As Pope Francis' visit here to the USA nears where he will conduct the ceremony to canonize Reverend Father Serra, I think it's time to tell you all what it was that got me so interested in Father Serra and the friars he led.
I grew up in Southern California and had, at one time or another, visited every one of the California Catholic missions and even spent time assigned to the Presidio of Monterey. I had also driven from La Paz to Tijuana, passing many of the missions in Baja California.
One thing that bugged me for years was hearing politically correct types spout about how the cruel Catholic priests enslaved the pristine, innocent Indians, covering their backs with blood as they forced them to toil in their fields. I remember time spent in the county museum, Mission San Gabriel, Olvera Street, and other historical spots in Southern California and that was NOT what those places told me about that time.
The first individual who stood out in my research was Father Junipero Serra, a simple man from a small farm village who took vows of poverty in the Order Minor of Friars of Saint Francisco de Asis. He did not seem to be the kind of person who would enslave anybody, even as he became firm in his beliefs and goals. That was the “politically correct” version I heard and read in so-called “history books” and was indoctrinated about in school. In fact, as he showed in his efforts to found the five missions in the Sierra Gorda region of Mexico, he treated his disciples as if they were his children – an outlook of his order and his own.
How did his small, often ill man manage to lead an effort to explore unknown lands, deal with Stone Age people, and toil to create self-sufficient entities to feed and clothe those who came to the church, as well as supplying the soldiers?
Thus started the research. The more I found, the deeper my interest. The Internet, while not an end-all, is an amazing tool for discovering worlds far away and deep into the past. There were, of course, some questions I could find no answers for. Again, thanks for the Internet, I discovered where to go to get those answers and friars at all levels of The Order of Saint Francis, to include someone in Rome, I received the answers.
I think the most amazing thing about these missionaries – of whatever order, Jesuit. Franciscan, or Dominican – were their amazing abilities to do the most astonishing things.
Visit one of their missions some time and step inside the chapel.
How did a man from a small farm village learn to teach Stone Age savages who never tilled a field or built more than the crudest shelter of intertwined sticks and mud to create something like this?
Think about it. He had to envision the final product, find a place to site it, lay out the foundations, show the Indians how to cut the stone for the floors and make the sun-dried bricks for the walls. He had to find, cut down, form, and haul to the site the timber needed for the roof. He had to find the materials for making the tiles on the roof. How did he come up with the form of the arches? Or where to place the pulpit – and how to climb into it? How did he teach the natives to create the intricate wood carvings and the intricate art work? How did he teach one or more of them the art of carpentry to make something simple like the pews or intricate like the wall behind the altar?
And how on earth did he teach them to build this?
And remember, this is the ruins after the mission was taken away from the Franciscans. Before then, it had orchards and gardens that needed water. They had to survey the land, determine where and how to build a dam, lay out the irrigation ditches that brought that water miles to where it was needed, and control that water. He had to have a knowledge of plants and how to insure good crops – again teaching it to those who had no idea that such arts existed.
How about livestock? California Indians – like most North American natives, knew nothing of horses, mules, or donkeys. They had no idea about raising cattle for meat, leather, and milk. Goats. Pigs. Even chickens. All new, strange creatures. And the natives at missions like San Gabriel became some of the finest vaqueros anywhere, herding thousands of head of horses and cattle.
Weaving looms where wool was carded, dyed, woven into intricate and beautiful patterns.
Chandleries where suet was turned into beautiful candles.
How about smithies for forming metal? Or carpentry shops? Or tanning vats where rawhides were turned into fine leather and then formed into a wide variety of intricately decorated items such as saddles and boots?
Yeah, the natives did the work. But who taught and showed them how?
Would you think to graft wild California grapes to those brought from Europe? And then how to turn it into sacramental wine? How about growing olive trees and then pressing the fruit into oil?
The friars at Mission San Gabriel needed a bell with a tone that would carry far to call the native cowboys to prayer. They did not have the bronze or wherewithal to form one of metal to they took a huge piece of wood and achingly carved it into a bell.
Looks easy, doesn't it? Would you know exactly how to shape it so it wouldn't crack and have the needed sound?
And while doing all this, they had to learn the various languages and varieties of a people who only knew words for things they could see, hear, touch, and smell. How to teach the existence of God or The Holy Spirit to people who never thought beyond the death they knew was coming from birth? Father Serra and the other missionaries compiled extensive dictionaries of the various Indian language, struggling to translate those words and ideas into the mysteries of the Roman Catholic bible and teachings.
Oh yeah. And who taught the Indians how to cook? Other than spitting wood rats, gophers, rabbits and other creatures over an open fire, they had no idea of roasting or cooking things in a pot. As they didn't even know how to raise corn or other grains, there was no way they knew how to prepare masa for the flat bread called tortillas they ate at every meal. And consider the pots and other crockery. Who showed them how to make them? And dye them such beautiful colors?
Surveyor. Architect. Mason. Brick layer. Carpenter. Potter. Blacksmith. Chandler. Weaver. Dyer. Interpreter. Animal husbandry. Veterinarian. Medical doctor when possible.
Unlike the Jesuits who only had one missionary at each mission, the Franciscan and Dominicans had two. One was responsible for the spiritual duties while the other the trades. However, both helped one another and shared responsibilities.
Where did they learn these things? The College of San Fernando just outside of Mexico City was the seminary where Franciscan missionaries were introduced to the complexities of the calling. Most stayed there for a year or less!
And who was responsible to overseeing, training, and helping the various friars who came to California in 1769 and founded the original nine missions? Why, Reverend Father President Junipero Serra of course!
I fully agree with Pope Francis' decision to canonize Father Serra. He did indeed live a saintly life.
But what about the dozens of other friars who toiled from sunrise to sunset – often spending most of the night on their knees in prayer, seeking forgiveness for their weaknesses? Surely they deserve some form of recognition for their skills and dedication.
We should all look upon their works with wonder and ask ourselves if we could even perform of smidgeon of what they did.
All hail Santo Junipero Serra.