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Following in the Early Footsteps of Father Serra

May 22, 1988|FRANK RILEY | Riley is travel columnist for Los Angeles magazine and a regular contributor to this section

PETRA, Majorca — Grape vines are growing among the almond trees, and a breeze filtering inland from the sea ripples fields of red poppies around this ancient Mediterranean town.

It was here that the California mission trail got its roots when the boy who was to become Father Junipero Serra was born Nov. 24, 1713. He grew up within the stone walls of a peasant home, where a mule had the largest share of sheltered living space.

Now, 275 years later, Petra finds itself the focus of attention following the announcement in Rome that Pope John Paul II will beatify Serra at the Vatican on Sept. 25.

Late springtime vacationers, already on Majorca to enjoy its internationally famed beach resorts, are drawn to Petra to discover that the people of the island have for many years memorialized the life of Serra with love and reverence.

Serra Museum

Majorcans have built a museum for Serra that is rich in mementoes of his missionary service. They've also preserved his boyhood home, which is close to the church where he began singing at age 5 with a voice that seemed to touch the hearts of all who heard him.

For Californians who come to Majorca, the largest of Spain's four resort islands in the Balearic archipelago, the discovery of Petra helps put into perspective the controversy that surfaced again last year when Pope John Paul II visited California.

Opposition to proposals of sainthood for Serra was expressed by those who felt that the original missions had primarily been part of Spain's 18th-Century conquest of Indian lands, which in turn was undertaken to prevent the Russian Empire from establishing a base along the California coast of the New World.

Supporters of sainthood replied by citing Serra's recorded efforts to keep missions as independent as possible from military influence in the early history of Alta California. They also focused on the role of the missions during the past century in the cultural and spiritual development of the state, where they still serve parish churches as well as attract travelers from around the world.

The Pope's decision to beatify Serra, which represents the highest honor before sainthood, may not resolve the conflicting viewpoints, but it is already adding momentum to the longtime efforts of Majorcans to build closer ties with California.

The 40 mayors representing every community on Majorca went to California recently for tours of the missions. The mayor of Palma led a delegation of 100 Majorcans to Carmel last year when Pope John Paul visited Serra's grave beside the mission there. Close to 1,000 people from this island are expected to be in Rome when Serra is beatified in September.

With this kind of interest in Serra among the people of Majorca, the excitement generated by Pope John Paul's decision is touching visitors who might not otherwise have included Petra in their travel plans. About 80% of the 1987 record of 4.4 million visitors to Majorca were from the British Isles and West Germany.

From anywhere on the island of Majorca, a visit to Petra can take as little as half a day. The town is scarcely 35 miles into the interior of the island from our base at the Hotel Victoria Sol, overlooking the bay, and the 13th-Century cathedral of Palma. Although it's the capital island and largest of the Balearic Isles, Majorca is only 62 miles long and 48 miles wide.

The Romans found their way to Petra as early as 123 BC. Roughly 2,000 years ago Petra had a population of 4,000. Today, with young people being drawn away by the opportunities and excitement of Palma and the resort areas, the tranquil town has about 2,500 residents.

Pilgrimage to Petra

When you make a pilgrimage to Petra you may share a fleeting sense of entering the narrow streets of a small town in the Arab world. The Moors were here for 500 years, until AD 1229. A lingering custom is for houses to have the front doors and windows closed and shuttered, often with green shutters. Only when you get to the back yard do you see open doors and windows.

Junipero Serra, who was baptized Miguel Jose Serra, lived in Petra for the first 35 years of his life, then for 20 years in Mexico and the climactic 15 years along the mission trail in Alta California.

A statue of Serra stands in the Town Square. The nearby museum, re-creating the story of his life, was established in 1959 by dedicated local people with the help of contributions from California. A recent $60,000 restoration and refurbishing was also financed by private contributions. American and Spanish flags hang above the courtyard entrance.

Paintings and old photos recreate his mission trail. One especially evocative painting shows him founding the mission at Monterey in 1770. The Carmel Mission story is presented with a series of photos and paintings.

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