The story of Father Junípero Serra y Ferrer, recently in the news, is one that few Americans are all that familiar with. His controversial recent canonization by Pope Francis has caused many people to re-examine a record of both success and failure converting American Indian tribes to Christianity in California.
It surely is true that Father Serra founded a series of 21 missions along the California coastline, from Baja California in Mexico to San Francisco– including the mission at Carmel, where I attended the church school when I was ten (true story!). In the eyes of the Church, Father Serra was doing the church’s work– converting the heathen, establishing infrastructure to expand the church, and making good Christian citizens. Whether that achievement counts as a miracle or not is in the hands of the Holy Father, of course.
What often isn’t spoken of is the failure of a mission to Sierra Gorda, Mexico, earlier in his career. With just himself, fellow friars Francisco Palóu and Juan Crespí, a number of Indians and a wagon of provisions in the form of groat cakes, he marched into the Serra Gorda region with the intention of establishing a mission there.
From the first, things went wrong. The Indians, so compliant and docile elsewhere, were in active rebellion in the Serra Gorda. The Mission building was behind schedule. The extremes of weather, ranging from baking hot 100 degree heat to flash floods, caused the crops to fail. The food crops did not thrive, except for hay– which was useless as the cattle had been slaughtered weeks prior.
Father Serra experienced a rare moment of doubt and despair, and summoned his compatriots Palou and Crespi to discuss abandoning the colony and returning South.
Francisco Palóu, a zealous missionary, was dead set against returning, and is recorded as saying: “Do not turn your back on God’s children in the Serra Gorda, Holy Father. It is true, food is not abundant here, but we can grow hay for animal fodder in abundance, and soon we will have many cattle ranches in this valley.”
Juan Crespi, in contrast, seems more pragmatic. He agreed with De Sera, stating that bugs had invaded the Groat Cake supply, which were now weevily and running very low, advocating a return for basic food supplies: “We cannot grow anything further in High Summer, Father, the ground is baked too hard by the dreadful Sun”
In a passion, Palóu interjected, crying: “Holy Father, bless us! The Lord will show us the way”
Embittered, Father Serra replied: “What should I bless, Francisco?? the fodder, the Sun or the hole-y groats?”