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Junipero Serra's Museum-in-Waiting

March 18, 2001|Patt Morrison

Whatever the reviews of his work in California--and they run from "saintly" to "genocidal"--in his hometown of Petra on the Spanish island of Majorca, Junipero Serra is the local boy who left home and made very, very good.

Here Father Serra began the odyssey that has put him in line for Catholic sainthood. The plaque at the church where he was baptized boasts broadly of the native son as "explorer, missionary, hero, civilizer of the lands of California."

Indeed, the land where Serra was born does not look much different from the land where he worked and died. Petra lies in the island's center, away from the touristed coast, amid the same bright scrub-and-palm landscape of Southern California.

The short street dedicated to him in 1985 on the 200th anniversary of his death has been so spiffed up that it appears to be a movie set. Placed among vivid bougainvillea and geraniums are bright painted-tile depictions, framed in wrought iron, of every California mission Serra founded in the 18th century.

The street far outshines the little Serra museum at one end of it. The museum's dusty treasures are simple and touching: a copy of Serra's pectoral cross, his nephew's algebra book, wooden models of some of the California missions, commendations from Serra clubs from Liverpool to Kentucky, and Indian crafts and objects from tribes with which Serra had no contact, such as the Navajo.

The museum is tended by Isabel Salom, the latest in a succession of older women who have tended the museum. She will let you into the museum and also unlock the door of the Serra house a few doors away. The Serra family began living here in 1577.

The house has low ceilings downstairs and in the loft above, and a lean-to outside for livestock. Judging from the guest books, the heyday of Serra admirers began after the house was restored in 1930 and dwindled after the 1960s.

Like the saint-in-waiting that it birthed, Petra's is a museum-in-waiting, anticipating the day that sainthood comes to Serra and hoping the glow will reach all the way here, to his hometown.

*

Museo Junipero Serra, Calle Junipero Serra, Petra; open 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily; admission free.

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