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Father Serra and the California missions

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Father Serra and the California missions

Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa at 751 Palm Street in San Luis Obispo, California.


The oldest historic buildings along the Pacific shore of the United States are the 21 (mostly 18th-century) California missions. Established as remote colonial outposts of a Spanish empire that was in the twilight of its glory, they are young by Middle Eastern or even European standards. By American standards, though, they are venerable.

When Spain emerged unified under Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492 after expelling the Muslims who had invaded Iberia nearly eight centuries before, its warrior aristocrats, in whom the spirit of the Crusades still lingered, sought new lands for conversion and wealth. Eventually, they claimed all of Mexico and Central America, the Caribbean, half of South America and much of the present-day United States.

But California’s colonization came relatively late, nearly two centuries after San Diego and Monterey had been mapped. And, even then, the Spanish viceroy acted only when the Russians began to show interest in the region. The assignment to take Christianity to California fell, in 1769, to a Franciscan priest named Junipero Serra.

He succeeded brilliantly. By his death in 1784, he had established nine missions. The first two anchored the port settlements of San Diego and Monterey; the other seven were designed to link them. With the addition of 12 more missions by Father Serra’s successors, each settlement lay a solid day’s march from its nearest neighbor. The first missions were built near the coast so they could be supplied by sea. As the Spanish felt more secure, they began to establish missions further inland. A separate string of them was planned for the Central Valley, but the mission system collapsed before they could be built.

While the Catholic padres indisputably intended to spread Christian doctrine and save souls, the Spanish government, which supported them, had political aims. Spain realized that the vast and distant territory of California — with about 100,000 Native American inhabitants — would be very difficult to settle and control. But Spain found a way of extending its empire that required few men and little money. One or two priests, protected by a few soldiers and given an initial load of supplies, could set up a mission that would soon become self-supporting.

As they appear now, the missions are usually little more than a chapel with some surrounding buildings. In their heyday, though, they were hives of economic activity. The typical mission supported a weavery, a pottery, a winery, a blacksmith’s shop and a tannery, along with its church and agricultural plantation. Indian villages soon clustered around each mission settlement, first attracted by bright beads, clothing and food but quickly assimilating into the mission economy. The padres’ plan — and, happily, the government’s as well — was not only to Christianize the natives, but to teach them basic manual skills along with reading and writing. The intent was to make them genuinely Spanish in both culture and political loyalty.

The political success of the mission system is shown by the fact that a mere 300 soldiers, dispersed along a line more than 650 miles long, were able to control virtually all of modern California. Its religious success appears in the fact that, at the end, when the Mexican government ordered the “secularization” of the missions in 1833, 60 padres ministered to the spiritual needs of roughly 31,000 Christianized natives.

But it was the very economic success of the missions that led to the end first of Spanish and then of Mexican control. The missions’ ability to sustain themselves soon led to thoughts of political independence. And the wealth of California drew the attention of others — most notably, adventurers from the vigorous new English-speaking nation to the east. The Spaniards first came to California seeking gold, but they never found it. Ironically, Mexico lost control of the area to the United States just two years before the California gold rush, which began only 90 miles from Sonoma — where the last mission had been founded. Two years and a few miles prevented California from becoming a rich Mexican province, or perhaps even a wealthy, independent Spanish-speaking nation of its own.

For his labors, Junipero Serra was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1988. Pope Francis declared him a saint on Sept. 23, 2015, at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. Acclaimed by many as the “Apostle of California,” Father Serra has also been criticized for allegedly mistreating his Native American converts and suppressing their culture.
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