On Sept. 7, Ward-Holland and her 21-year-old son, Kagen Holland, started to walk the 650 miles that connected 21 Catholic missions, reaching from the Bay Area to San Diego.
A Mission to Baptize
Serra traveled from Spain by ship to the New World, and lived in Mexico City. There, he waited nearly two decades for his life’s calling. He marched north in 1769, and founded nine missions that stretched from what is now the Mexican-U.S. border to Sonoma County, just north of San Francisco.
The missions were part of the Spanish colonization of America, and had two main functions: 1) to stave off the Russians (seriously) from settling the West Coast, and, 2) to “assimilate the native people by making them into productive citizens of the empire,” says Robert Senkewicz, historian and author of Junipero Serra: California, Indians, and the Transformation of a Missionary.
The missions were Catholic settlements where people worked, ate, and slept. They also served as outposts for Spanish soldiers. They were typically surrounded by large farms, and— sometimes out of curiosity, other times by coercion—the Native Americans joined the Spanish there. Serra founded nine missions himself, a number that would grow to 21.
The Spanish put Native Americans to work as builders. They taught them to farm as Europeans did. But Serra’s ultimate goal was to baptize them. Once baptized, they couldn’t leave.
Soldiers dragged the Native Americans who tried to leave back to the missions, where they were often flogged in punishment. The missions were cramped. They also spread diseases that would later kill off huge numbers of California’s Native American population.
While horrible, this was not unique to the missions, or the Spanish colonizers. For its part, the Catholic Church has apologized—first Pope John Paul in 2000, and later Pope Francis while on a tour of Bolivia. “I humbly ask forgiveness,” Pope Francis said in July, “not only for the offense of the church herself, but also for crimes committed against the native peoples during the so-called conquest of America.”
Support Along the Trail
Ward-Holland’s walk began at Mission Solano, the northernmost mission, near the Bay Area. There, she joined hands with her son and eight others as they stood near three marble plaques with hundreds of Native American names, all of whom had been baptized and died.
They read each name aloud.
She and her son walked south with backpacks along the El Camino Real trail. They passed grassy hills, valleys, and vineyards, and camped the night outside. The next day they walked to Mission San Rafael Arcangel. There, Ward-Holland says, the graves of Native Americans were under a parking lot. “There’s not even a respectful sign, not even a memorial or anything,” she wrote in a blog post.
Mother and son crossed the Golden Gate Bridge. Web developer Cat Wilder, described by Ward-Holland as “a free spirit from Santa Cruz,” followed behind them in a Toyota Tacoma with a truck bed of supplies.