Monday, April 4, 2016

A Missionary Love in California: Father Junipero Serra

Father Junipero Serra by Ivy Bolton 


I found this book in a lovely old hardcover edition at a used book booth last summer. I wanted to read it to the children as Father Serra was to be canonized in the fall (2015), we were learning about the time period in American history, and we were hoping to plan a camping trip to California for the following year. It just seemed right. I skimmed the text a little, but did not read the whole thing before reading it aloud to the children.

After great trials and patience, St. Junipero Serra was finally allowed to journey to California and serve the Native Americans (called "Indians" in the book, of course) there.
Monterey would be his home. He would have many weary journeys up and down the coast and one exhausting one to Mexico, but always home would be here in the place he loved best on earth.
As he gazed over the land, he probably imagined the mission, buildings, and gardens that were to come.
Just now there was a beach of dazzling whiteness, a shaded river--and the blue Pacific as far as the eye could reach. This was the scene of his lifework, and here were his spiritual children whom he loved so well. Junipero Serra asked for nothing more.
The book, written in 1965, described the Native Americans in less than ideal terms, though their actions are likely taken directly from actual accounts of the soldiers and missionaries in the area. They stole items, attacked the missions (to steal), and murdered at least one of the friars.

St. Junipero Serra begged for leniency for the attackers. When the local military leaders remained firm, he appealed to the Viceroy in Mexico, and was received it.
Father Serra yielded in lesser things, but in the affairs and the care of the Indians he was adamant. They were to be free. They were to be properly paid and properly housed. Any effort to enslave or ill-treat them roused his indignation and he would carry the matter to the viceroy as soon as possible.
Despite Father Serra's love for the Native Americans and his insistence that they be treated well, it's clear from the text that the Spanairds did not understand or respect them as we would now (hopefully). The author also isn't quite as respectful as we would expect of a more recent book, but I was able to talk a bit with the children as we read and we have lots of other books that address issues of respect and acceptance.

I'm not sure what was going on with the children, though.
The children were Father Serra's closest friends. They were forlorn little things, very much neglected till they were old enough to be of some use. Father Serra had been horrified when he found that the chiefs were willing to give the children away, not only the girls but boys, too, in exchange for pieces of cloth and old iron hoops. A battered hat was worth a lad of eleven.
The book seems to be often based on letters Father Serra wrote and his diary, so I suppose something like this must have happened but I have to believe the priest misunderstood something here.

An attack by Native Americans on a settlement is described as well, one precipitated by the poor decisions and governance by the military and political authorities despite the warnings and pleading of the missionaries, at least as described in the book.
He [the chief] had expected gifts and large gifts and they were not forthcoming. The settlers themselves had been chosen with no care. Many of them were not white men but mulattoes and Mexican Indians. They scorned the tribesmen among whom they had settled and, worst of all, destroyed the corn crops, the Indians' most precious possession. Starvation threatened the Yumas, who had been one of the wealthiest of the western tribes.
The ensuing attack was terrible: all the men were slain, the women and children taken into captivity (though all were later ransomed or rescued). I was careful while reading this part to the children but it wasn't too explicit and they seemed to accept it.

In the last chapter, after St. Junipero Serra had died, the author places him within the history of California.
Father Serra had made the trail to California. He had laid the foundation of a Golden State. He had built not only for his own nation but also for another, a great free country which would stretch from ocean to ocean, whose life lines would cross the continent and bind it into one United States. He had brought fruits, cattle, grain and civilization to a desert land and a forgotten race. He had made the wilderness blossom as the rose.
She continued:
Father Serra was ahead of his time. His ideal was always freedom built on the love of God and man. He had no race prejudice and he fought that evil valiantly when governors and captains would have enslaved the Indians or complained because they were treated the same as the white settlers. There was to be no difference between Indians and colonists, Father Serra maintained, and he saw to it that in the missions there was none.
The children and I enjoyed this book and were exposed to many of the hardships and conflicts of the early Spanish missions. There remains to this day controversy over St. Junipero Serra's role and that of the missions in conquering the Native Americans of California, so it's appropriate for some of that tension to appear within the book. It seems to me that St. Junipero Serra went farther than others in his time to love and serve the Native Americans, even if he fell short compared to what we know now.

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