.

As an experienced missionary, he was prepared for martyrdom; instead, he found a warm welcome. At the founding of Mission San Antonio de Padua In Jolon in July of 1771, a curious Native American attended the outdoor Mass. While the conquest of New Mexico was marked by violence, St. Junípero kept his Holy Expeditions focused with daily Mass. Christ came first. As Our Lord counseled (Matthew 6:21), “Where your treasure is, there is your heart also.” The Californian tribes responded enthusiastically, to the point of requesting missions such as San Miguel (established 1797).

The Gospel message being foremost in St. Junípero’s mind, marriage and family were priorities for St. Junípero. The first marriage in Alta California was also at Mission San Antonio de Padua, between the Mexican soldier Juan Maria Ruiz, and Margarita de Cortona, a Salinian woman. While many Native American tribes in the Southwest practiced variants on polygamy, St. Junípero found that tribes like the Ohlone already believed in monogamy and chastity. For St. Junípero, it wasn’t sufficient to preach chastity, but to live it and catechize through example. In New Mexico, Spanish soldiers took advantage of the indigenous cultures’ promiscuity to exploit Native American women. This culminated in the Pueblo Revolt that would lead to the martyrdom of several Franciscans. The first recorded marriages in New Mexico, Arizona and Texas have been lost, but for St. Junípero and his successors, the first marriage was important enough to be written down. For St. Junípero, a Catholic understanding of marriage and family was key to an understanding of true wealth and happiness.

In California, St. Junípero found himself in a spectacularly beautiful landscape. The Ventura and Carmel missions overlook the Pacific. Mission San Antonio de Padua is tucked within the Santa Lucia Highlands, over the crest of the mountains of Big Sur. In contrast to the Forty Niners, St. Junípero found wealth and joy in the natural landscape—a true son of St. Francis, who like the Psalmists, found inspiration in the Creator’s handiwork.

In the Americas, the Spanish conquistadores had sought the legendary Seven Cities of Gold and Quivira, but St. Junípero’s Franciscan simplicity kept him from such delusions. While his Sierra Gorda missions were breathtaking mestiza baroque, he had to keep his California missions simple. They were prone to earthquakes, floods, and fires, keeping him aware of his human vulnerability. His evangelism was about setting up treasure in Heaven, rather than acquiring material wealth.

St. Junípero’s missions spurred many firsts in the state of California, yet he did not come for fame. His mission headquarters in Carmel, established in 1770, had California’s first library; Mission San Juan Capistrano, founded in 1776, was California’s first winery. When Pope Clement XIV allowed him to bestow the Sacrament of Confirmation because Alta California lacked a bishop, he saw it as an outpouring of the Holy Spirit rather than his own glory.

More important still is that the mission system outlived him, continuing to this day as active parishes. Mission San Antonio de Padua was the first to manufacture the clay red roof tiles that would become an iconic hallmark of Californian architecture. Mission San Rafael, founded in 1817, was California’s first hospital; its founder, Fr. Vincent Francisco de Sarría, wrote California’s first medical treatise in 1830 about how to perform cesarean sections at Mission Soledad. Mission Santa Inés, had California’s first seminary, the College of Our Lady Refuge of Sinners, started in 1844. Mission Santa Clara, founded in 1777, was California’s first college in 1851. All these firsts were possible because of St. Junípero Serra and his foundational work, done for God’s glory, not his own.

Finally, St. Junípero did not seek power. He humbled himself to work alongside Native Americans. He did not lord his power over them. Even when he was President of the Missions, St. Junípero lived simply. Like St. Paul, he preached Christ crucified. He often traveled by foot, despite an ulcerated leg. In Sierra Gorda, St. Junípero helped build the majestic stone churches, despite his training as an academic and a librarian. He worked alongside those he evangelized.

The California missions are St. Junípero’s living legacy. They show that the true California dream is following God’s call. As Our Lord counseled His apostles (Luke 6:38), “Give, and it will be given to you; good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over will be put into your lap. For the measure you give will be the measure you get back.” In a “spiritual but not religious” culture that treats all religions with indifference, St. Junípero’s life was centered on fulfilling the Great Commission that closes St. Matthew’s Gospel, to “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19).

This article originally appeared Nov. 22, 2017, at the Register.