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Imperial Priest: California’s Father Junípero Serra

Father Serra and the tough history of the priest and colonialist who brought the Spanish Empire and the church to California, three centuries ago.

Father Junipero Serra is widely considered to be the founder of modern California. His legacy is a complicated one. (Hill & Wang)

Father Junipero Serra is widely considered to be the founder of modern California. His legacy is a complicated one. (Hill & Wang)

Every California school child knows the story of Father Junípero Serra, the Franciscan priest who brought the mission system, New Spain and the Church north from Mexico and up the western shore of the New World.  If you know San Diego, Santa Barbara and Santa Clara, San Francisco, you know his design.  Build the missions, gather the natives, teach the Gospel, change the world.  He is venerated for what he built, and – like Christopher Columbus these days – criticized for what he crushed.  Up next On Point:  a new history of California’s founding father and imperialist priest, Junípero Serra.

– Tom Ashbrook


Steven Hackel, professor of history at the University of California, Riverside. Author of “Junípero Serra: California’s Founding Father” and “Children of Coyote, Missionaries of Saint Francis: Indian Spanish Relations in Colonial California.”

Andy Galvan, curator of Mission Dolores San Francisco.

Rubén Martinez, journalist, performer and teacher, professor of literature and writing at Loyola Marymount University. Author of “Desert America: A Journey Through Our Most Divided Landscape,” “The New Americans,” “Crossing Over: A Mexican Family on the Migrant Trail” and “The Other Side: Fault Lines, Guerrilla Saints, and the True Heart of Rock ‘n’ Roll.” (@Ruben6211)

From Tom’s Reading List

Los Angeles Times: Immigrant-friendly laws show California’s political shift — “For much of its history, California was a Republican bastion, producing both electoral votes and national leaders such as Hiram Johnson and Earl Warren, who ensured, along with Presidents Nixon and Reagan, that the Grand Old Party was inextricably linked to the great Golden State. Over the last two decades, however, California has become something altogether different: a Democratic stronghold in presidential politics, a party fortress in Congress and the Legislature, and a dead zone for any Republican with statewide ambitions.”

Wall Street Journal: ‘The Gentle Padre’ – “As most any fourth-grader here can tell you, Junípero Serra (1713-1784) was California’s first Franciscan missionary. But Steven Hackel, author of ‘Junípero Serra: California’s Founding Father,’ says few people really understand the ‘early apostle of the Golden State’ who abandoned his life as a priest and university professor in Mallorca, Spain, in 1749 to convert Indians to Catholicism in Mexico. (He didn’t come to California until 20 years later.)”

CityWatch: Why California Keeps Repeating Junipero Serra’s Mistakes — “As a manager and grandiose visionary (he wanted to build enough missions so that no Californian would be more than a three-day trip away from salvation), Serra faced a conundrum not so different from that confronting California’s political leaders today: How can we use our limited resources to construct and maintain statewide networks that connect sprawling communities that don’t much care about one another? ”

Read An Excerpt of “Junipero Serra: California’s Founding Father” by Steven Hackel

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  • Wm_James_from_Missouri

    Say what you will. These were men of great daring!

    Also, from Wiki”.


    “ California was the name given to a mythical island populated only by beautiful Amazon warriors using gold tools and weapons in the popular early 16th-century romance novel Las Sergas de Esplandián … The Island was ruled by Queen Calafia. When the Spanish started exploring the Pacific coast they applied this name on their maps to what is now called the Baja California Peninsula they originally thought was an island. Once the name was on the maps it stuck. ‘

    “ The Song of Roland, an 11th-century Old French epic poem, may have served as the inspiration for the name “California” The poem refers to the defeat suffered August 15, 778, in the retreat of Charlemagne’s army at the hands of the Muslim army in Battle of Roncevaux Pass in the Pyrenees. On line 2924 of the poem, which is in verse number CCIX (209), the word Califerne is one of the lands mentioned, with no indication of its geographic location. It is, however, named after a reference to Affrike, or Africa. …”

  • Ed75

    Fr. Junipero Serra was terrific – what wonderful missions all along California, a Franciscan. He collected money for the American Revolution and sent it to George Washington. Blessed Junipero was beatified by John Paul II, his feast day is July 1st. The missionaries also worked for humane treatment of the native people.

    • Duh

      He was a mass murdering, oppressive, conquistador, not a terrific man. His legacy was death, murder, slavery and a litany of abhorred things. The man is not to be honored any more than Mao or Hitler. History should put him in the same place as every other mass murderer except a special place should be reserved for men who did these horrors in the name of Christ. Nothing is worse than a pious man murdering in the name of Christ. A saint he is not.

      • Ed75

        EWTN is running a movie called ‘Serra’ on November 20th, we’ll see what it says. One response to critics of Blessed Junipero:
        Yes, there was opposition to the proposed beatification of Blessed Junípero Serra. The detractors of Bl. Junípero are essentially motivated against the long legacy of the Franciscans in California and elsewhere in the United States. Their views are similar to those expressed by certain groups against Bl. Pope Pius IX and the opponents of the cause for canonization of Pius XII in that they tend to focus on the supposed evils of the Church and her members. The best reply to the historical validity of the charges was provided by the very decision of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints when its long and extremely detailed investigation into the life, writings, labors, and heroic virtue concluded that there was nothing in the historical record that would prevent his beatification by Pope John Paul II in 1988. At that ceremony, the Holy Father said of Blessed Junípero that this Franciscan “sowed the seeds of Christian faith amid the mountainous changes wrought by the arrival of European settlers in the New World . . . In fulfilling this ministry, Father Serra showed himself to be a true son of St. Francis. Today his example inspires in a particular was the many Serra Clubs around the world, the members of which do so much praiseworthy work in fostering vocations.”

  • Duh

    Serra and the rest of the conquistadors are horrific, horrific men. They destroyed millions of years of culture and perpetrated genocide in the name of their “god”. These men should not be honored they should be reported as who they truly are; pius evil men. The missions should be razed not glorified. They are shrines to the dead whose bodies are entombed in their walls. The fact that these buildings have become tourist attraction and that children are still being taught lies about their presence and their origin, means we have a long way to go as a society. If it was up to me i’d raze them all and turn them into the memorial to the natives whose bodies and souls are forever buried in their walls. I find it insulting that the Catholic church still uses these buildings and that our State gives them special treatment.

  • daniel

    the Chumash in central California were here for 13 thousand years and were completely decimated in the span of 50 years only upon the arrival of and harsh cruel treatment of the Spanish. 50 years with the Spanish is arrival and treatment.

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