A new exhibit on the life of Junípero Serra made its New York debut in January. It tells the story of the missionary from Mallorca in his own words.
Imagine we could travel back in time 200 years and speak to Junípero Serra. What would he say to us? How would he want us to think of him? I was proud to be part of a new exhibit that attempts to answer this question.
The title of the exhibit is ¡Siempre Adelante! (“Ever Onward”), after the phrase most associated with Serra’s adventurous spirit. It debuted in New York over the Martin Luther King Day weekend as part of the 2016 New York Encounter. The New York Encounter is a three day cultural expo organized by the Catholic movement Communion and Liberation that takes place at the Metropolitan Pavilion in Manhattan each year.
Throughout the weekend, hundreds of people came to view the twenty panels that drew on the latest research into Serra’s life, from the first decades in Mallorca to his final years in California. Since we were on the East Coast, it was logical to expect that most visitors knew little about Junipero Serra. Some had visited the California missions in the past or had heard something on the news about Serra, but few had much knowledge of his life. But most came away intrigued and wishing to visit the California missions with a fresh understanding of the man who started it all.
The exhibit was the labor of love and the brainchild of several friends who came together to raise awareness about the real Junípero Serra. Although we came from diverse walks of life — from education to technology — we all wanted to present the friar from Mallorca in an honest way that avoided stereotypes and generalizations.
Our first step was decide where to access the best information. The obvious answer was the recent biography, Junípero Serra: California, Indians, and the Transformation of a Missionary, by Rose Marie Beebe and Robert M. Senkewicz. The book is the most up-to-date and thoroughly researched biography of Serra in recent years. It is a must-read for anyone serious about getting to know Junipero Serra, both in his historical and personal aspects. Not only is it richly illustrated, but it is based on Serra’s own letters, written in his own words.
I reached out to Professors Senkewicz and Beebe to ask for their advice and support on the exhibit. I had met them on a number of occasions, but I did not know them well. To my great surprise, they allowed us to use quotes and images from their book with the approval of the publisher, University of Oklahoma Press. Not only that, but they agreed to come to New York and personally present the exhibit. Their lively presentation on Serra’s life and labors proved thoughtful, humorous and moving.
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As if the aid of Professors Beebe and Senkewicz weren’t enough, eminent archaeologist and Serra scholar Dr. Rubén Mendoza provided his own stunning photographs for the panels. These helped viewers visualize the places that marked the new saint’s life and deeds. Jewel Gentry, manager of the Carmel Mission Museum, offered logistical support on behalf of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Monterey, home to Serra’s remains.
Our goal was to show the flesh and blood Junípero Serra, not a symbol of California statehood or European civilization. We relied on quotations from letters to his friends, religious superiors or the civil authorities to tell Serra’s story. What emerged is a man whose struggles and failures, joys and triumphs are on full display. His letter to his parents at his departure from Cádiz in 1749 is a great example of the combination of sadness and joy that marked his life.
This is a letter of farewell, since we are about to leave this city of Cádiz and sail to Mexico. I do not know the exact day but the trunks with our belongings are locked…My beloved friend, I am at a loss for words, yet overwhelmed by emotion as I depart. I beg you once again to comfort my parents. I know they will be greatly affected by my leaving.”
Serra’s words reveal a man of warmth and humility. He is wounded by the incomprehension of others, including his own fellow missionaries, but driven by a passion to share his faith with the “gentiles,” those who had never heard of Christianity. His love for California’s indigenous people, his admiration for the beauty of their cultures and his efforts to protect them from exploitation became central parts of the display.
Dr. Rubén Mendoza of CSUMB shares photos from his collection for the Junípero Serra exhibit ¡Siempre Adelante! pic.twitter.com/NtVPfHBv1B
— CaliforniaFrontier (@califrontier) January 28, 2016
Serra’s enthusiasm at the founding of mission San Buenaventura in the lands of the Chumash people offers an example of his respect of native communities. He is proud of the fact that the local indigenous people had consented to the project.
Indians from La Asumpta, the ranchería nearby, were there with great pleasure. With all due formality, by means of interpreters, we asked them for their approval for our new establishment.”
For Serra, the Indians were to be partners in the creation of the mission. Whether they accepted Christianity or not, their good will was an essential factor to its success. Missions were on Indian land, and could also be vulnerable to destruction.
Serra understood this vulnerability well. In 1785 native warriors destroyed Mission San Diego and Serra lost one of his dear brother friars as a result. His response was advocate against a military retaliation, and instead to ask for pardon.
Let the murderer live so he can be saved, which is the purpose of our coming here and the reason for forgiving him.”
These are the words of a man doesn’t put his hope in power, but in mercy and the capacity of human beings to grow and change. He is a man unafraid of failure, because his goal is to know he had given everything.
If one dies well, it is of little importance if all else is lost. And if one does not attain this, all the rest is of no use.”
Despite his enthusiasm for evangelization, Serra’s ultimate goal was not the conversion of California indians to Christianity, but his own maturity as a human being. In a word, sanctity. Our hope was to create an exhibit that highlighted how he pursued that goal and why his journey speaks to us today.
So what might Junípero Serra want us to think of him if he could dialogue with us today? I am convinced he would say the same thing he said to his parents as he left for the Americas:
I wish I could instill in them the great joy that I am experiencing because I believe they would urge me to go forth and never turn back…”
All of the above quotes are taken from Junípero Serra: California, Indians, and the Transformation of a Missionary. If you want to get to know Junipero Serra, his life and his encounters with indigenous peoples, I highly recommend you check it out. If you would like to know more about the exhibit “¡Siempre Adelante!” and where you can see it, feel free to contact me.