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  • The Life and Times of Fr. Junípero Serra:A Pan-Borderlands Perspective
  • David Hurst Thomas (bio)

The year 2013 marked the tercentennial of Fr. Junípero Serra’s birth. That same year, historian Steven Hackel anointed Serra (1713-1784) California’s Founding Father, thereby echoing the glory attached to such American greats as John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, and Thomas Jefferson. But Hackel also noted that Serra remains “America’s least understood founder,” with a legacy that is today decidedly “divisive … contentious and contested.”1

Many popular observances of the Serra tercentennial celebrated his role as a visionary, lauding the energetic Franciscan from Mallorca who walked the length of what is today the Golden State despite a badly ulcerated leg.2 Along the way, he built the legendary mission chain and battled Spanish civic leaders in his effort to provide Christian leadership to California’s Indians. A poll held in 1984, the bicentennial of Serra’s death, showed that two-thirds of Californians [End Page 185] considered him the most important person in the history of the state.3 Many, however, see Serra in a less favorable light, pointing to the role of these very Spanish missions in devastating the indigenous populations. Some even view Serra’s Franciscan missions as death camps (“Auschwitz with roses”) reflecting an imperialist policy of genocide and ethnic cleansing.4

This paper will summarize the most noteworthy recent research on Fr. Serra’s California mission legacy, then contrast him and his life’s work against other Franciscan missionary activities across the Spanish Borderlands, with an emphasis on the Pueblo Southwest and the Mississippian Southeast.5 The Founding Father of Alta California arrived there with a late medieval identity forged on the island of Mallorca, steeled in the Colegio de San Fernando in Mexico City, and field-tested at the missions of the Sierra Gorda (near present-day Querétaro).6 Although certainly aware of the classic missionary writings produced by Franciscans and others, Serra’s personal and theological mindset derived mostly from the early experiences that had transformed a Mallorcan villager into a promising priest and university professor in his homeland.7 [End Page 186]

Born to a poor family, Serra was raised by a stern father who believed in the strictest discipline. The young Serra quite literally “grew up beneath the bell, its tolling setting and signaling the rhythms, moods, and the rituals of his life.”8 He worshiped at the Convento de San Bernardino, where the church bells called him to daily Mass, chiming away the hours of each and every day. Rapid tolling of the bell alerted the people of Petra to joyous occasions. Slowly ringing bells carried the sad news of death to the community. Unlike the punishments meted out by tyrants or kings, Serra would later write, the physical discipline delivered by ideal fathers (including his own) signified “acts of pure love.”9 As an adult, Serra incorporated his childhood experiences into both his rigorous personal discipline (including self-flagellation) and his missionary outreach, which sometimes involved floggings and other harsh discipline applied to Christianized Indians who had been led astray.

After donning the Franciscan habit at the age of 16, Serra, until then called Miquel Joseph, became Junípero, taking as his namesake the complicated and headstrong early companion of St. Francis.10 Serra knelt at the end of his probation year to pledge the three keystone Franciscan vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. And like his fellow fledgling Franciscans of the time, he took an additional oath to defend the Doctrine of Immaculate Conception.11 Serra came to identify himself as a “front-line missionary, a man who would go to the tip of the Catholic spear … to conquer the New World’s infidels.”12 In 1749, he joined a number of other Mallorcan Franciscans who traveled to Mexico as missionaries, bringing with them a late-medieval mindset and theological practice largely marginalized from greater Spanish society.13

In the tradition of St. Francis, as expounded in the arguments and teachings of Ramon Llull, Serra believed that Christian conversion should be accomplished by reason rather than by the sword.14 Franciscan theologian Joseph Chinnici [End Page...


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