Salvation To Lost Souls
A profound depth of belief in Christianity and a lifelong passion for missionary work forever etch the place of Father Junipero Serra in history. The spell Serra cast was far reaching, from the Old World of 18th-century Spain to the New World in Mexico to what would become California.
On Nov. 24, 1713, Miguel Joseph was born to Antonio and Margarita Serra, in the small town of Petra, on the island of Mallorca, off the east coast of Spain. Serra's parents were common farmers, lacking in formal education. Their religious focus, and a strong local Franciscan influence, led to an early baptism and the administration of the confirmation sacrament for Miguel.
Serra began his formal education at the friar's primary school in the San Bernardino Friary in Petra and embraced a wide variety of subjects. His comfort in the school and his growing religious beliefs led to his decision, at age 15, to commit his career to service of the church. He would prove to be an exceptional student and gifted in acquiring the skills needed to become a Franciscan priest. Readings he completed of early Franciscan history, during his training, provided the longing to become a missionary.
Upon entering the Franciscan Order in 1731, Serra took the name Junipero. His inspiration came from his newfound understanding of the original Junipero who was a companion of the founder of the order, Francis of Assisi. Serra continued to study philosophy and theology in his pursuit of the priesthood. By 1740 he had completed the required course work and was given the distinction of "lector of philosophy." He went on to be named the chair of Scotistic Theology (studying the work of Duns Scotus) at the Lullian University in Palma de Mallorca.
Serra's attention was not limited to higher learning. He also focused his efforts in the church as a preacher, and he developed a commanding ability to engage his listeners. Now in his early 30s, Serra's attention turned to what would become his life's devotion—that of a missionary. His request to his superiors for a missionary assignment was eventually met with a favorable response, and, along with Fray Francisco Palou (who would become Serra's biographer), they were on their way to New Spain within two weeks.
Landing at Vera Cruz, Mexico, Serra and a companion from Andalusia set off on foot with the immediate goal of reaching Mexico City and the Franciscan Colegio de San Fernando, a religious house that served as the center of support for the administration of the Franciscan missions. In spite of an insect bite on his leg, which would plague him for the rest of his life, Serra completed the walk.
After several months of intensive missionary preparation, Father Junipero was assigned to work with the Pames Indians in the Sierra Gorda region of central Mexico. Along with Palou and several other friars, it was Serra's first opportunity to pursue his dreams. Possessing the sensitivity to know he would have to understand the ways of the Indians, Serra immediately began to learn their language. He also brought the pageantry of the church to those in attendance when he preached and tried everything he knew to bring the Indians into the fold, including working alongside them in the fields.
Serra's progress led to his appointment as presidente of the Sierra Gorda missions. Then, with the support of Jose de Galvez —who had been sent to Mexico by King Charles III to oversee the entire viceroyalty—Serra volunteered to venture north to establish the Missions of Alta California. With the blessings of Galvez, Serra became the head and founder of the California missions.
Father Serra was a man of multiple talents—priest, explorer, agriculturalist, stockman, engineer, architect, teacher, and lawmaker; he brought all of these gifts to bear as he journeyed north. Intent to deliver spiritual Christian beliefs, with a personality perfectly suited to the task, and to proceed without the sword, Serra constantly fought off the influences of the military component of the exploration parties. He set out to win the Indians' confidence, eliminate their fear of white intruders, and reach their hearts and minds through the religion he loved.
The excursion out of Mexico was a long (2,000 miles) and difficult one. Upon reaching San Diego, it was immediately apparent the need for an infirmary was greater than that for a mission. With the four separate traveling parties of friars and soldiers arriving both by boat and over land—and each with few provisions—illness and scurvy were prevalent. After selecting a location for the mission and blessing the site, Serra's efforts could be directed to doing little more than attending to the basic needs of the ailing members of the expedition. With desperation setting in and thoughts turning to returning to Mexico, Serra's last hope was to administer a novena of prayers, over nine days. As faith would have it, additional supplies arrived just as the self-imposed time allotment ended. Travel north could continue.
The creation of missions in Alta California continued from the first mission in San Diego, under Serra's direct guidance, to San Francisco. Located on what was to become known as El Camino Real (the King's Highway), these first missions were built at the discretion of Serra, who often had to overcome contrary views of the attending military officials.
Monterey, having been previously identified by Sebastian Vizcaino in December 1602, was chosen to become the location for the second mission. On June 3, 1770, Serra said his first Mass in Monterey on what was thought to be the same spot where Vizcaino's party celebrated Mass. It was also here that the initial location for a mission was chosen. Serra quickly realized it would be more advantageous to relocate the mission on a site more accessible to both fresh water and land for orchards. Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo became Serra's home mission.
The move also separated the military from the Franciscans, whose primary intention was the peaceful introduction of Christianity to the local Indians. The friars embraced their role as farmers and traders as a means to spread their religious beliefs. With the introduction of sheep and cattle to the area and by working alongside the Indians in the fields during the cultivation of orchards and vineyards, the fathers were able to provide more than just a religious doctrine. The Indian converts were allowed to share in the bounty of the harvest, and their personal needs and way of life became more comfortable. Over 15 years in Alta California, Father Serra would unfailingly continue with his chosen life's work. Hardships—from political disagreements over the military presence to the day-to-day difficulties of simply staying alive—were ever present.
Serra established a total of nine missions: San Diego de Alcala (1769), San Carlos Borromeo (1770), San Antonio de Padua (1771), San Gabriel Arcangel (1771), San Luis Obispo de Tolosa (1772), San Francisco de Asis (1776), San Juan Capistrano (1776), Santa Clara de Asis (1777), and San Buenaventura (1782). Most of the other 12 California missions would be founded by Serra's successor, Father Fermin Lasuen; Jose Altimira built the last, San Francisco Solano, in 1823. Having lived an extraordinary life, under difficult circumstances, Father Junipero Serra died peacefully in 1784, at age 70, in his cell in the Carmel Mission. He was buried in the mission chapel.
The evangelical instinct bloomed strong among all the Protestant churches of the mid-19th Century. As early as 1820, the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, with a sense of dreadful urgency, had sent representatives to plant the church's banner in the Hawaiian Islands. With similar enthusiasm, evangelists would now descend upon and bring salvation to the lost souls of the Oregon tribesmen. In setting up their wilderness missions they would also establish the first American towns in the Pacific Northwest, and provide the oases of American civilization toward which future pioneers would head.
An impassioned letter ran in an 1833 issue of the Christian Advocate and Journal, a Protestant religious publication. It described a visit by four Indians "from west of the Rocky Mountains" to St. Louis. According to this letter, written by a Methodist convert who was part Indian himself, the visitors had acquired a driving hunger for the white man's religion. Someone had told them, the letter said, "that the white people away toward the rising of the sun had been put in possession of the true mode of worshipping the Great Spirit; they had a book containing directions." So the Indians, three Nez Perc6s and one Flathead, had traveled 3,000 miles to St. Louis to learn the contents of the Great Spirit's book. No sooner did they arrive at the doorstep of the Superintendent of Indian Affairs — who was none other than the great trailblazer General William Clark himself — than two of them dropped dead from sickness and exhaustion. Martyrdom in pursuit of the True God! The missionary societies stood agog.
The Christian Advocate offered a sketch on one dead Indian. His head, from the tip of his nose to the top of his crown, sloped backward like the hypotenuse of a triangle. These Indians, the letter explained, mutilated their foreheads by binding a board against them in childhood. Thus the name Flathead. In fact, none of the Indians at St. Louis had flattened heads, and indeed very few Flatheads anywhere ever followed the bizarre custom of head-binding. But readers believed the drawing, and were horrified. All over the Eastern U.S., volunteer evangelists began applying to their churches for assignment to Oregon.
Other devout Protestants from the East had read the Flathead letter in the Christian Advocate and volunteered to evangelize the Western Indians. One of these was a small-town physician from upstate New York, age 34, named Marcus Whitman, who would accomplish more for Oregon settlement than anyone else. The doctor had always felt a strong missionary urge and had dreamed of becoming a minister, but family finances could not support the seven years of training required by Whitman's Congregational church.
The physician extracted from Jim Bridger's back a Blackfoot arrowhead that the mountain man had carried for several years. (When Whitman expressed astonishment that the arrow had caused no infection, Bridger said, "Meat don't spoil in the Rockies.")
The wagon party had started west from Independence, at the tail end of the fur caravan, the captain of the fur caravan, a rough and rangy trail veteran named Broken Hand Fitzpatrick, insisted the missionaries abandon their heavy freight wagon. Fitzpatrick was certain it would never negotiate the mountains ahead. However, the party was able to keep the smaller Dearborn. When the caravan rattled into the rendezvous point, again located beside the Green River in Wyoming, the missionaries were vastly cheered and diverted by the scene. Here were assembled the savage Indians of half a dozen tribes along with 400 semi-savage white men, all of whom were there for the express purpose of getting drunk, raising Cain and trading off their accumulated pelts for enough coin and supplies to see them through another winter.
In the Oregon wilderness the roly-poly Father De Smet had founded a string of Catholic missions among the Flatheads. Meanwhile settlers began to arrive. In 1842 some 200 pioneers plodded along the Oregon Trail, most of them heading for the Willamette valley. Next season so many emigrants took the Oregon Trail that 1843 became known as the year of the Great Emigration. They traveled in an immense caravan of 120 wagons, with Marcus Whitman, who had returned East on mission business, acting as trail guide. This time he made good on his promise to himself; he brought the wagons, along with 875 men, women and children, to Fort Hall, and they proceeded along the Oregon Trail to the Pacific Coast.
In all, more than 1,000 pioneers crossed the continent to various destinations in the Far West during the year of the Great Emigration. Most of them stopped, at least for a short period, at the small nuclear settlements established by John Marsh, Jason Lee and Whitman himself— the early visionaries who had blazed the pioneer trails. But this, too, was just the beginning.
In the effort to win converts among the Indians of the Northwest, Protestants found themselves competing with a small but diligent band of Catholic missionary priests led by Pierre Jean De Smet and Nicolas Point. The Catholics labored so successfully in this cause that Protestant Narcissa Whitman was moved to warn: "Romanism stalks abroad on our right and our left, and with daring effrontery boasts that she is to possess the land."
De Smet, a burly Belgian, emigrated to the United States when he was 20 and joined the Jesuit order, which had long been active among the Indians of Canada and the Mississippi valley. In 1840 his superiors in St. Louis dispatched him to the Oregon country to convert and minister to the Flathead and Coeur d'Alene tribes. He was to spend 32 years among these and other Indians of the region, living the life they led, eating the food they ate and making long journeys on horseback— Indian fashion, without a saddle. In seeking out remote tribes, he logged some 100,000 miles through mostly uncharted mountains.
In 1841 he was joined by Father Point, a French Jesuit. Point became the official diarist of the Catholic missionary endeavor, keeping meticulous notes on his own experiences and those of his colleagues. Although he had little schooling as an artist, he enhanced his text with several hundred vivid oil paintings and drawings that comprise a unique pictorial record of a little-known era in the history of American Indians.
The earliest labourer in the northern and central plains was the Franciscan Father Juan de Padilla, who with four others of his order accompanied the famous expedition of Coronado in 1540-42, and on the return volunteered to remain behind with the Wichita in the "Province of Quivira", probably in southern Kansas. He was killed soon afterwards, apparently by Indians hostile to the Wichita.
The powerful Sioux, or Dakota whose territory stretched from the Wisconsin border almost to the foot of the Rocky Mountains, were visited by the Jesuit Alouez as early as 1666, but tribal jealousies interrupted friendly communication and prevented any mission establishment. In 1680 the Recollect Franciscan, Father Louis Hennepin, spent some months with them as a captive on the upper Mississippi. In 1690 (?) the Jesuit Father Joseph Marest, and in 1728 the Jesuit Father Ignatius Guignas, made unsuccessful mission attempts in the tribe, and in 1736 the Jesuit Father Jean-Pierre Aulneau (or Amand) was one of a party of twenty-one Frenchmen massacred by them on the Lake of the Woods, just beyond the northern Minnesota boundary. In 1837 a regular mission was established among the eastern Sioux in Minnesota by Father Augustin Ravoux, and in 1848 the noted Jesuit missionary Father de Smet first preached to those west of the Missouri.
The first knowledge of Christianity among the tribes of the Columbia region came through the Catholic Iroquois and Canadian French employees of the Hudson Bay Company, by whose influence and teaching many of the Indians, particularly among the Flatheads and Nez Percés, were induced to embrace the principles and practices of Catholicism as early as 1820, leading some years later to a request for missionaries, in response to which the Flathead mission in Montana was founded by the Jesuit Father Peter de Smet in 1841, followed shortly afterwards by another among the Cœur d'Alêne in Idaho, established by the Jesuit Father Nicholas Point. In 1839 Father Francis Blanchet, secular, who had come out to attend the Canadian residents, established St. Francis Xavier mission on the Cowlitz, in western Washington, and another on the lower Willamet at Champoeg, Oregon, while about the same time Father J.B. Boldue began work among the tribes on Puget Sound. In 1844 three Jesuit missions were established among the Pend d'Oreilles and Colvilles of the Upper Columbia, besides three others across the British line. In 1847 the Oblates arrived, and missions were established by Father Pandosy among the Yakima and by Father Ricard near the present Olympia. In 1848 the secular Fathers Rousseau and Mesplée founded a station among the Wasco, at the Dalles of the Columbia, in Oregon. Work was also attempted among the degenerate Chinooks, with little result. The noted Oblate missionary, Father Casimir Chirouse (d. 1892), best known for his later work at Tulalip, reached Oregon in 1847 and began his labours among the tribes of Puget Sound and the lower Columbia about the same period.
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