Pope Francis announced today that he will canonize Bl. Junipero Serra (1713-1784), the Franciscan priest who carried on extensive missionary work in California in the eighteenth century. “In September, God willing, I will canonize Junipero Serra in the United States, who was the evangelizer of the west of the United States,” he told reporters aboard the plane taking him from Sri Lanka to Manila on the second leg of his Asian tour.
Bl. Junipero Serra helped to found nine missions in California beginning with the San Diego mission in 1769. He died in 1784 near the mission in Carmel. In time, Spanish missionaries built twenty-one missions in California.
The basic idea behind the missions was to keep the nomadic Native Americans from wandering, settle them by teaching them farming techniques, and then trying to convert them to the faith. Thus, missionaries set up schools, churches, and marketplaces. They taught women domestic arts like sewing, weaving, and cooking. They trained men to be farmers, carpenters, ranches, and tanners. Missions were spaced out a day's walk from one another. A criticism of the mission system was that in most cases once the Native Americans had converted to Christianity they were not free to leave the missions.
When Spain lost control of Mexico in 1828, the missions declined. Some friars left for Spain. A secular government took over Mexico. Greedy politicians looted and ruined missions, exploiting and killing Native Americans. Religious practice declined. By the time the United States took California from Mexico in 1847, there were only thirteen priests left in the vast territory.