St. Junipero Serra

Hello, everyone,

Once again, I must apologize for my silence. I recently found out that my broken arm did not heal properly, and will require an operation. So I am back to typing with one hand again.Then there are other medical problems as well. I have been spending a lot more time than usual at the doctor’s office. I would appreciate your prayers as I try to deal with this.

So for various reasons, I missed my last saint post, which was to be about the soon-to be canonized Bl. Junipero Serra, who has repeatedly been under attack as a grim figure perpetrating cruel and harsh treatment on the Native Americans at the California missions he founded. What I had decided to do was not to give a historical judgment on the controversies surrounding Serra, which would not be possible to do in so small a space, but to supply a list of works where readers can study the historical sources and judge them for themselves.

I couldn’t do everything I wanted here either. And I most likely won’t get a chance to do anything more before Serra is canonized during Pope Francis’ U.S. visit in September. But here is a brief list of works that may be of help:

Works by and about Junipero Serra

The most important historical sources are Fr. Serra’s own writings and the biography by his close friend and fellow missionary, Fray Francisco Palóu. They are:

Serra, Junipero. Writings of Junípero Serra, ed. and trans. by Antonine Tibesar, 4 vols. Washington, D.C.: Academy of American Franciscan History, 1955-66.

Palóu, Francisco. Life of Fray Junípero Serra. Edited by Maynard J. Geiger. Washington, D.C.: Academy of American Franciscan History, 1955.

These are two excellent scholarly editions, the first ones I studied long ago. They are a little hard to get hold of now. Here is another earlier edition of Palóu’s work that you can download for free (PDF format). It’s a good basic translation with not too many notes.

Francisco Palóu’s Life and Apostolic Labors of the Venerable Father Fray Junipero Serra, Founder of the Franciscan Missions of California. Translated by C. Scott Williams. With an introduction and Notes by George Wharton James. Pasadena, CA, George Wharton James, 1913

There is also an 1890 translation that is being sold online, but it is incomplete and should be avoided.

Palóu’s work details the journey Serra made in 1773 from California to Mexico City to personally present to the viceroy a Representación listing the abuses of the Spanish soldiers against the natives, including violence and rape.Through this document, he was able to get redress for them.

It is also wonderful to be able to read Fr. Serra’s own words, which give a picture of him that is very different from the one put forward by his critics. In his letters and diaries he comes forward as a warm and humorous person.

I recall also how much I enjoyed reading Fr. Serra’s diary of the Sacred Expedition from Old California to the new mission territory in present-day San Diego, accompanied by the soldiers and first colonists. His descriptions of his first meetings with the Native Americans have a warm feeling to them. In another entry, he writes of picking some wild roses (he calls them Castilian roses), and taking them back to camp with him. He describes each individual blossom on the spray of flowers, and ends with the words “Blessed be God who created it!” Serra was a Franciscan through and through!

The article below has a long and delightful letter from Serra to the Visitador General Don Joseph de Galveź, in which he gives an account of the first Corpus Christi procession at the mission in Montery in 1770, and a seeming miracle that enabled it, which ends with the words “The only thing lacking for the consolation of all concerned was that Your Illustrious Lordship could not have been watching it all from some little window”!

Then there are the modern lives of Fr. Serra. The classic work is:

Geiger, Maynard J., O.F.M. The Life and Times of Fray Junipero Serra, OFM. 2 vol 1959.

Fr. Geiger’s exhaustive study was completed only after eighteen years of travel, research and review of all available documents in the Americas and in Europe relating to Fr. Serra. He was a great researcher, as can be seen also in his work on Palóu’s biography.

Weber, Francis J. Life and Times of Fray Junipero Serra. Paperback 1988.

An easily readable condensation of Fr. Geiger’s work.

Works dealing specifically with the controversy over Fr. Serra’s treatment of the Native Americans:

Couve de Murville, M. N. The Man Who Founded California: The Life of Blessed Junipero Serra. Ignatius Press. 2000. 150 pages. Hardcover. Available here.

This nice compact biography contains a postscript discussing the missionary methods of Serra’s time, and whether the deaths of so many natives from disease can be blamed on the Franciscans.

Clifford, Christian. Saint Junipero Serra: Making Sense of the History and Legacy. North Charleston, South Carolina, CreateSpace, 2015.  Available for the Kindle on Amazon.

This short e-book, by a Catholic educator, is intended for teachers, students and parents. It explores Serra’s world, explains the all-important task of developing a proper historical method, and also answers some specific objections to Serra’s work. Not very well organized, but a good resource for its purpose.

Msgr. Weber, author of the biography above, has an excellent webpage here:

I also wanted to read and report on the new book Journey to the Sun, by Gregory Orfalea, but didn’t have time.

Hope to see you next month!

Lori Pieper OFS