Mission San Carlos Borroméo del río Carmelo

On our way home from Big Sur this weekend, we stopped at the Mission San Carlos Borroméo del río Carmelo (whew, what a mouthful!). I have a bit of a thing for history– old buildings with rich pasts, and the like– and this fit the bill. This Roman Catholic mission was established in 1770 and was headed by Father Junípero Serra (whose recent canonization sparked a huge controversy due to his part in the genocide of Native Americans) until his death 14 years later. Since then, the mission has remained in operation, undergoing several restoration projects along the way.

At the time of our arrival (Sunday afternoon), mass was in session.

As an agnostic, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel insensitive (borderline exploitative, even) as I walked around taking pictures of the church and its patrons in action, some with their heads bowed, devout in prayer.

The capilla, or chapel. Father Junípero Serra was buried beneath its floor when he died in 1784.

One woman in attendance comforted another who was crying hysterically on a pew after mass ended.

Sometimes I wish that I were a religious person, not because I want to believe in some notion of an afterlife, but because I really admire the strength and depth of religious communities. I take issue with organized religion for many reasons, but there’s no denying the fact that they bring people solace in times of need.

Back to the mission: Saint Junípero Serra, who helped established 21 missions in what was referred to as Alta California at the time, loved this mission the most, and that’s why he is buried here.

Vestments, candles, and books of scripture used by Father Serra.

Reading up on his history in Wikipedia, I came across the following:

“…Serra made a habit of punishing himself physically, to purify his spirit…. In one of his sermons in Mexico City, while exhorting his listeners to repent their sins, Serra took out his chain, bared his shoulders and started whipping himself. Many parishioners, roused by the spectacle, began sobbing…. A man climbed to the pulpit, took the chain from Serra’s hand and began whipping himself, declaring: “I am the sinner who is ungrateful to God who ought to do penance for my many sins, and not the padre [Serra], who is a saint.” The man kept whipping himself until he collapsed…. He later died from the ordeal.”

Well. That escalated quickly. 🙁

In all seriousness though, it’s clear that this place has an even darker past than is apparent on the surface: one that’s also rooted in guilt, self-loathing, and self-harm.

Rest in peace, Father Serra. Rest in peace, Native Americans.

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