Father Serra - Missionary

Father Serra - Missionary
Always forward, never back

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Father Serra – Part IV


Nayarit and San Blas, Mexico

Father Serra and fifteen companions departed the college and walked to the major sea port of San Blas [now a sleepy fishing village on the coast of Nayarit.]. It was then the place from which galleons sailed to Manila, returning laden with silk, china, herbs, and a full treasure of items in great demand throughout Europe.

Unlike the horrible voyage from Spain to Veracruz, the voyage from San Blas to Loreto, while difficult, was bearable. The Franciscan friars embarked on the locally-built barque, Purísima Concepción. They reached Loreto on March 12, 1768. He was 55 years old.

After a brief meeting with Governor Armona, Don Gaspar and Father Serra set out to visit each mission, a Franciscan replacing the Jesuits at each. Of course, Don Gaspar rode at the head of his Leatherjackets while the friars walked, leading mules with the articles they needed to conduct their holy rites.

There was one individual at Loreto of note, Captain Rivera y Moncada. A Creole, he held the important position of Commandant of the Military, the chief soldier of the Californias. As such, he took on the responsibility of scouting the way and breaking trail for those who followed as far north as Visitador General Galvez directed. He and another soldier of the expedition, Don Pedro Fages, a lieutenant of the Catalonian Volunteers, would become lieutenant governors of Alta California.

Misión de Nuestra Señora de Loreto Conchó

As for Portolá, Fray Baegert wrote that, "Gratitude as well as respect for his good name compels me to state here that Governor Don Gaspar Portolá ... treated the Jesuits, considering the circumstances, with respect, honor, politeness, and friendliness. He never caused the least annoyance,sincerely assuring us how painful it was to him to have to execute such a commission."

On several occasions, tears came to Don Gaspar's eyes and he was surprised to find Europeans willing to live and die in such a country."

It should be noted that reports indicate how the neophytes at each mission fell to their knees, sobbing and crying out when learning their beloved Padres were departing. The Jesuits did their best to reassure their children that the men in the gray robes would treat them just as well as they. However, it would take some time for the Franciscans to gain the trust they have given the Jesuits.

After a year, during which Father Serra visited every single mission, the time came for the expedition to depart Loreto for the long, difficult journey north. Father Serra's leg was so sorely infected that Governor Portolá begged him not to go, to send another in his place. "Despite the fact that I remonstrated with him," commented Portolá to Fray Palóu, "and pointed out the delay it would cause to the expedition if he should become incapacitated along the road, I was unable to convince him to remain and have you go in his place. When I spoke to him of the matter, his consistent answer was that he trusted in God to give him the strength to enable him to reach San Diego and Monterey."

Father Serra lived by the creed, “Always go forward; never turn back.” With that, he departed Loreto afoot, only accompanied by a faithful Indian servant leading a burro. He took no more provisions than a loaf of bread and a piece of cheese. His first stop was at Mission San Javier where Fray Palóu met him, gave him some provisions, and the first articles for the California missions; a silver-plated chalice, a small bronze bell, a new chasuble of cloth of gold and a used red one, and a few other necessary church goods.

Baja California

Governor Portolá had gone ahead and Father Serra caught up with him 200 miles north at Mission Santa Maria. From there, they continued on to Velicatá, an oasis in the desert occupied by Cochimi Indians. Several of their youth served as neophytes at other missions and the tribal elder had begged for the “fathers” to come to his place and teach them the ways of the new gods with three heads. It was only when Father Serra was called forth from a hut in which he prayed that he first saw the “Gentiles,” his term for them, in complete nudity – only wearing feathers, paints, and some baubles.

They stayed at Velicatá long enough to erect a rude shelter for the church and another for the two friars to sleep and pray. Captain Rivera had already departed and Father Serra was to follow with Don Gaspar and a contingent of soldiers led by Sergeant José Ortega, 10 Leatherjackets, 44 Christian Indians, four muleteers, two servants, several hundred head of cattle, and a pack train. [I have been unable to get specifics of who made up the mule-train but believe it included the 44 mentioned above.]

Father Serra's leg was giving him so much trouble that all doubted he could continue. He ignored their pleas and continued limping north. They traveled about six leagues over the next two days until they came to San Juan de Dios. He could no longer stand or sit, suffering such pain it was impossible for him to sleep. Don Gaspar ordered a litter built to be carried by the Indians. Hearing of this and sadness at the effort they would undertake carrying him, Father Serra relented and called Juan Antonio Coronel, a muleteer and said to him, "Son, do you know how to prepare a remedy for the wound in my foot and leg?"

But the muleteer answered him: "Father, what remedy could I know of? Do you think I am a surgeon? I'm a muleteer; I've healed only the sores of animals."

"Well then, son, just imagine me to be an mule and that this wound is the sore of an animal from which has developed this swelling of the leg and the great pains I experience, which permit me neither to rest nor to sleep. Make me the same remedy which you would apply to an animal."


The muleteer smiled, as did the rest who heard the answer. He replied: "Father, I shall do so in order to please you." He obtained a little tallow and crushed it between two stones and mixed it with herbs from the field which he found round about; and when he had fried this, he applied it to the foot and leg, and left the application of both materials on the wound in the form of a plaster. God worked in such a way (as the servant of God wrote me from San Diego) that Father Serra slept that night through till morning and that he awoke so relieved from his pain and wound that he arose to say Matins and Prime as he customarily did. And, these prayers finished, he said Mass as if he had not suffered any such trouble. The governor and the rest of the soldiers were surprised on seeing the Venerable Father well so suddenly, and relieved that in order to go on with the expedition not the least delay had to be made on his account."

Fr. Serra himself says little about it in his diary. Under the date of May 17th, and referring to a place named San Juan de Dios, he writes simply,

"I said Mass there, but I had much trouble in standing on my feet, because the left one was much inflamed. For a year now, and more, I have been suffering considerably, and by now the swelling has reached halfway up my leg, which is covered with sores. That is why for the rest of the time we stayed here, I had to lie prostrate most of the time on my bed, and I was afraid that before long I should have to follow the expedition on a stretcher."

On May 18th he notes that, "Our stay there continued, but I could not say Mass for the aforesaid reason."

That is all. There is no mention of the cure by the muleteer, about which Fray Palóu learned later from members of the expedition. But, in a letter to Fray Palóu, Serra says:

"As I crossed the frontier, my leg and foot were in bad shape. But God was good to me. Every day, I felt better and kept up with the day's marches just as if nothing were wrong with me. At the present time, the foot is completely well as the other; but from the ankle half way up the leg, it is like the foot was before - one large wound, but without swelling or pain except a certain amount of itching. Anyway, it is a matter of little moment,"

Friar Maynard J. Geiger, O.F.M., who has written the life of Junipero Serra for the Academy of American Franciscan History, believes that Fr. Serra rode his mule the entire distance. Yet, in the many accounts of Father Serra's life I have read, it is continually stated that Father Serra refused to ride at any time, always going afoot. [Sigh. Who does one believe?]

As they traveled north, the land changed from stinging, arid desert to land more green and pleasant, streams to provide water for men and animals alike. At last, on June 20, 1769, they reached a big bay overlooking the vast Pacific. That is the modern town of Ensenada, 80 miles south of present-day San Diego. For the rest of the journey, they kept as close to the coast as possible, generally following the route of the present-day highway, until finally, Sergeant Ortega and a companion were sent ahead to take word to San Diego of their impending arrival. On June 27th, at Rosarito, they met an Indian dressed in blue cotton, which could only mean he had come from San Diego. The Indian gave the joyous news that their goal was less than two days ahead and that he had met the sergeant and his companion on the road. The next morning, the sound of pounding hoofs heralded the return of the sergeant with ten soldiers and fresh horses sent by Captain Rivera. They carried letters for Fray Serra from Frays Crespí and Parron. Governor Portolá decided to push on ahead, while Serra and the main body of the expedition followed more slowly.


A California Live Oak

Father Serra would spend the next fifteen years tramping from one end of California to the other, from San Diego to San Francisco and back again. As indicated above, I have not read a single account where this humble man went except afoot. When his central mission, San Carlos Borromeo, was founded, he lived in a small cell, a simple cot upon to lay his head, a small desk and chair on which to maintain records, keep accounts, and write correspondence to his superiors. When away, he often slept on the floor or ground and ate the simplest of meals, usually a gruel with time pieces of fruit or fish. His one and only vice was a rare cup of hot, bitter chocolate.

It has been a pleasure for yours truly to learn of this remarkable man's life. Yes, he was stubborn, opinionated, a zealot. But he never let ego swell his head or forget that his one and only responsibility was to follow the rules of the Order of Friars Minor and to look over the natives who he honestly believe to be his wards – and children.

The outpouring of grief displayed at his passing was the truest tribute to his amazing little man's beliefs and efforts. The missions may have once faded and fallen to ruin, but they have been restored and stand as testimony to Miguel Joseph Serra's life – a life that has drawn the Roman Catholic Church to consider him for sainthood.

As a non-Catholic, I believe he deserves it. As do many of his fellow Franciscans who toiled to help create his legacy.

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