The controversial history of Father Serra | Judith Dale | Columnist

ByTommie C. Curtis

Jul 12, 2022 , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

It seems readers are interested in the Spanish history of our area.

After the Cabrillo and de Portola articles discussed Spain’s colonization of present-day California, readers asked if I would do an article on Father Serra and the missions.

I hesitate to visit this subject due to his controversial impact on the coastal Indians, especially the Chumash.

The Chumash had five missions in their territory, more than any other tribe: San Luis Obispo, Lompoc Valley, Santa Ynez Valley, Santa Barbara, and Ventura. All had missions established between 1772 and 1804 on Chumash lands.

It is estimated that when the Spanish arrived in California, 300,000 native Americans were living along the coast from San Diego to Sonoma. And by 1834, there were about 20,000 remaining.

Of course, European diseases such as smallpox, diphtheria, measles, etc., accounted for many of those deaths. However, the mission system has also been blamed. It is estimated that 50% of the natives living in the mission system died each year. How much of this was due to disease or mistreatment depends upon one’s point of view.

Father Serra’s role in the colonization of California is also up for debate. Was he a well-intended savior of the natives or a colonial enslaver who led to their demise?

Gaspar Portola 2

The rocky road that led to the 1787 founding of Lompoc’s La Purisima Mission was directed by Spanish conquistador Capt. Gaspar Portola, left, and Father Junipero Serra, right.

More recently in 2015, Pope Francis canonized Father Serra, making him a saint for his tireless work on behalf of the California natives, which caused considerable backlash. Many of his statues around the world have since been defaced or torn down. Even schools, streets, and parks were renamed, taking Serra’s name off.

I will stay with the facts in this article and let you decide. No matter what, Spanish colonization and the mission system are part of our history and still influence lifestyles and culture in California today. However, the California natives’ experiences should help us understand the problems with “colonization” so we don’t repeat abuses as we “help” under-developed countries worldwide today.

Father Serra was born in 1713 on the island of Majorca, off the eastern coast of Spain. His original name was Miquel Josep Serra Ferrer. Educated by the Franciscan fathers at Palma, Serra joined the order in 1730 and took the name “Junipero” in honor of St. Juniper, a companion of St. Francis of Assisi.

For several years he remained at Palma as both student and teacher. He earned a doctorate in theology in 1742, and was a professor of theology at the Franciscan University in Palma from 1744 to 1749.

In 1749, at the age of 36, Serra joined a group of missionaries going to Mexico.

Why would he do this? While he earned a chair at a Spanish university and became well known, he experienced a personal crisis and became unhappy. According to reports, he was highly achieved in Spain and wanted to do more. So he became a missionary in New Spain, present-day Mexico.

For eight years, he served as a preacher and teacher in the mission field of Sierra Gorda in northeastern Mexico. He learned the Otomi language of the natives, built several churches still in use today, and established a thriving mission system.

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The church then ordered Serra to the Franciscan college of San Fernando in Mexico City and he served as a home missionary and preached throughout Mexico from 1758 to 1767.

At age 55, he joined the Portola expedition to establish missions in California. The first mission he established was in San Diego in 1769. The second was in Monterey, but due to a dispute with the soldiers, he moved it to Carmel in 1770. He went on to personally establish seven additional missions: San Antonio and San Gabriel (near Los Angeles) in 1771; San Luis Obispo, 1772; San Francisco (Mission Dolores) and San Juan Capistrano in 1776; Santa Clara in 1777; and San Buenaventura in 1782.

Establishing nine missions in 13 years is quite an accomplishment for a man who was only 5-foot 2-inches tall, suffered a debilitating leg injury when he first arrived in Mexico, and was afflicted with asthma, which ultimately led to his death on Aug. 28, 1784. However, Serra’s reported “unique character” might have had something to do with his accomplishments. His motto was “Siempre Adelante y Nunca atras,” which means “Always forward, never back.”

Our knowledge of Serra’s personality comes from his longtime friend and fellow Franciscan monk, Francisco Palou, who wrote the book “Life of Fray Junipero Serra” in 1787 (translated in 1955).

From his early life, Serra was serious and renounced all pleasures. He did not enjoy books, art, or poetry. He knew nothing of science and philosophy. (NOTE: He still preached that the Earth was the center of the universe and the sun revolved around the Earth, 150 years after Copernicus proved otherwise.)

For Serra, it was not enough to abstain from pleasure; he considered it his duty to inflict pain upon himself. He ate little, almost starving himself. He often lashed himself and was in the habit of beating himself with stones and putting a burning torch to his chest while preaching.

Palou said, “These things he did while preaching, or at the close of his sermons, his purpose being not only to punish himself but also to move his audience to penitence for their own sins.”

It is said that Serra was not easy to get along with. He always thought he was right and did not get along with the soldiers and even some of his fellow missionaries, who felt he was driven.

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Serra is often criticized for abusing the California Indians and destroying their culture under the mission system. Indians who converted to Catholicism were prevented from leaving the mission and, in some cases, were made virtual slaves.

(NOTE: One of the things that missionaries never did explain to the Indians was that as far as Catholic theology was concerned, baptism was a lifetime commitment. Once you came into the mission and were baptized, you made a commitment to stay there for the rest of your life. You vowed to never leave. This was totally foreign to the natives, and they often left. The soldiers or other Indians went out to bring them back. The Spanish had horses to chase them down. Once captured, the typical punishment was flogging with 25 lashes.)

Serra and the other missionaries considered the Indians children (neophytes) who needed to be disciplined and educated for their survival. Father Serra felt it was his divine duty to prepare the natives to fit into the Spanish colonial system by learning the Spanish language, becoming Christian Catholics, and learning a trade.

The Indians in the missions were not allowed to practice their native religion, which was an appreciation for nature. Also, they had to abandon their native culture and practices.

Serra did fight efforts to enslave the Indians and opposed the colonial governor and military due to their harsh treatment of the Indians. However, the relationship between missionaries and soldiers was always strained, especially regarding the way the Indians were treated — or mistreated in the mission system.

In summary, Father Serra is a man and legend of many contradictions. When Pope Francis made him a saint, one commentator wrote: “We thus see that ‘Saint’ Serra set up a sadomasochistic series of death camps, perhaps echoing his own masochistic spirituality. He was anti-intellectual, anti-science, ignorant of Indian culture and history and languages, paternalistic, racist, and a white supremacist.”

However, another commentator wrote: “There is no denying that Native Americans in California endured grave human rights abuses. They suffered wrongs during all three eras: the Spanish colonization known as the Mission Era, the Mexican secularization, and the American Era. But Serra should not bear the weight of all that went wrong and all who did wrong. If we looked at him with clear eyes, we would see Serra as one of the first American champions of the human rights of Indigenous peoples, a man who protested abusive police powers by government authorities.”

Perhaps the dichotomy lies in by whose standards we judge: those of the age of European colonization in which the Papal Bulls of the 15th century (The Doctrine of Discovery) gave Christian colonizers divine permission to “dispossess, enslave, rape, and kill anyone who resisted their efforts to claim the land and resources to establish Christianity,” or the human civil rights principles of today. Hopefully, as the world moves forward, we will learn from the past and not repeat past mistakes.

NOTE: A little-known historical fact, Father Serra took up collections among his parishes to support the American Revolution and sent the money to General George Washington.

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Former mayor of Buellton, Judith Dale built her career in education and continues to serve the local community as Santa Barbara County 3rd District representative to the Library Advisory Board and board member of the Santa Ynez Valley Cottage Hospital Foundation. She can be reached at