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“His primary identity was as a priest”: The truth about Junípero Serra

Historian and author Dr. Robert Senkewicz on the life, work, and holiness of Junípero Serra.

Editor’s note: This interview was originally posted on January 23, 2015.

Pope Francis recently announced his intention to canonize Spanish padre, Blessed Junípero Serra Ferrer, O.F.M. (1713-84) when he visits the United States this fall. Serra was from the Spanish island possession of Majorca, off the east coast of Spain, and traveled to the New World with his fellow Franciscans to evangelize the native peoples of Mexico and California. Beginning in 1769, he established the first nine of 21 California missions.

Serra has been criticized by some for his treatment of the Indians, but is admired by others, including Los Angeles Archbishop Jose Gomez, who said, “Blessed Junipero is one of my spiritual heroes and a giant figure in the evangelization of the New World.”

Dr. Robert M. Senkewicz was born in New York City. After attending graduate school at Stanford University, he became a history professor at Santa Clara University, a Jesuit institution near San Jose, California, in 1976, a position he still holds today. He has collaborated with his wife, Rose Marie Beebe, on several books about the history of California including Lands of Promise and Despair: Chronicles of Early California, 1535–1846; Testimonios: Early California through the Eyes of Women, 1815–1848; and “To Toil in That Vineyard of the Lord”: Contemporary Scholarship on Junípero Serra. Their new book, Junipero Serra: California, Indians, and the Transformation of a Missionary (University of Oklahoma Press), will be published in February. Professor Senkewicz is a Catholic, and volunteers to lead tours of Mission Santa Clara de Asis on the University grounds. He recently spoke with CWR about Blessed Junipero.

CWR: There are many books about Junipero Serra, the Indians and the missions. What new perspective does your book add to those already out there?

Senkewicz: We offer one that has a double focus. First off, Fr. Serra was a Catholic Franciscan missionary priest. All four of these things are important. Many of the books on Serra I’ve read focus on some personal aspects of his life, such as his leg infection which caused him so much pain or the disputes he had with the governors of California. Insufficient attention, however, is paid to him as a priest and to his own spirituality and theology. This is an important part of who he is. In fact, he had a doctorate in theology.

Second, we concentrate on the native peoples he encountered in Mexico and California. Newer materials focusing on his relationship with the native peoples are contentious, saying that the missions and Spanish colonialism were bad for native peoples. We wanted to explore Serra’s thoughts in regards to them.

It turned out to be a perfect collaboration between my wife and I. I teach history and she teaches Spanish. All the original documents relating to the missions are in Spanish, so she was able to do our translations.

CWR: Tell us about Serra the priest.

Senkewicz: He was a Franciscan. Since the time of St. Francis (1181-1226), Franciscans have appreciated God’s presence in nature … Brother Sun, Sister Moon … and have had a missionary outreach. In fact, at one time Francis traveled to Egypt and preached to the Sultan in an attempt to convert him. The Franciscans continued to have a tremendous outreach to the Muslims in the 1300s and 1400s.

The Franciscan emphasis on nature and being a missionary was central to Serra’s identity. I believe it was what attracted the Native Americans to him. Also, since the Franciscans had taken a vow of poverty and the Indians had few possessions themselves, that’s something else they had in common.

CWR: How successful were the Franciscans at winning converts among the Indians?

Senkewicz: They were successful in converting some, but not others. The first group of 12 Franciscans came to the New World in 1524. They were nicknamed the Twelve Apostles. They worked with the recently defeated Aztecs and had success converting the Aztec nobility.

As the years passed, they moved north into the frontier. Some Indians were receptive to their message. Fr. Serra, for example, had success in converting the Pame Indians of the Sierra Gorda Mountains in Mexico. But other Indians, like the Comanche in Texas, did not convert.

CWR: How did the Franciscans treat the Indians?

Senkewicz: Serra and the Franciscans were concerned that the Spanish conquistadors would oppressively dominate [the Indians]. They were concerned that Spanish ranchers, miners, and soldiers would round them up and work them to death. So they founded the missions as a place to convert and protect the Indians. Hence, Serra and the Franciscans saw their role as protecting the Indians.

CWR: It is worth noting that before the Spanish came, some Indian tribes dominated others and treated them with brutality.

Senkewicz: Oh, yes. In central Mexico, the Aztecs had tributary tribes under their control whom they treated very brutally. The tributary tribes’ job, in fact, was to send them people that could be sacrificed on the pyramids. We don’t know how many died this way, but it was probably in the thousands. The reason HernÁn Cortes, with a few hundred men, was successful in overthrowing the Aztecs was because Indians allies from these tributary tribes joined him so they could be rid of the Aztecs.

When the Franciscans arrived soon after, they were afraid that the conquistadores would become the new Aztecs. So, they set up the mission system to isolate and protect the Indians.

CWR: How did the lives of the Indians change when they came to the missions?

Senkewicz: Previously in California they lived close to the coast in thatched huts and near a water supply. Tribes numbered 100 or 200 people. They were hunter-gatherers who moved with the seasons. They followed the berries and fruits, hunted for game and caught fish. During the summer, they might move up the mountains or close to the ocean where it was cooler. Your life was regulated by the sun; you followed the rhythm of the season.

At the missions, as the padres said, you lived under the sound of the bell. The Indians were gradually introduced to a more scheduled day. The mission bells would ring, and the Indians would get up and go to chapel. Another bell would ring, and they’d go to eat. Another one would send them to work. Another one would have them stop to say the Angelus. Bells would then tell them when to work some more, return from work, have free time or supper. The next day the whole thing would repeat. It was a regimented schedule and a different life than they had had previously.

Once the Indians had accepted baptism, however, they had made a lifetime commitment and could not return to their old lives. They were not allowed to leave. From the missionaries point of view, this was mild treatment compared to what would have happened had the soldiers and ranchers been given free reign.

CWR: Were California’s Indian tribes similar?

Senkewicz: In some ways, yes. They lived in the same social pattern.  The environment around San Diego was more desert-like, so the people were more scattered. As you headed north to the Los Angeles area, the settlements were closer together. The groups stayed separate, and you tended to marry within your clan.

The biggest difference between the tribes was the languages. Communicating with them was a challenge for the missionaries. Once a missionary was assigned to a mission, he tended to stay there, so he had time to learn the language. The official policy was to have the Indians learn Spanish, so they could become citizens of New Spain. But, in practice, the missionaries wanted to communicate with the Indians as quickly as possible so they could begin the process of conversion. They’d look for gateway words into Christianity, such as words they could use to describe a soul or sin and the devil.

CWR: How did European diseases affect them?

Senkewicz: In the long term, more Indians died than were born at the missions. The Indian population declined severely after Serra’s lifetime. People were living in close quarters, and sanitation was poor. The missionaries realized by the 1820s and 30s that the death rate of Indians was very significant, but they were not always sure why it was happening. Some diseases they could recognize, however, like smallpox, cholera and dysentery. In the 1830s, trappers came down from the Rocky Mountains and brought the measles to the missions, which led to many more Indians dying.

CWR: It sounds like the problems that affected European and American cities at the time.

Senkewicz: Yes. When I talk to my students about life in eighteenth- century New York City, for example, I talk to them about the horse dung on the streets, which led to many getting sick.

CWR: It’s important to remember that the eighteenth-century attitude towards corporal punishment was different, too. Whipping someone for an infraction was common, so people of today shouldn’t be surprised that it happened at the missions.

Senkewicz: Yes. That was the basic punishment for Indians that misbehaved. But that was the standard way punishment was meted out in the Spanish world at the time, whether to Indian or Spaniard. There was nothing unique about it.

CWR: How do you think the Catholic missionary efforts have changed since Serra’s time?

Senkewicz: The eighteenth-century Spaniard had the attitude that to become a Catholic meant that you had to become a Spaniard. Other Europeans had similar attitudes about their countries. Today, I think we’ve been able to separate culture and religion. The modern missionary is more respectful of native cultures. However, I think Serra respected Indian culture, and tried to work within it to win conversions.

CWR: When you read about Fr. Serra, what traits do you notice?

Senkewicz: He had tremendous energy. He was physically afflicted by an infection in his leg, but he was still a man driven and never satisfied. He was always looking for his next project, and to push himself more.

He was a man of genuine humility, as was typical of Franciscans. He thought that the worst sin he could commit was the sin of pride. He didn’t want to take credit for God’s doing. He was a very accomplished man, and many people in that situation would have struggled with the temptation to pride. But he very much saw himself as working for God.

He had a gentle touch. You can see it in his letters. In one, he writes of returning from Mexico City to Carmel in 1774. He tells of meeting an Indian boy and asking about his religion. He listened respectfully as the boy told of his ancestors, of demons and darkness.

Another time, he writes to a missionary in San Diego who is depressed. Serra wrote him a tender letter, telling him he knew the man’s life was difficult and that he was struggling, and that he’d pray for him. He said he’d let him leave the mission if he wanted to, but to pray to God to know His will.

He was tough, and let you know if he thought you were wrong. In 1777, the government wanted to found a pueblo. Serra was concerned that the settlers would want to put the Indians to work. He wrote the authorities a letter, opposing the decision vigorously.

Serra was constantly battling with the civil and military authorities. He never met a governor he liked. He thought they just wanted to put the Indians to work for them. He was successful in getting the first military commander replaced, and the next one transferred. The final commander he battled with was transferred too, but promoted to a higher position. The conflict ended in a stalemate.

He also had a good sense of humor. On his way from Baja to San Diego in 1769, a cook in the Portola expedition killed a burro. He wrote that the cook was guilty of “burro-cide.”

All told, he had many different sides and was a well-balanced individual.

CWR: What was his life like growing up on the island of Majorca?

Senkewicz: He lived in a small village. His father was a farmer, and he worked with him in the fields. As it turned out, this experience came in handy in the New World, as he knew how to grow crops at the missions.

He attended a Franciscan grammar school. At age 15, he began studying Latin, and entered the Franciscan community at age 16. He was recognized as being very bright, got a doctorate, and became a university faculty member. He was well respected, well known, popular and successful. But, it wasn’t enough. Something gnawed at him. At age 35, he applied to join the missions. That was considered old at the time; most guys went in their 20s.

So, he gave up a life of contentment and privilege for the unknown. That was his attitude; there was always something more to do for God.

CWR: How important of a motivation was his Catholic faith in inspiring his work?

Senkewicz: It was absolutely the core value that he had. He wanted to be missionary to convert people to the Gospel. His primary identity was as a priest. Along with the rest of the Catholic world in Europe he believed that outside the Church there is no salvation. He wanted to go out and convert and baptize the world.

CWR: And, the missionaries’ faith led them to be benevolent toward the Indians.

Senkewicz: They represented a softer side of colonialism. It was different than British colonialism in North America in which the Indians were pushed out of the way.

CWR: How important a figure was Serra in California’s history?

Senkewicz: He was a crucial figure in setting up the mission system, which by 1800 or 1810 was the dominant economic system in California. In the National Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol states have contributed two statues to represent important people from their respective states. California’s contributions are statues of Ronald Reagan and Fr. Serra.

CWR: When you lead tours of the Santa Clara mission, how knowledgeable are people about California mission history?

Senkewicz: When people come from outside of California, they know little. When California residents come, they tend to have a simplistic view: either the missionaries enslaved Indians or they were all saints. Neither was true. The situation was more complex.

When they say Indians were enslaved, I try to point out that the mission system was actually set up to protect them from being enslaved. When they say all the missionaries were saints, I remind them that priests are human beings, just like you and I. Some were lazy, mediocre, or hard on the Indians; others were outstanding and saintly men.

CWR: Were you surprised by Pope Francis’ announcement of Fr. Serra’s canonization?

Senkewicz: Yes. I didn’t know the pope was considering it. But, I’m a historian, and it’s not my job to make a judgment of what a pope does. In fact, I think Serra’s canonization will help spark dialogue about the California missions and the Indians, which I think is a good thing.

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About Jim Graves 219 Articles
Jim Graves is a Catholic writer living in Newport Beach, California.

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