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Visual Arts

(Ayuntamiento de Palma, Mallorca)

Fra Francesc Caimari Rotge, “Portrait of Serra; Retrat de fra Juníper Serra,” 1790. The spiritually driven Father Serra left his high-status position as a professor in his native Mallorca, Spain, at 55 to pursue a life as a Francisca

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Serra exhibition evokes era when missionaries were ‘superheroes’
April 24th, 2013
By Rick DelVecchio

A new exhibition on Father Junipero Serra takes a comprehensive look at the founder of the California missions and the experiences of the more than 60,000 Indians who were baptized and ultimately buried at colonial Spain’s 21 Pacific Coast evangelizing settlements.

Marking the 300th anniversary of the friar’s birth on Nov. 24, 1713, the exhibition, “Junipero Serra and the Legacies of the California Missions,” runs from Aug. 1 to Jan. 6, 2014, at The Huntington Library in San Marino, near Los Angeles. The friar’s baptismal record, Bible and lecture notes from his career as a student and a professor of philosophy and theology at the Franciscan university in his native Mallorca, Spain, are among the 250 rare objects assembled from international collections to cover Father Serra’s early life and career in Mallorca and his mission work in Mexico and California.

The curator, Serra biographer and University of California at Riverside history professor Steven Hackel, wants to show that Father Serra had a long and successful career in Spain before he embarked for Mexico, a spiritually driven priest impelled by the excitement and glory of mission work.

“He left a very comfortable and highly sought-after position to pursue his dream,” said Hackel, author of the forthcoming biography “Junípero Serra: California’s Founding Father” (Hill and Wang). “Franciscan missionaries of the 18th century were evangelical. The Catholic Church was evangelical after centuries of conflict with Islam and then in high gear after centuries of mission work in central Mexico.”

Father Serra served for eight years in the Sierra Gorda region of Mexico, where he oversaw five missions and helped build new ones.

“He was taken with some missionaries who had left (Mallorca) to work in Mexico,” Hackel said. “These men were the superheroes of their day. They worked miracles, they saved souls, they were superhuman people. It’s hard for us to imagine the excitement and the potential glory associated with that kind of life. Serra, of course, wanted to go to heaven himself and his calling was among the most exalted in his Catholic culture.”

The Franciscan combined a powerful spiritual drive with a logical and persuasive mind that could sway a viceroy with a letter or memo. From Mexico, Father Serra moved north with Spain’s quest to acquire the coastal territory that would become Alta California before other European powers could get their hands on it. The crown called on him to establish and run missions in San Diego and Monterey and points in between.

He died at Mission San Carlos in 1784 after having established the first nine of the 21 missions that would ultimately be built. Just a year earlier he had written glowingly about Mission San Carlos having had its best year, but the missionary’s era was coming to an end.

“His faith in God never wavered, but he does become cynical and rather exhausted with constant struggles to convince military officials to support the missions the way he wants them built,” Hackel said. “He’s building missions in California when missions in central Mexico are being secularized. He’s out of step. By the time he dies, he’s an anachronism.”

The exhibition’s second major goal is to offer a nuanced view of the Indian experience. The Indians adapted to the system and maintained much of their culture, language and food ways in the first decades, but eventually the small size of the settlements and the crowding out of native food sources by European plants and animals took their toll in disease and fertility and population decline.

“Indians weren’t frozen in the past with an inflexible culture, but the kind of changes they were required to make would have put any culture under stress,” Hackel said. The missionaries and Spanish colonization in general did in fact, he said, precipitate a disaster for the Indians.




Editor’s note: This is the first in an occasional series on Father Serra’s 300th anniversary. Look to the May 10 issue for a special report on the mission founder’s legacy in the view of current scholarship. If your school or organization plans any activities surrounding the anniversary, we would be glad to note them in the paper. Please contact Tom Burke at


WHAT: “Junipero Serra and the Legacies of the California Missions”

WHERE: The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens, 1151 Oxford Road, San Marino, near Los Angeles

WHEN: Aug. 1 to Jan. 6, 2014

INFORMATION: (626) 405-2100 or


From April 26, 2013 issue of Catholic San Francisco.



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