18th century Vera Cruz
Arriving in the New World, Father Serra was 36 years old. He was described as swarthy, of medium height [5' 2” was considered medium in the 18th Century], with sparkling black eyes and black hair formed in a tonsure – a ring about the head with a bald pate. His youthful ill health must have disappeared because Father Serra engaged with deep fervor in the self-inflicted physical penances that were common among the friars in those days. In that part of the Mass when the priest exclaimed, “My guilt! My guilt! My most grievous guilt!” and struck themselves on the breast with their fist, Father Serra went even further, holding a stone in his hand which he used to strike his breast. He was also know to place a burning torch to his bare chest, and purging himself with a whip until the blood ran – all as an example to the congregation. He kept long vigils with little sleep. He never complained about things that came his way and seemed to invite suffering. He lived on herbs, fish, fruit, and tortillas, disliking meat for very fond of drinking chocolate – which in those days was a very tart quaff.
In 1749, the government had the responsibility for transporting newly arrived priests from the port of Veracruz the 270 miles over rough terrain to Mexico City. This was one of the very few times when the friars were allowed to ride horses or mules. They were otherwise expected to walk, although mules or donkeys could carry the religious articles needed to conduct the various rites. This was because the fathers were weak from their voyage.
The route from Vera Cruz to Mexico City
However, Father Serra begged to be allowed to walk, accompanied by Father Palóu. It was not the normal rainy season but they encountered constant downpours. It was during this long walk that Father Serra's feet began to swell with fatigue and uncounted insect bites. He received the leg affliction that would remain with him until his death. Sadly, the cure for this affliction was simple – rest.
At last, they reached the Apostolic College [Seminary] of San Fernando where Father Serra was assigned to the directorship of Novice Master. He asked, but was denied, the right to be considered a novice and to live in a small cell. He eagerly sought the thing most dear to his heart, being a missionary and serving a congregation of natives. So, after five years, he and his four companions were allowed to depart for the missions in the Sierra Gorda, several hundred miles away. He and his companions walked the long route to Jalpan [or Xalpan] despite his leg giving him a great deal of pain.
The Sierra Gorda Mountains
Father Serra was, at last, content. He learned the language of the Pames so he could preach to them in their tongue. In order to make their understanding of the new religion clearer, he also taught them religious dramas. He is known to have compiled a dictionary of the Otomí language. He and the other friars helped improve their agriculture and stock husbandry. He toiled with them to build several churches which are still in use more than two centuries later. One small item Father Palóu wrote of was that due to his small stature, Father Serra often tucked the mantle of his habit over his shoulder to make it taller when he helped the Indians carry massive beams for the construction projects. It was during the period that Father Serra was made president guardian of the missions.
A side note here: It took a bit of research but I was able to learn that senior members of the Franciscan orders carry the title of Guardian. The priest presiding over The Franciscan Order Minor of Friars is called The Guardian General. The priest presiding over the College of San Fernando was called Guardian. Finding out who those guardians were has been something my research has not revealed. That is, except for Father Palóu who, after Father Serra's death, left California to travel to the College of San Fernando where he was appointed guardian.
Father Serra and his companions were then recalled to San Fernando and chose to go to the mission on the San Abra River in Texas. Before he could go, Comanches attacked and burned the mission. He still wished to go but, before he could depart, was informed that no more missionaries would be sent there until the region had been pacified. He was to serve the next 9 years of the San Fernando Seminary as a home missionary where he preached throughout Mexico. He also served as a commissioner of the Holy Office, or Inquisition. Again, I can find nothing about his time there.
There are two events of note during this period in Father Serra's life. An episode was described by Father Palóu.
"During one of his sermons, in imitation of Saint Francis Solanus, to whom he
was devoted, he took out a chain and after lowering his habit so as to uncover his
back, having exhorted his hearers to penance, he began to scourge himself so
violently that the entire congregation broke into tears. Thereupon, a man from the
congregation arose and hurriedly went to the pulpit, took the chain from the
penitential father, descended from the pulpit and went to stand in the highest
part of the sanctuary. Imitating the venerable preacher, he uncovered himself to
the waist and began to perform public penance ... so violent and merciless the strokes that, before the whole congregation, he fell to the floor, they judging
him dead. Afterwards, he received the last Sacraments where he fell ... and died."
It was customary when the natives resisted the friars' appeals, that the missionaries scourgeed themselves in an effort to break hard hearts, though they were cautioned to be extremely prudent to avoid too dramatic methods, and warned that the
temperament and psychology of the people, the conditions of the moment, environment and time, all had to be kept in mind in the choice of the means used to bring about repentance.
What the friars used to "discipline" themselves.
Fr. Serra's missionary activity during these years was mostly in south and central Mexico, in what is modem Oaxaca, Morelia, Puebla, and Guadalajara; the region east of Sierra Gorda; and in the province of Mesquital, part of Mazatlan [eastern Mexico]. The work was very exhausting and the only rest he had was during the time required to go from one town to another or the return to the college after a mission. He was poisoned one time, someone putting rattlesnake venom in the chalice. He refused an antidote, but recovered just the same.
There are many stories about Father Serra but here are just a few.
Suffering from want of water on the voyage to Mexico he said to complainers, “the best way to prevent thirst is to eat little and talk less so as not to waste the saliva.”
In a mutiny and a storm threatening death to all, he was perfectly calm, and the storm ceased instantly when a saint chosen by lot had been addressed in prayer.
On the way from Vera Cruz to Mexico, several miracles were wrought in his favor. Coming to a swollen stream by a town in a dark night, there was a man on the other bank to show the ford and guide him to a lodging. A man, perhaps the same, met Junipero and his companion next day and gave them a pomegranate which had a refreshing effect and still later a man gave them a bit of corn-bread of excellent savor.
Sixty persons who neglected to attend his meetings were killed by an epidemic which did not cease until religious duties were generally attended to.
On his way back from Huasteca, he was well lodged and entertained in a cottage by the way; but later learned that there was no such cottage on the road; and of course concluded that his entertainers were Joseph, Mary, and Jesus in fact he had noticed an extra ordinary air of neatness about the place.
Poisoned once in taking the communion he refused the antidote and was cured by a simple dose of oil, perhaps miraculously as he thought.
This is but the second of four parts about Father Serra. The next will take us through his extraordinary assignment as president guardian of the California missions.