Times Past

Junipero Serra's image has changed over three centuries

A statue of Junípero Serra by Ettore Cadorin in the National Statuary Hall Collection dedicated in 1931.
A statue of Junípero Serra by Ettore Cadorin in the National Statuary Hall Collection dedicated in 1931.

He was born in November 1713 into a marginal farming family in Petra, still a small town in the then drought-stricken island of Mallorca.

In a feat of social mobility rare in 18th century Spain, he rose to a professorship at Lullian University in Palma de Mallorca, where he also occupied the Duns Scotus chair of philosophy until he left to join the missionary College of San Fernando de Mexico in 1749. Today, he is honored alongside President Ronald Reagan as one of the two Californians in the U.S. Capitol’s Statuary Hall.

Miquel Junípero Serra continues to cast an image over the face of California from San Diego to San Francisco Bay. While that image has experienced changes over the years, particularly since the 1960s, Serra remains an icon of California history.

Since the American Indian movement of the 1960s, few would credit him with being “the torch bearer of civilization” to the Pacific Coast as did Ray Lyman Wilbur, Secretary of the Interior and President of Stanford University, in the 1931 dedication of that statue. But we would agree with Dr. Wilbur that Serra and his fellow Franciscans brought with them many things for which we continue to be grateful: Grapes, olives, lemons, figs and most importantly the Roman and Moorish art of irrigating the frequently desert-like environment that is Southern and Central California.

The tercentennial of Father Serra’s birth generated an exhibit at the Huntington Library which just closed this past week and two major biographies. On Sat. at 9:30 a.m. in the parish church, Mission San Luis Obispo will be privileged to welcome the author of one of these.

Greg Orfalea of Santa Barbara’s Westmont College brings his own rich knowledge of Mediterranean culture to bear on his decidedly Mallorcan-Catalan subject. In his “Afterword” to his biography, Journey to the Sun, Orfalea says, “Above all, I wanted to present Miguel Junípero Serra as a man, a person with flaws, some great ones, but with great gifts too.” Orfalea not only “strip[s] off the paint,” but he fully brings Serra to life within the contexts of his historical setting.

His Mallorcan childhood, the influence of the missionary ideals of Raymond Lull, the early 14th century “apostle” to Africa, the impact of constant drought, plague, devastating snow and famine prepared Serra for a life of missionary hardship.

The deep contradictions in Serra’s character are seen through observing a “life lived in a trench between the Counter-Reformation and the Enlightenment.” Serra shared the common 18th century belief that corporal punishment was a part of God’s plan. Yet he wrote a touching appeal to Viceroy Bucareli for mercy toward the imprisoned Kumeyaay Native Americans following the martyrdom of Father Luís Jayme at the hands of angry natives at Mission San Diego de Alcalá in November 1775.

Serra’s struggle with the military governments of Alta California from Pedro Fages, Fernando Rivera y Moncada, Felipe de Neve and back to Fages forms a standard narrative in California Mission studies. Orfalea provides us with the more subtle, often critical but sometimes humorous nuances.

The early struggle at San Carlos Borromeo in Monterey led Serra and Father Juan Crespi to take “refuge in snuff, and probably (they were) addicted to it.” How much better if Pedro Fages had kept a plentiful store of chocolate to dispense to the padres.

But while Serra compliments (Father Francisco) Palou on the latest shipment of snuff, he was soon back to calling Fages “a molester.” Serra, like most of the Franciscans, had dual addictions to snuff and chocolate, repeatedly urging the College of San Fernando to ship more of each luxury. Apparently, the Franciscan vow of poverty didn’t apply to these “necessities of life.”

Greg’s talk on Saturday will be in front of the altar of our present church, just a few feet from where Fr. Serra said his last Mass in San Luis Obispo in 1784, shortly prior to his death. All are welcome without charge.