In 1769, one Pope resided in Avignon, and another one in Rome. The United States of America were not yet constituted, not even imagined.
The West coast of what is now the USA, was not inhabited by Europeans, and hence, was politically unclaimed, according to the Euro-centric way of thinking in those times.
The Pope, or the Church, got wind that explorations or a conquest by the Russians were imminent on the American North West coast. Time and speed were crucial.
The Catholic Church, politically very powerful at the time, asked the Spanish clergy for help. Spain, of course, was more adept in seafaring matters, and more at home in the Americas than Italy. France annexed Avignon only in 1791, when the Pope moved back to Rome.
The Mallorcan monk, Junípero Serra decided in 1749 to become a missionary. He left Spain from Cadiz, arriving in Vera Cruz, Mexico, in the same year. Mexico then was a Spanish domain under the auspices of the Catholic Church.
From Vera Cruz, Junípero Serra walked 442 km to Mexico City. That sounds a lot to you and me, but if you have done the Camino de Santiago a few months ago, with a total of 850 km on foot, like I happen to have done, it puts distances into a perspective. Mind you, times were different in the 18th century. There were probably less albergues around in Mexico, then. Anyway, six months after having arrived in Mexico, Serra was appointed a missionary pastor in Jalpan (Mexico). By 1768 he had helped found five missions in Mexico.
In 1768, Junípero Serra joined an expedition heading for Baja California, also Mexican, where a further two missions were founded.
In 1769, he was asked to join an expedition to Alta California, which today we know as California, USA. There he founded the first nine of a total of 21 Californian missions: San Diego de Alcalá, San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo, San Antonio de Padua, San Gabriel Arcángel, San Luis Obispo de Toloso, San Francisco Solano, San Juan Capistrano, Santa Clara de Asis and San Buena Ventura (in now Los Angeles).
Here is a map of the 21 Californian mission stations:
Junípero Serra died in 1784 at the mission of San Carlos Borromeo. He was beatified by the then Pope, in 1988.
The Russians never made it. But without Junípero Serra, the USA would not be the States as we know them, and certainly California might have taken a completely different course.
This importance is recognized in the USA today, where Junípero Serra has a large following and the reputation of being considered the Founding Father of California. A statue in his honour is located at the Capitol building in Sacramento. The main Junípero Serra Association is located in Santa Barbara.
The Museum Junípero Serra in Petra, Mallorca, makes for a very interesting visit indeed, for people intrigued by a rather eminent Mallorcan. A few yards further up, on the same Petra village street, one can find Serra’s birth place where I took this photo (above), earlier this year.
Ten years ago, in July 1997, William Jefferson Clinton, then President of the US of A, was on a visit to Spain. He also came to visit Mallorca, to meet the Spanish King, who was holidaying in Mallorca. Clinton had made a promise to the Mallorcan folks on a previous visit, that this time, he would pay a visit to Petra and to the house where Junípero Serra was supposedly born.
Well, the people of Petra are still waiting.