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The California Missions
Father Junipero Serra was appointed by Jose de Galvez, the aide to the Spanish King's viceroy, to lead the founding of the first missions in California.
Padres of Good Will
In 1769, the King of Spain ordered exploration and settlement in California, after nearly two centuries of languishing. The prospect of extending the Spanish Empire to the furthest outpost of the New World was costly and difficult; but, upon threat of encroachment by Russian fleets, which had been sent by the Czarina across the Bering Strait to settle as far south as the Farallon Islands, just twenty-seven miles off the coast of what is now San Francisco, the King moved expeditiously.
Spanish missionaries were sent from South America and Mexico in the name of the Spanish Empire, but the padres were, in their hearts, motivated by God to build missions, convert the natives and spread the Good Word. The Padres were not complacent people, nor were they deficient in spirit or courage; they were crusaders who were quite capable of withstanding hardship, famine and hostility for the cause of the Empire, which embodied the Church.
Devout followers of St. Francis of Assisi, the Franciscan padres founded the first missions under the leadership of Father Junipero Serra. Born on the island of Majorca in the Kingdom of Spain, Serra became a monk of the order of St. Francis at the age of sixteen. He attended convent and college in Spain and received his Doctor degree before devoting himself to missionary life at the age of thirty six.
Serra and the padres arrived in California in 1769 from Mexico, where Father Serra had lived and carried out Good Works for many years. Upon arriving in Alta California to found the first settlement, Mission San Diego, the fathers were met with fierce resistance from the natives. One of the fathers was martyred by a flying arrow, and the mission at Alta was burned to the ground.
Undeterred, within a year, Father Serra witnessed the Indians' warm response to his sermons and offerings, as they came to him for their baptisms. With the help of the Indians, they soon rebuilt the mission.
Father Serra and his Spanish padres founded ten missions, traveling mainly by mule, before Serra’s death at the age of seventy-two in 1784. Serra’s missionary cause was continued and his leadership passed down to father Fermin Francisco de Lasuen, who went on to found eight more of the twenty one missions along the El Camino Real trail.
The natives, these California Indians, were to be converted to Christianity. The padres called their new followers “neophytes”: literally, “newly planted”. In exchange for their conversion, the “neophytes”, men and women alike, learned a variety of trade skills, such as tallow making and adobe brick and tile manufacturing, in the process of helping to build the missions. The padres also taught the natives new farming techniques, including, that of cattle raising and hide and leather manufacturing; and the women were taught how to weave and embroider. However, tens of thousands of the indigenous people died as a result of measles, and other diseases, to which they had no resistance.
But, when the missions were under attack by Mexico, and the padres were expelled, Mission San Luis Rey’s much loved Father Antonio Peyri had to flee or be imprisoned. His Indian disciples followed Peyri thirty miles to the port where his ship would set sail for Spain; begging their father to stay, Peyri could only offer the Indians a farewell benediction.
The Indians, who did benefit from the padres’ tutelage and generosity, could never go back to their original tribes, for they were vastly and tragically wiped out. Thus, the native American Indian culture was lost to the well-intentioned Franciscan padres who were seeking souls. Still, the padres treated the Indians far better than did the explorers and missionaries on other fronts in the New World.
Creation of the MexicanRepublic
In theory, the offer of sacrament was to also yield Franciscan-built pueblos along with land trusts for the Indians. But in 1826 through the 1830’s, Mexican secularization took place under a new government.
As with all periods of transition, a kind of chaos emerged, and in the ensuing liberation of the Mexicans, who were now allowed to buy land in California, the American Indians lost everything, in terms of land, that the padres intended for them. Indeed, all of the Spanish padres were expelled, and most of the missions were abandoned, though they kept their names: the names of saints and martyrs through all of the devastation.
Mission Santa Barbara was the only mission to remain active through this turbulent and then dormant period.
Reconstruction by the United States Government
Mission San Luis Rey, now a beautiful mission site five miles east of Oceanside, was used by th U.S. military as an outpost during the Mexican War. And in 1893 the mission became a Franciscan college.
In the1850’s the prevailing Government decided to rebuild the missions, which had fallen into disrepair or literally disintegrated under the external elements, their adobe walls melting back into the earth. And the churches, the heart of each mission, were reestablished.
The missions underwent refurbishment over various phases and many decades of reconstruction. During the best of these periods, historians and artisans were brought in to research well-kept diaries of the padres and thus redesign as close to the original concept as possible.
Visiting the Missions Today
A visit to any of the missions today will prove to be a transporting, and for many a deeply spiritual, experience.
The missions further inland tend to recreate in the imagination the spirit of the missionaries’ Golden Age. Mission San Antonio de Padua bears a statue of Father Junipero Serra, as many of the missions do, and this mission site in particular has been called the most faithfully restored of all the missions. Its restoration was funded, eventually, by the Hearst Family.
These inland missions dwell in much warmer climates than their sister missions along the mission trail nearer the coastline. Mission San Antonio de Padua functioned as an asistencia, one of the first hospitals for Indians who were ill; the mission remains so today for its original tribe.
In 1960, Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo, another much loved and beautiful site, was deemed a minor basilica by Pope John XXIII. And in 1976, Pope Paul VI, deemed Mission San Diego, its church and beautiful, verdant grounds a minor basilica as well. In doing so, the parishes were accorded the blessing of ceremonial privileges.
All of the missions today are widely visited and stand as the finest monuments of California culture.