Father Serra - Missionary

Father Serra - Missionary
Always forward, never back

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Jesuit Missionaries – How Did They Do It?

They left big cities and national capitols having completed degrees in major universities of the day. They arrived – mostly ill from impossible sea journeys – at a hostile land where almost nobody spoke their native tongue. They went to an intimidating land filled with angry and primitive natives, usually accompanied only by a single soldier – who often as not was no more than a farmer or merchant converted to carrying a musket and sword. They had to learn the rudimentary tongue of the natives in order to meet their obligations to the Society of Jesus and the crown.

Baja California was – and is – an arid, inhospitable place where trying to create a European-style village was and still is, almost impossible. On the eastern side, the vast majority of the coastline is rugged with few to no passable beaches. And, in those very rare instances when a stream or rivulet managed to struggle to the sea, the outlet was filled with salt marshes and the few Indians from surrounding rancherias constantly confronted one another.

Julián de Mayorga, came from a patrician family in Villarejo de Montalban, near Toledo, Spain. After early schooling by Jesuits, he felt the call of the cloth and went through the training to become a member of the Society of Jesus. He attended a prestigious Jesuit college in the capitol and sought to go forth as a missionary to New Spain.

His wish was granted and he sailed in a small ship to cross hundreds of miles of daunting seas, constantly seeking the rail to empty his stomach of what little food he had been able to force down. At last, they reached land where he was confronted with a pueblo almost, but not quite, like those in Spain. The trip on land from there was unlike anything he had expected, atop the back of a burro through hostile lands swarming with biting, stinging insects and occasional torrential downpours.

At last, he reached the city of Mexico and entered the college for missionaries where he was taught the bewildering fundamentals of building and maintaining a mission in a strange and forbidding land. He was given no choice of his next destination, only being told that he would join his fellow Jesuits in far away California.

Once again, he mounted a donkey for the trip north to a rugged land where the order maintained a massive rancho with storehouses. A huge mule train was being formed up to carry the annual supplies to California. When it pulled out, he rode at the fore with a man name Manuel Rodríguez Vaca, the owner and lead arriero. They wended their way to another city named Guadalajara and then on to a small village in a valley named Compostella. There they were joined by sailors who escorted them across hills to the shore of the Pacific Ocean.

Padre Mayorga watched as the muleteers and sailors expertly transferred the supplies to the small ship anchored just off shore and then followed, sitting on a rough board across the width of a boat rowed by four sailors.

Even at anchor, the ship called the San Carlos, creaked and made strange noises as if not put together quite right. Unlike the ship on which he had sailed across the Atlantic, this one seemed to be made up of shorter planks and the masts were held together by more ropes.

The next two weeks made Padre Mayorga feel as if he had been assigned to Purgatory. The ship rocked from side to side as it first sailed to the west far out to sea then turned and sailed east until land was sighted. Sleep was impossible. Not only due to the motion, but the continual creaks and groans of protest from the wood beneath his feet. When not hanging over the rail, praying while he wretched, he knelt in his tiny cubbyhole praying to Jesus for the relief of death.

We are half of the way there, reverend father.”

Padre Mayorga looked to where the captain pointed, learning it was The Cape of Saint Luke, the southern tip of his destination – California.

The next few days were spent sailing in the same back and forth manner. Only, instead of steady breezes either from the sea or the land, there were occasional interludes of strong, almost gale-force winds, laying the ship over steeply and causing the crew to constantly change the sails. The groaning from inside the hull became even louder and crew members often rushed below to tighten restraining ropes so the cargo would not shift.

At last, the captain directed them into what barely passed for a port. And the gathering of crude structures could scarcely be considered a town in the suffering Padre's estimation. The small church on the hill shone bright in the burning sun, light reflected from the white stucco on the walls. The remaining scattering of buildings seems to be organized in two sections, one centered around the church and another around what could only be a military compound of some sort.

Padre Mayorga was aboard the first boat ashore where a tall figure in a black robe raised a hand in blessing. “Welcome to Loreto, my brother. I am Juan María de Salvatierra, the Visitador. We will be going to the church, Misión de Nuestra Señora de Loreto Conchó. You will stay here briefly until you have learned how we do things.” He then closely examined the pale and trembling priest and turned to a nearby man of swarthy complexion wearing white pants and blouse with a large, crude wooden cross hanging around his neck. “Brother Pedro la Cojera, please take the reverend father to the church and the infirmary. Have one of the others see that he has refreshing fluids and rests from his strenuous journey.”

Padre Mayorga quickly learned why the man was called The Limper.

One other individual introduced himself to Padre Mayorga. He wore no uniform that the priest recognized, only guessing his occupation from the sword at his side and the two pistols in his belt.

I am Alférez Mugazábal at your service, reverend father. If there is anything I or my wife may be of assistance with, please call upon us.” After a slight bow, the soldier hurried off to supervise the sailors unloading the much-needed supplies.

The newly arrived missionary staggered, with the help of the neophyte, up the hill to an open-sided building with a thick layer of palm branches for a roof. A small, screened-off area had been separated from the area occupied by a dozen rough cots. Padre Mayorga was shown to a cot made up of leather straps supporting a thin straw-filled mattress. After thankfully accepting a brimming cup of orange juice, he settled down.

With eyes closed, the newly arrived missionary lay on his cot, fingering his prayer beads, and reciting every prayer he had ever learned. So deep in his devotions, the Jesuit priest did not have to think about the hardships and frustrations facing him.

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