Thursday, July 9, 2009

Spanish Missionaries in California

At present, I am in Monterrey, California, doing a brief tour of the Central California missions. Most of these missions were founded in the late 18th century by priests sent from Mexico City, although most of them were originally from Spain. For some reason, a large percentage came from the island of Mallorca, including Fr. Junipero Serra, founder of many missions.

Mission Carmel, or Mision San Carlos Borromeo, which I visited yesterday, was the third California mission and was founded by Fr. Serra in 1790. Born Miguel Jose Serra, he took the name Junipero - one of the earliest and humblest of St Francis' followers - when he joined the Franciscan order. He was from the city of Petra on Mallorca, and was a professor of theology and a well-known preacher in his native land before leaving for the missions at the age of 36.

He was a tireless missionary, founding numerous missions and ending up as president of the entire mission chain. Fr Serra was noted for his austere, holy life and his dramatic preaching, which sometimes included whipping himself, greatly impressed the Indian converts. I saw a stamp he had had made depicting Brother Juniper; he would stamp pieces of paper with this and give them as holy cards to the people he met. He was also very fond of reading the theologian Ramon Llull, also a Mallorcan, one of the first humanist theologians of Spain, and made sure that the Mission had a large library (large for its time, at any rate, particularly considering the hardship of getting books to Alta California).

A great lover of music, he made sure that the converts were instructed in Catholic liturgical music. He is also known to have led them in the performance of a Nativity play - the Pastorela or Pastorets - at Christmas every years. Followers of things Spanish will recall the Pastorets as a Catalan "Shepherds Play," or Nativity Play, still performed at Christmas in many areas.

Fr Serra was always in poor health and, after a life of hardship and endless travels, died at Mission Carmel at the age of 70. He was buried in the mission, although when the mission was abandoned, his burial site was lost. Finally, when restoration of the missions began, his burial place and coffin were found and he was reburied in front of the main altar. Here we see the fragments of his original coffin, in a glass case near the altar.

Fr Junipero Serra was beatified in 1987, and Pope John Paul II came to the mission and prayed before its Virgin, La Conquistadora. Fr Serra's cause is still moving ahead to canonization. Below we see a large mausoleum that was planned for Fr. Serra but never placed in the church because it was much too large for the space. It depicts Fr Serra in death, surrounded by his Franciscan brothers, who are praying for him.