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Letter Describing Catholic Missions in California (1774, by Fray Junipero Serra)


Spain controlled up to two-thirds of the present continental United States for over two hundred years. California, which was not incorporated into the United States until the 1840s, was one of the prized possessions of the Spanish Empire in North America. Besides the fertile soil in a temperate climate were wonderful ports such as San Francisco, which guaranteed a lucrative trade. Spain, like the other imperialist powers in North America, Great Britain and France, demanded that its American colonies be a benefit and not a detriment to the empire as a whole. An economically weak and dependent colony was of little use.

Like France, Spain was a Roman Catholic country. It was assumed by the church, and obligatory to the Spanish colonial power, that the spread of Christianity and Christian values of prayer, work, peace, and faith, be inculcated among the people at large. Hence, the Spanish put much energy into creating missions that would convert the Native Americans of the Southwest to Christianity and ensure their devotion to the Catholic Church. The activities of Fray Junipero Serra were important in this regard.

Father Serra was a Franciscan priest who risked his life on numerous occasions to journey north to California, where he established almost two dozen Catholic missions to minister to the spiritual and bodily needs of the Indians. Father Serra died in 1784.

Bacone College

See also Catholicism ; Indian Missions .

Hail Jesus, Mary and Joseph!
My greatly venerated, most excellent Sir:

I have just written at length to Your Excellency by a courier whom Captain Don Fernando Rivera, four days since, dispatched for California, and in answer to the letter of Your Excellency bearing date 25th May, which, on the 6th August, was received by conduct and hand of the said captain by Father Lector Fray Francisco Palou, who is my companion here. In that letter I gave an account of further events at these missions, and with it sent the diary of one of the two religious who accompanied the naval expedition dispatched by Your Excellency under the command of Don Juan Perez, an officer of the navy. The reason for sending these letters and documents by a means usually rather tardy was this: The naval expedition having arrived at this port on the 27th of August last, in the frigate Santiago, and on board of her in safety the two chaplains (God be thanked!), her captain informed us that he had a mind to remain at this port until the middle of October, by which time it is probable that the families expected by Don Fernando will be here, and then to make the exploration of the port of San Francisco, with a view to the founding of the mission, or missions, which may seem necessary, in order that the region about that port be occupied in accordance with the orders of Your Excellency and the intention of our catholic monarch. And it having so to be—with which circumstance I and all were very content—it seemed that the only way of giving desired information to Your Excellency consisted in sending it by way of California. Since then Don Juan Perez has come to a new determination—that is, to sail for San Blas with the frigate under his command; and, although Father Palou and myself have besought him earnestly that, were it possible, he adhere to his prior determination, in order that the matter of the occupation of San Francisco might be attended to at this time, he has utterly refused to do so, saying that he has many reasons for not delaying and for resolving on a speedy departure. And, considering that this letter will reach you before the arrival of those already sent, I proceed to relate, with the brevity made necessary by this sudden notice and the little time remaining in which to do so, some portions of that which has been written already. And, first: As to the cattle for the two missions of San Francisco and Santa Clara, mindful of the directions contained in the said letter of Your Excellency, Captain Don Fernando turned the cattle over to me on the 16th of August, without renewed demand, in accordance with the disposition of the Royal Junta and the orders of Your Excellency; and that same day we branded them here. I gave a receipt, and now nothing remains to be done in that matter, which was arranged very much to the liking and satisfaction of both parties.

I wrote also, that, on the day after receiving the said letter of Your Excellency, taking it with me to the royal presidio, I communicated its contents to the Captain, for the purpose of learning whether he would resolve to do anything in the matter of the port of San Francisco. But he replied to my request that he found himself without men, or even arms, for any undertaking, as Captain Anza had not left him a single soldier and the families had not arrived. It is a pity that when we do have them here then there will be no longer any vessel available; and I recognize a far greater inclination to employ them in establishing a new presidio, at a distance of four or five leagues from the port and six from this mission, rather than in founding any new mission. This is a matter concerning which I was about to present to Your Excellency a written memorial, at the time I was in that city, when I learned that the new official proposed making such a demand; but, as I was told that any failure to protect the port would not be allowed, nor any such change of plan, I abandoned that design. Yet I afterwards repented of this, when in Guadalajara, Tepic, and other places, I found that tidings had gone abroad to the effect that the new captain was about to move the presidio—as though this were the principal object of his appointment. Still, for one reason this would not grieve me, and that is because at the distance of a league farther—on the road to San Francisco, be it understood—we might plant a new mission; and in this way the new presidio would be easily and in a perfectly fitting way provided with spiritual food, and the heathen of both sexes of those parts would become parishioners of the missionary fathers and not of the soldiers. Such mission would be at a distance of seven leagues from this one—which is not a matter of slight importance when it is considered that such an establishment would be likely to be of service in the prevention of disadvantages which I fancy might arise from a different condition of things. Were it not a matter connected with the missions I would not speak of it; but, being such, and to so great a degree, it does not seem to me that in this proposition I am advocating anything not within the scope of my clerical functions. And in this matter I conform to what Your Excellency may consider most fitting. It is a grevious thing for me, Most Excellent Sir, to find myself well provided with religious and with provisions, while no steps are taken in one way or another, towards some new spiritual labor; and I should fear to fatigue Your Excellency with this my oft-repeated importunity were I not sure that my desires are so much in accord with those of Your Excellency.

I gave to Your Excellency, also, the agreeable tidings that these new christians, following the example set by some of the workmen of the vessels whose services I managed to secure, are learning how to apply themselves to labor, hoe in hand and with the bar and in making adobes, in reaping or harvesting the wheat and in carting these crops, as well as in other work in which they take part. I reported, also, that this year there have been harvested at this mission, in addition to twenty fanegas of barley, one hundred and twenty-five of wheat, some horse-beans and a greater quantity of kidney-beans, and together with continuous help from the vegetable garden—in the consumption of which all share. There is reason for expecting a fair return from the maize sown, and it is well-grown and in good condition, and there will be obtained a goodly number of fish from the abundance of sardines which, for twenty consecutive days, have been spawning along the beach near this mission, and a reasonable harvest from the spiritual advancement we are experiencing each day—thanks be to God! At all the missions they are making preparation for more extensive sowings in the coming year, and I trust God that a happy outcome may attend the work.

Concerning the diary that I remitted to Your Excellency, I said that no copy remained here for transmission to our college at a suitable time, and to that effect I wrote to the Reverend Father Guardian of said college, because, when I had finished and signed the letter, I came to the conclusion that time to copy it was wanting; but, as it fell out, there was time, and it was copied in great haste. Now that I doubt not those of the navigating officers will be sent to Your Excellency, I remit it to the Reverend Father Guardian; that of the other religious will go later. I have already told the Reverend Father Guardian that, despite the other diaries, if Your Excellency desires he will place them in your hands; supposing that this will be done, I am not now sending it directly to you.

For the rest I refer to my said letters, which I trust in God, will not fail to reach your hands somewhat later. Since dispatching them nothing noteworthy has happened, other than that the volunteers who remained here at the time Don Pedro Fages left have taken passage in the ship, excepting the six whose permits I asked for, and of whom three have married here while the other three are about to marry—although one of them, I hear, is going away too. With this letter there goes, also, to Your Excellency one of Father Palou, who sends again his affectionate regards to Your Excellency and the assurance of his prayers for you. And I continue praying that God our Lord guard the health, life and prosperity of Your Excellency for many years in His holy grace. From this mission favored by Your Excellency of San Carlos de Monterey, Sept. 9,1774.

Most Excellent Sir:—Your most affectionate and humble servant and chaplain, who venerates and loves you, kisses the hands of Your Excellency.

Fray Junipero Serra

SOURCE: Tibesar, Antonine, ed. Writings of Junipero Serra. Vol. 1. Washington, D. C.: Academy of American Franciscan History, 1955.

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