Missions: Impossible!

Inspiration comes from the most unexpected places, and my newest book, Communion of Sinners, is a perfect example. When I first visited Carmel Mission thirteen years ago , I was moved by the beauty of this historic 1793 structure with its domed bell tower and striking star window. The courtyard reminded me of a movie set with its lush palms, Spanish-style tiered fountain and walls splashed with dazzling bougainvillea.

Mission Carmel

Carmel is my personal favorite of the 21 California missions.

My fascination continued when I saw the elaborate bronze and marble tomb of Father Junipero Serra, the Spanish Franciscan friar who founded the missions and whose good deeds are taught to all California fourth-graders. I was repeatedly told how the padres converted the Indians to Christianity, invited them to live in the missions and gave them food and work. In the bookstore, I saw handsome photography books,  Serra biographies, cookbooks, Mission cut-outs and pop-up books for kids. It all seemed so ideal. That abruptly changed when I spotted a young woman in the courtyard reading Life in a California Mission and regretted aloud that she must’ve bought the last copy.

She laughed and peered at me over the rims of her glasses.  “There’s no way you’ll ever find this book in that store.”

“Why not?”

“Because it’s an eyewitness account of what really happened between the Franciscans and the Indians.”

When I asked what she meant, she proceeded to explode the propaganda designed to romanticize the Missions and perpetuate the myth of “childlike Indians and kindly padres.” The ugly facts are that while most of the Franciscan fathers had noble theological intentions, their treatment of the Indians (“neophytes” as they were called) demanded far more than prayer, and behind the Adobe Curtain was a world of cruelty, oppression and deprivation. Revisionist history, the lady said, is alive and well in California. She also said, when I told her I was an author, that it could make a knockout story, but only if I told the truth. What writer could ignore such a gauntlet?!

One of the few first-person accounts of what really happened in the California Missions.

I promptly ordered that book, and what I learned was gut-wrenching. The neophytes were captured by Spanish soldiers (the men beaten; the women and girls often raped) and herded into Missions stretching from San Diego to Sonoma where they were forbidden to leave. If they refused to work, they were starved and flogged, and those attempting escape were tracked down and severely punished. Neophyte mothers often terminated their pregnancy (by their husbands as well as rape) to spare their children such a wretched existence. Those suspected of abortion had their head shaved, were flogged for fifteen straight days, wore leg irons for three months and carried a hideously painted doll to church.

Death of Father Jayme

The Indians extract revenge at the San Diego Mission, 1775.

It’s no surprise that the neophytes fought back. Despite what Mission brochures tell you, there were plenty of bloody reprisals, which the pious padres conveniently blamed on the devil. California’s first Christian martyr, Father Luis Jayme, was slain at the San Diego Mission when 700 warriors burned the hated mission, and Father Andrés Quintana of the Santa Cruz Mission was assassinated for, among other things, using a metal-tipped whip! Dozens more padres were dispatched along the way, but their numbers pale when compared to the tens of thousands of neophytes felled by violence, neglect and disease.

So why did the Pope and the King of Spain invoke this wrathful Christian God and endorse such inhumane treatment? In 1780, Serra wrote, “That spiritual fathers should punish their sons, the Indians, with blows appears to be as old as the conquest of the Americas.” Three years later, California Governor Pedro Fages filed a bitter complaint against Serra for excessive punishment doled out to neophytes. In 1799, Padre Antonio Horra of Mission San Miguel enraged his contemporaries by reporting to the viceroy in Mexico, “The treatment shown to the Indians is most cruel. For the slightest things, they receive heavy flogging, are shackled and put in stocks (and) kept whole days without water.” The courageous padre was quickly isolated, declared insane, and taken under armed guard out of California. Similar policies continue today in the Catholic Church’s attempts to cover up pederasty among their priests.

Mission San Juan Bautista, founded1797, was featured in Alfred Hitchcock’s classic film Vertigo.

I believe most Franciscan missionaries were sincere, devoted men, and I know that Serra fought hard to protect his neophytes from rampaging soldiers, but he and his fellow friars were ill-prepared to understand the radically different world of the Indians or how imposition of European standards would annihilate the very souls they sought to save. The results were attitudes toward the neophytes ranging from avuncular affection to vicious disgust, and there’s no denying the Missions were forced labor camps akin to those of the Nazis. The difference is that the Germans committed their heinous acts out of pure evil while the padres did it in the name of God. No matter how you look at it, the end results were extermination; under mission rule, 1769-1832, instead of flourishing, the neophyte population of 130,000 declined by 57,000!

Viewing the Franciscans’ actions as “of the time” is challenging, given our 21st century sensibilities, but Vatican plans to canonize Serra have roused criticism from historians and scholars armed with the ugly truth. How can a man, whose punishment of his flock was the antithesis of his Savior’s gentle ways, qualify for sainthood? Did Serra never ask himself, “What would Jesus do?” Did he truly believe his behavior emulated the Franciscans’ famously humanitarian founder, St. Francis of Assisi? If governors and fellow friars were outraged, why was Father Serra himself unmoved? Such questions are as puzzling as they are disturbing.

Visiting La Purissima Concepcion Mission

Visiting La Purissima Concepcion Mission in Lompoc, California. Built in 1787, it was destroyed by earthquake in 1812 and rebuilt in 1941.

So finally, after that fateful trip to Carmel, visits to twelve of the 21 Missions and much research, I’ve written my first mystery. Communion of Sinners connects two real 18th century Mission murders to a second series in present-day California and, of course, includes Father Serra. Presenting a balanced portrait of the controversial friar was admittedly a challenge, but I worked hard to do so, just as I made certain to give the luckless neophytes a long-overdue voice. Available from Amazon.



  1. Linda Gray
    Nov 1, 2013

    This sounds like a good book, Michael. Looking forward to reading it.

  2. Greg Lindeblom
    Nov 2, 2013

    You’ve never been afraid to tackle controversial subjects, Michael. I’m really looking forward to reading your new novel.

  3. Bebe Bahnsen
    Nov 2, 2013

    What a wonderful blog post, Michael! I had no idea that things like that happened, but I am not surprised. Shocked, but not surprised.
    The book will be so welcome. And your first mystery! I can’t wait.

  4. Lola
    Nov 2, 2013

    Mr. Llewellyn, you’ve piqued my curiosity. I well remember the required elementary school reading on Father Serra along with the field trips to local Southern California missions. Couldn’t understand why the Indians would willingly give up living free in Nature to follow men in unattractive brown robes. I so look forward to reading this book!

  5. scott cunningham
    Nov 3, 2013

    I love your take on history. No stone unturned! Twelfth Night was my favorite novel of yours. Your experience with Carmel Mission reminds me of my film photography days at San Xavier Mission near Tuscon, AZ, which I understand has undergone some major renovations over the years since I’ve been there. The Catholic Church has certainly made their presence known throughout the world over the years. Perhaps we might call them Native Americans, instead of Indians, since they are not from India. Or maybe their native tribe name by region. Why does that linguistic tradition continue? I love your posts!

  6. Arthur Y
    Nov 4, 2013

    Michael, I certainly hope that none of what you learned about the missions surprised you. That history is but a miniscule part of the many reasons for which I DESPISE the “Holy Roman Church.” Do obtain and read Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean, you will learn more that is little known.

  7. Liz
    Nov 6, 2013

    Having read an early version of your CA Mission Mystery, I am looking forward to seeing the final edition. And I am sure the work you have done will only polish an already intense and compelling story. You do not sugar-coat anything that your riveting characters face and endure. Thanks, Michael, for taking on a difficult subject.

  8. Special K
    Nov 6, 2013

    Wow, this is a revelation indeed! The poor treatment of the Indians doesn’t surprise me but I am now disillusioned about Father Serra whom I always thought to be a benevolent and kind man. How disappointing to know otherwise. I so look forward to reading your new book as much as I am to reading the one I just purchased, “Creole Son”. And who doesn’t love a great mystery! I sure do. Thanks for continuing to enlighten us dear Michael.

  9. Carla Reed
    Apr 28, 2014

    Michael, I can not wait to read this!
    Such a much needed expose of what really went on! Many thanks for giving a voice to so many misused people! Your meticulous research always informs, as your imagination delights!

  10. Ann Millican
    Aug 22, 2014

    I just finished “A Communion of Sinners.” It’s a fast, compelling read with twists and turns about a sobering and disturbing subject. I love the history driving the story and the modern/historic juxtaposition – very creative. Thanks for lifting the veil – we should all know this. Bravo, Michael!

  11. Ann Millican
    Aug 22, 2014

    I just finished “A Communion of Sinners.” It’s a fun, compelling read with twists and turns. I love the history driving the story and the modern/historic juxtaposition – very creative. Thanks for lifting the veil about the abuse of Indians in the mission era. Bravo, Michael!

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