Flying to Mallorca
“Take your swim suit!” This what my Spanish friends told me when they heard I was going to spend a day in Mallorca, the largest of the Balearic Islands in the Mediterranean. I was in Spain for a conference, and I had to explain to them that my goal wasn’t exactly to hit the beaches.
Instead, I wanted to visit the home of Junípero Serra, the Franciscan missionary who founded the Spanish mission chain in California. Recently declared a saint by the Catholic Church, his impact on the history of the state was enormous. He has been a revered figure in California for many decades, though recent debates over colonialism have created controversy — at times violent — around his legacy.
Though Serra is buried at Mission San Carlos Borromeo in Carmel, California, he was born and grew up on the island of Mallorca. I wanted to know firsthand that places that formed his personality, his spirituality, and his character.
Flying to Palma, the capital of Mallorca, is easy. There are a number of low-cost European airlines making 45-minute hops from Barcelona to the island each day. So I booked a morning flight and got myself to the airport.
Thanks to my Spanish friends, I already knew that Mallorca is one of Europe’s major beach and party destinations. What I didn’t know is that at 8:00 am I was going to share the plane with a couple hundred tourists ready to party. Thank God for noise-cancelling headphones.
The Fundación Casa Serra
I only had one day to spend, so my plans were focused: I wanted to visit the town where Junípero Serra spent his boyhood years, and the places in Palma where he studied and preached. So I had reached out to Emilio Martínez-Almoyna Rullán, of the Fundación Casa Serra, the organization that cares for the Serra family house.
Emilio is a warm and witty oral surgeon who volunteers as treasurer of the Rotary Club of Mallorca. The Rotary supports the Fundación, and Emilio has dedicated many years of his life to promoting the knowledge of Serra’s birthplace. On my arrival, Emilio met me at the airport and gifted me with a hat and a pin with the Fundación’s logo as memento of my visit.
I had already been in contact with Emilio, since some of the students from our M.A. in Spanish program had won scholarships from the Fundación. These scholarships, offered annually to eight young people from California and Mexico, allows them to spend two weeks on the island discovering the legacy of St. Junípero and the culture of Mallorca. Like the students, I planned to spend some of my time in Petra, where Serra grew up.
An ancient city that dates back to pre-Roman times, Petra derives its name from the Latin word for “rock.” Lying about 30 miles from Palma, Petra is located in the midst of Mallorca’s great agricultural zone, surrounded by fields and farms.
As we left the bustle of the city and drove toward Petra, I could already begin to feel what life must have been like for the young Miguel Serra. Much of Mallorca remains rural and agricultural, with acres of fields under cultivation, surrounded by rocky mountain peaks. Both the climate and landscape were somewhat reminiscent of coastal California, so I can imagine that the middle-aged Serra may have found himself at home in his new land.
After about a half hour, we arrived in Petra. Petra is a charming town that attracts its fair share of tourism thanks, to its location on one of the popular bicycle routes on the island. Local eateries are often populated with Englishmen and Germans in bike shorts resting before returning to their rides.
The Serra Family Home
On one of these streets lies the family home, which Junípero’s father acquired when the future friar was six years old. The boy would live there until age 15 with his parents and sister Juana.
The house, known as the casa solariega (a house of historical importance), has an interesting history. In 1930, after historians had confirmed that it indeed was Junípero Serra’s childhood home, the Rotary Club of Mallorca decided to purchase and refurbish it.
The following year, the club deeded the house to the City of San Francisco, California, as a gesture of friendship between the two countries. The City of San Francisco then entrusted it to the Society of California Pioneers. This situation lasted until a new California State law forbade municipalities from owning property abroad. Since 1981, the house has been back under the care of the Rotary Club, through the Fundación Amigos de Fray Junípero Serra.
The humble dwelling has two levels, with two small bedrooms, a cobblestone walkway for animals to pass through, and an area in the back of the house dedicated to cooking and winemaking. The furniture and other implements, although not original to the house, all date to the 18th century, and it is an excellent example of a family residence from that time period.
Visiting the little house, I couldn’t help but think of Serra’s family, who continued to live in the home for years after their son had left. I recalled the letter Junípero penned to his friend Fr. Francesch Serra on the eve of his departure for the New World:
My beloved friend…I beg you once again to comfort my parents. I know they will be greatly affected by my leaving. 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” (Junípero Serra: California, Indians, and the Transformation of a Missionary, p. 63).
The Junípero Serra Museum
After visiting the casa solariega, Emilio accompanied me to the museum dedicated to St. Junípero on the same street.
Inaugurated in 1959, the museum houses a number of objects related to the life of Junípero Serra, from Mallorca, to Mexico and the Californias, as well as artifacts related to the missions he founded.
The museum exudes calm and peace, and the broad porch at the entrance beckons the visitor in. The porch is full of plaques dedicated to the missionary saint and to the numerous dignitaries who have visited the museum. There, I met Isabel, who oversaw for the museum for over thirty years, and whose aunt had managed it for 50 years before that. The museum is now under the management of the City of Petra, but Isabel’s pride at having cared for the museum for those many decades was evident.
The upper floor of the museum also houses a conference room, lined with paintings of the some of the most important figures of the evangelization and settling of Alta California, from King Carlos III of Spain to a number of Franciscans from Mallorca who were contemporaries of Junípero Serra.
The Convento of San Bernardino de Sena
After my visit to Serra’s childhood home, my next stop was the convento of San Bernardino de Sena, named for a 15th century Italian friar (St. Bernardine of Siena) famous for preaching and reviving religious practice in Italy.
Here, the young Miguel’s parents, who were illiterate, sent him to school to receive the best education possible, paving the way for his future career as an academic at the university in Mallorca.
The main feature of the convento is a 17th century baroque church. Around the sides of nave is a series of side chapels dedicated to saints dear to the Franciscan order. Brother Ramón Cobo, a friar who oversees the convent and its treasures, was kind enough to offer me a detailed tour of the church and explain the significance of each chapel. Many of them are dedicated to saints who are now patrons of the missions of Alta California.
In addition to the church, I was also able to peruse the library of the convento, which contains an impressive number of scholarly works in both Spanish and English about Serra. As a researcher, I could have spent days there, but time was short, so I couldn’t linger.
The Friends of Fray Junípero Serra
After visiting San Bernardino, it was a short walk to Plaza Junípero Serra, in the hear of Petra. There I met Catalina Font, vice President of the Asociación Amigos de Fray Junípero Serra. Catalina, who is also secretary of the Fundación Casa Serra, and a woman full of faith and energy, has spent her life educating young people. She has been an elementary school teacher for many years, and is married to an award-winning director of Catholic schools in Mallorca. For the past several years she has devoted herself to preserving and promoting Serra’s Mallorcan legacy.
For Catalina, the fact that I had come 6,000 miles from California to visit Fray Junípero’s birthplace was nothing short of amazing.
“Providence brought us together,” she told me as I explained to her my desire to visit the birthplace of St. Junípero. She wanted to know all about my work with the California Missions Foundation and the celebrations that would be taking place in 2019 for the 250th anniversary of the founding of San Diego.
As we finished our lunch, Catalina put me on the phone with Bartolomé Bestard, president of the Amigos. Don Bartolomé was a career diplomat who spent many years in Washington D.C., and knew a number of U.S. presidents. He gave me a warm welcome to the island, and spoke to me fondly of his time in the U.S. He encouraged me to return, in hopes that he might be able to meet me personally.
The Hermitage of Bonany
As our lunch wound down, Catalina asked me if I wanted to see the hermitage of Bonany. Bonany is one of the places I deeply wanted to visit, but it lies outside of town, so I had no idea how I was going to get there. I selfishly said “yes.”
The hermitage of Bonany is a place dear to the people of Mallorca, as it is thanks to a miraculous statue of the Virgin Mary that the island was saved from a terrible drought in the year 1606.
The hermitage lies about a mile away from the town of Petra atop a steep hill. A winding road leads to the church, where visitors can look back down over the plain and see the Petra, the mountains to the east, and even the Mediterranean.
Bonany is said to be the last place that Junípero Serra visited prior to his departure from Mallorca in 1749. So important was this shrine for Serra, that during the drought year of 1782 in Alta California, he baptized a little girl and named her for the Virgin of Bonany:
On September 3, 1782, in the church of this mission, San Carlos de Monterey, I solemnly baptized a girl, about 13 years old, the daughter of gentile parents from Sargenta-Ruc… I gave her the name María de Buen-año (in honor of Most Holy Mary of my beloved homeland)” (Junípero Serra: California, Indians, and the Transformation of a Missionary p. 40).
Inside hermitage, the small Baroque church beckons pilgrims to climb a short staircase behind the altar, leading directly to the statue. There you can get a close up view of the image of Mary and the child Jesus, which, according to legend, dates back prior to the Moorish invasion of the Iberian Peninsula. As a Californian, I couldn’t help but say a prayer for our state and its frequent droughts.
Back to Palma
After our visit to Bonany, it was time to make the drive through the countryside back to Palma, with its Mediterranean views and cosmopolitan feel. There, I spent the rest of the afternoon in the place where Serra lived as an adult.
The old quarter of the city is dominated by the imposing edifice of the Palma Cathedral, dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Built in the grand gothic style of the Middle Ages, it rises like a fortress over the coastline. Beneath it, tourists stroll along the beachfront, taking in the marvelous sea horizon.
The Convento and Church of San Francisco
While Serra preached at least three times in the cathedral, he spent most of his life in Palma at the convento of San Francisco. There, for 18 years, he lived the life of the Franciscan community while also preparing his lessons as a university professor at the nearby Llullian University.
Visiting San Francisco’s great cloister and its long arcaded walkways, you can imagine the young friar as he walked around, preparing sermons or university lectures, or on his way to the sacristy to vest for Mass.
The church itself, named after St. Francis of Assisi, is a mixture of medieval Gothic architecture (it was originally built in the 13th century) and Baroque decorations. It was here that his character as a Franciscan was molded, a character that would live a lasting mark on the places that he later spent the rest of his life. In was also in the church of San Francisco that Serra preached his last sermon before departing to the Americas in 1749.
The Tomb of Ramón Llull
At the heart of the church is the tomb of the the philosopher and mystic, Ramon Llull (1232-1315). Llull was a Franciscan tertiary, or layman who adopted the Franciscan rule of life (other famous tertiaries include Dante Alighieri and Miguel de Cervantes).
At a time when Spain was a land of multiple creeds, Llull learned Hebrew and Arabic. He also developed a philosophical system aimed at harmonizing the three Abrahamic faiths. Llull’s hope was to bring Jews and Muslims to Christianity by showing them how it responded to their innate religious thirst.
Llull’s ideas had a profound influence on Serra and other Franciscans who went to evangelize the New World. Serra would likely have passed Llull’s tomb daily, perhaps stopping to say a prayer as he dreamt of traveling abroad.
As I absorbed the quiet of the church, I thought about how these two men, centuries distant, came to have an impact on California, the place that seems to have no past, but only future.
And although that impact is present through buildings and monuments, it is through the people who honor his memory that it is most alive.
As I flew back to Barcelona that evening, I was convinced I came to know the personality and spirit of Junípero Serra better through the people I met in Mallorca. And if Serra was anything like those people, then he was a generous and straightforward person, eager to help others and to sacrifice for what he believed was right.
If you wish to know more about Junípero Serra’s early years, I suggest you get a copy of Junípero Serra: California, Indians, and the Transformation of a Missionary, by Rose Marie Beebe and Robert Senkewicz, which I consider to be the best biography of Serra in print.
To see some truly remarkable photos of the places that marked Junípero Serra’s life, I recommend Craig Huber’s The Spirit Within St. Junípero.
Young people might also enjoy Who Was Saint Junipero Serra? by high school teacher Christian Clifford, as well as Serra: American Founding Father, by Roy Gasnick, OFM.