California’s Immaculate Conception

By Josh StephensAugust 15, 2014

California’s Immaculate Conception

Junípero Serra: California’s Founding Father by Steven W. Hackel

CALIFORNIA has been known as the end of America, where Manifest Density doubled back on itself. But long before Joan Didion declared it the place where we run out of continent, California had a history all its own. The territory’s original settlers were Spanish; they came from the South and uneasily intruded on native lands. The land that would become America’s Eden — Baywatch and all — was first settled by their piety.

A Franciscan monk who balanced zealous ambition with personal modesty, Junípero Serra was an unlikely leader. He did not invade a strange territory with armies and smallpox. He did not fight for its independence, set up its government, or imbue it with its individualistic culture. He did not lead a wave of colonists, nor did he seek adventure, fortune, or personal glory. He instead founded a chain of 21 Catholic missions — most of them small, some of them near-failures — that are considered the first permanent European settlements in California.

At roughly the same time that the Founding Fathers were ringing the bells of revolution on the East Coast, California was nearly empty. It had no cities and only a modest fur-trading economy. It was a land crying out for a story — an empty soundstage, if you will. The role into which Serra grew, according to Steven W. Hackel in Junípero Serra: California’s Founding Father, was that of “a pioneer, a religious icon, and as a colonial imperialist.”

A professor of history at the University of California at Riverside, Hackel clearly intends for his to be the authoritative biography of Serra. On that count, he succeeds. Junípero Serra is a thorough, rigorously researched historical document. But it is also a myopic one, confined to the chronology of Serra’s life and more concerned with sacrament than with statecraft. He addresses Serra’s story step by painstaking step. Often, this narrative is literal: Serra typically traveled by foot, and Hackel seemingly accounts for every inch of his journeys, from the Mediterranean to Mexico to the shores of the Pacific.


Born in 1713, Miguel Joseph Serra grew up and entered the Franciscan priesthood without ever having left the island of Mallorca. The Catalan-speaking population there had, over the course of several centuries, grown increasingly frustrated under Spanish rule. The young Serra excelled at liturgical scholarship and oratory, making him a natural student and, later, professor.

The name that Serra took upon entering the priesthood honors Saint Juniper, an intimate of Saint Francis described by Hackel as a charity-minded kleptomaniac and known as the “jester of the Lord.” Serra, though, was not always so jovial. Believing that suffering conferred closeness with God, Serra habitually lashed himself and wore hair shirts. He even enjoyed his torment in public, once beating himself with a chain onstage in Mexico City. The flagellation was so inspiring that an audience member joined him and subsequently died of his self-inflicted wounds. In Veracruz, Serra refused to shoo away tropical insects. He succumbed to bites so intense that he never again walked without pain.

Serra was a zealot. He loved his god and his church and wanted the rest of the world to love them too. He also wanted to get out of Mallorca. This combination of ambition, intelligence, and insanity that enabled him to develop such an intimate relationship with his creator also enabled him to take on a project “nearly hemispheric in scope.” Setting the tone for future generations of Californian migrants, Serra sought a place where he could pursue outlandish dreams.

For all of Serra’s ambitions, Hackel recounts Serra’s acts and beliefs with scholarly detachment. Descriptions of the Mallorcan famine that partially inspired Serra to alight for the New World are rendered with no more or less passion than his account of Serra’s founding of the first mission at San Diego. Only once does Hackel’s prose achieve anything like dramatic tension. En route to the New World, Serra took up debate with his ship’s Protestant British captain. His devotion to Catholic theology overwhelmed his respect for maritime etiquette. “[T]he captain became so angry that he threatened to throw Serra and Palou [Serra’s lifelong deputy] overboard.” Yet California’s founding father was so irrepressible, even in his youth, that “Finally, in a fit of uncontained rage ‘the captain threw himself upon his bed.’”

Upon reaching the New World, Serra busied himself with a series of missionary posts in central Mexico and instruction at the Franciscan university in Mexico City. Hackel’s section on this mid-career service, where Serra proved himself an effective proselytizer and organizer, is a long, mostly dull prelude to his account of the work that made Serra famous. Hackel painstakingly describes Serra’s ascent up the Franciscan hierarchy, his frequently successful attempts to convert the Mexican natives, and his interpretation of liturgy.

Like his subject, Hackel focuses on ecclesiastical politics and the administrative minutiae of frontier governance. Hackel baptizes himself in sources including Serra’s journals, the writings of his colleagues, official memoranda, and letters sent back and forth between Serra and his superiors in Mexico City, often requests for funds, supplies, and clergymen.

Serra was largely a success in Mexico, but with Russian fur trappers making their way down the Pacific Coast in the 1760s, the Spanish decided that something had to be done about Alta California. José de Gálvez, the administrator of New Spain, picked Serra to lead the mission. Serra was first sent to established missions in Baja California and then instructed to move northward. In Alta California, he found a land that had been largely unscathed by the European adventure in the New World. It had no great civilization to ravage and no known natural resources to plunder, but plenty of wayward souls.

The grade school story of the California missions has them deposited one by one, at 50-mile intervals, as if sliding off a divine conveyor belt. In that narrative, Serra strides boldly northward, on the eastern side of the state’s coastal mountain ranges, planting his shepherd’s crook with every step. (Hackel fails to mention that this crook inspired the design of the road signs that line portions of California’s Highway 101, identified as “El Camino Real.”) Yet Serra initially planned only three missions, spaced widely apart, at San Diego, San Carlos, and San Buenaventura, plus a presidio at Monterrey. He later added San Antonio and San Gabriel. Despite torment in his legs, Serra frequently traveled among them, doing all he could to shore them up administratively and theologically.

He had an uneasy relationship with the soldiers assigned by the colonial government to guard the missions. Serra accused them of terrorizing the natives and refusing to cooperate with clergy. This rift almost sank the entire project, until Serra proposed a restructuring plan in a letter to his superiors that was as detailed and politically astute as it was impassioned. Serra demanded cooperation, and the good work continued.

As much as he seemed to enjoy bureaucratic sparring, Serra was most inspired by the challenge of bringing Christianity to peoples who had never before heard a word of the Gospel. Between 80 and 100 indigenous languages were spoken in pre-mission California among peoples like the Chumash and Rumsen. There were few settlements of more than 250 members, and the state’s total indigenous population (which is to say, its total population) numbered no more than 320,000. In many ways, early California was the opposite of early Mexico, which was dominated by the great Aztec empire. These early Californians were largely uninterested in Christian theology and knew no hierarchy like the Catholic Church.

Serra and his fellow missionaries encouraged natives not only to accept Christ but also to abandon their villages, give up their agricultural practices, and live in mission compounds. These changes did not come easy. Hackel recounts that on the verge of a baptism, a father yanked his child from Serra’s hands, bringing the missionary to tears. Serra nonetheless remained determined to bring California’s native population “under the bell.” It’s a poetic phrase invoking architecture, supplication, and civilization. From what heights those bells rang, Hackell does not say.


Nine missions were ultimately founded in Serra’s lifetime, yet Hackel does not describe a single building and pays little attention to geography. He ignores the reasons why Serra and his colleagues chose particular sites, except to mention that Santa Barbara’s site “was poorly chosen.” (Which site was that? The one overlooking the city, where the spectacular “Queen of the Missions” now stands? Or another, less regal location?) It’s an odd comment, since Hackel never mentions whether Serra had any criteria for a mission’s site in the first place. It’s also a lost opportunity to form a connection between present and past.

Hackel titles his penultimate chapter “Building a ‘Ladder’ of Missions.” The title portends discussion of a comprehensive strategy behind the locations of and relationships between the missions. It also invokes the common conception that the missions were founded in chronological order, one after the other, from south to north. In the text, Hackel invokes the ladder metaphor only once. On the abandonment of San Juan Capistrano mission and destruction of the San Diego mission, Hackel writes, “Serra had lost in a single blow two steps in the ladder (escala) that he hoped to construct on the road between Baja California and Monterey.” But he says little else about the sites or relative locations that Serra chose. San Diego, San Francisco, Ventura, Santa Barbara — and a dozen other present-day settlements great and small — are mentioned only by implication.

While present-day Californians can easily imagine the major cities that grew up around Serra’s missions, he also visited and received provisions from less noteworthy places, like San Blas. And he apparently founded missions in San Carlos and San Antonio. Where are these places? How do they correspond to points on the modern map? Hackel never answers these questions. Anyone seeking a glimmer of modern California in the landscape — the one thing that binds Serra to all present Californians — will be disappointed.

Never in full health, Serra passed away at age 71 in 1784. There Hackel’s story ends. He does not explain how Serra’s legacy was carried on, or by whom. Serra’s successors continued to establish missions until they reached a total of 21. The last was founded in 1823. Tens of thousands of natives died in the process, their culture and settlements overrun by white pioneers. Some missions grew into cities, eventually attracting millions of settlers, many from places much farther away than Mallorca.


Anyone who reads Hackel’s account will come to his or her own sobering conclusions about Serra’s righteousness, heroism, and devotion to his cause. In that sense, Junipero Serra represents a chance for Californians to develop a deeper relationship with history—and to decide how good a “father” Serra was to the 38 million of us who populate the state today. If only Hackel had made his account more accessible, as are so many great historical biographies, so that more Californians might be tempted to read it. There’s no shortage of drama and personality that Hackel could have highlighted; instead, his approach is scholarly and objective nearly to the point of parody. One thing is for certain: Serra, even in the driest descriptions, is a personality as complex, inspiring, and morally ambiguous as a state could ever want – this in a state derided for having “no history.”

Though Hackel limits his discussion to the colonial era, his book implicitly celebrates today’s California simply by existing. Nobody would have bothered with Serra had he been associated with a lesser place. But, like the promise of salvation itself, California circles far above Hackel’s narrative without ever fully touching down. Only in his epilogue does Hackel introduce a contemporary perspective, contextualizing Serra in modern California:

Serra lived life in opposition to what California would become: a dynamic region defined by its diversity and integration into a global economy that transcends national boundaries. . . . There is thus a growing incongruity between the historical Serra . . . and the modern place to which his legacy is now bound: a state that in the American popular imagination has come to represent idiosyncratic individualism and the glorification of physical beauty; conspicuous consumption, racial, ethnic, and regional diversity; and technological progress.

This burst of insight is both gratifying and frustrating. Hackel explains exactly why Serra is relevant today, if only as a wildly idiosyncratic foil. Serra would surely be horrified. It’s just a shame that Hackel holds back for so many pages.

In 1988 Pope John Paul II beatified Serra in the first of four steps towards sainthood. A more hyperbolic account could argue that founding California—a place known in equal measure as both a heaven and a hell—qualifies as one of the two miracles that Serra needs for canonization. Hackel’s dispassion does Serra a roundabout favor: rendering his life’s accomplishments impressive but far from magical. Serra would probably want it that way: the triumph of California, he would say, was just the will of God.


Josh Stephens is the former contributing editor of the California Planning & Development Report. 

LARB Contributor

Based in Los Angeles, Josh Stephens writes about urban planning and related topics. He is contributing editor to the California Planning & Development Report. His website is


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