Known as the 'father of the California missions,' Serra will become America's first Hispanic saint — and the first to be canonized on U.S. soil
When Pope Francis arrives in the United States for his first pastoral visit to our country Sept. 22, his first major public event will be the canonization of the 13th American saint, Junipero Serra.
From the time Francis announced his intent to canonize Serra on this trip earlier this year, American Catholics immediately expressed great joy. The news also, however, revived resistance over his controversial tenure as presidente of California’s colonial mission system, even a public debate about whether his statue should be removed from the U.S. Capitol’s National Statuary Hall.
The Church is unafraid of a thorough examination of Serra’s life. This is especially true in such cases of canonization, when the Church must be sure that the candidate lived a holy life of heroic virtue and intercedes with God from heaven.
The Church recognizes no human life is perfect, and Serra’s was no exception. But because sainthood doesn’t depend on any earthly greatness but rather on a person’s interior holiness and virtuous life, the Church now holds up Junipero Serra as a model for all Catholics.
Born on Nov. 24, 1713, off the Spanish coast on the island of Mallorca’s city of Petra, Miguel Serra was baptized within hours of his birth because two older siblings hadn’t survived childhood. When he was 15 years old, Miguel decided to begin priestly studies and wanted to become a Franciscan. He wasn’t accepted at first because of his age and sickly nature, but a second try was successful, and he embarked on a vocation that would last more than half a century. The young Franciscan excelled in the spiritual practices of the order by his first vows in 1731 — taking the name Junipero after a companion of St. Francis himself. Missionary zeal got into his blood early when he read about the brave South American missionary St. Francis Solanus, who had been recently canonized. Little did Serra know that he would go on to evangelize western North America and become the first canonized American saint of Hispanic origin.
Serra’s intellectual prowess was evident to his peers and superiors at an early age, and he was already appointed to teach philosophy before his ordination. Before turning 30, he held a full professorship of philosophy at Lullian University in Mallorca, where he earned his doctorate. He forged strong bonds with his students, and two of them went with him in the North American mission.
His success in religious life and the academy did not keep Serra from following his truest heart’s calling, and in 1748, he asked his superior for permission to travel to North America and evangelize the indigenous people. Abandoning his promising academic career, and full of a desire to give more of himself, Serra set out from his native Mallorca for the first and last time. Preparing to cross the Atlantic from Spain the next year, Serra wrote a goodbye letter to his parents before sailing away to the New World. Leaving home left him with a certain emptiness. Writing a nephew years later from the California missions, Serra said, “When I left my country which was so dear to me, I made up my mind to leave it not merely in body alone ... if I was continually to keep before my mind what I had left behind, of what use would it be to leave it at all?”
Building the missions
Serra and his companion friars arrived in New Spain (Mexico) in December 1749 after a few weeks in Puerto Rico. They were destined for New Spain’s Mexico City — capital of the future Mexico — travelling more than 200 miles by foot to get there as Franciscans didn’t allow travel by horseback at that time. During the journey, an insect bite caused a leg infection that plagued Serra until his death.
In Mexico City, Serra didn’t settle for long into the College of San Fernando — a Franciscan school for training New World missionaries — before he volunteered to oversee different missions. For about nine years, he labored with a father’s love in the Sierra Gorda Indian Missions. After being recalled to Mexico City, Serra rose to fame as a preacher, known especially to encourage penance among the faithful. Serra gained a reputation for generously and lovingly responding to the needs of the poor and vulnerable in his charge and being an advocate for the natives in the face of the government of New Spain.
Franciscans were appointed in charge of the California missions, then only in Baja California, after King Carlos III expelled the Jesuits from all Spanish territories, and Junipero Serra was appointed presidente. No period of colonization is perfect, and this period certainly saw wide mistreatment of the natives in a variety of ways, mostly due to the government of New Spain, with which Serra often found himself at odds.
Starting in 1769, Serra was responsible for building a network of missions in Alta, California, that continued the missions’ work of supporting the natives in developing a variety of skills such as farming, carpentry, garment making and other self-sufficient industry as functioning members of the new colonies. But their main purpose was to spread the Gospel. Beginning in San Diego, five missions were built in the first three years, and nine in total under Serra’s leadership.
By expanding the missions northward, Serra established a headquarters (Mission San Carlos Borromeo) midway up the California coast initially near the presidio at Monterey — a Spanish fort built in hopes of stopping west-coast colonization by other countries such as Russia. Within a year, Serra relocated Mission San Carlos a few miles south near the Carmel River, hoping to distance himself from the military and find drier land. Once settled, work could duly begin on evangelizing and receiving natives into the Church. Serra was clear that conversion was not required of them, and he instituted some preparation. Languages proved to be a great difficulty, and catechisms were produced in many of the nearly 50 native languages of California.
A challenging life
The first years in the California missions were a trial for Serra and the other friars. One of the most burdensome realities was loneliness and isolation, about which Serra once wrote:
“It is childish to pretend that what I have had to put up with, and what I now endure, is any mere trifle. Where distances are so great, hardships must be faced ... If at any time I am called upon to mention what I find hard, it is this: I find it hard — a sinner like me — to be left all alone, with the nearest priest more than 80 leagues away, and in between nothing but savages and rough roads.”
Serra was deprived of confession and frequently was unable to say Mass because of shortages in the missions’ wine supply. Serra was not immune to great suffering, endured for the sake of spreading the Gospel.
An outspoken defender of the natives’ human rights, Serra fearlessly called out the government for perpetrating widespread physical and sexual abuse on them.
As the tensions increased, Serra decided to make a trip to Mexico City to promote a mission that desired salvation of souls over domination and conquest. During his visit with the king’s viceroy to New Spain, Serra presented rules that served as the basis for the first major laws of California. Serra returned to the California missions in 1774.
Serra defied the government of New Spain on numerous occasions for their mistreatment of the natives. Doing his part to stop the government’s planned execution of a killer from within a group of natives who destroyed the San Diego mission — even murdering one of his friar friends — Serra wrote New Spain’s viceroy, saying, “let the murderer live so he can be saved, which is the purpose of our coming here and the reason for forgiving him.” Later on in the letter Serra advocated for a more “moderate punishment,” which he said would teach the killer about a higher law “which orders us to forgive offenses and to prepare him, not for his death, but for eternal life.” Serra even requested in this letter that “if the Indians were to kill me ... they should be forgiven.”
Los Angeles’ Archbishop José Gomez recently referred to this episode when he portrayed Serra as “the first person in the Americas — and maybe in all of the universal Church — to make a theological and moral argument against the death penalty.”
Continued political battles with the government wore on. Serra continued establishing missions and served as a delegated minister of confirmation throughout the missions. Among notable events of his later years was when Serra took up a collection to offer some small financial assistance to another American founding father — General George Washington — in the Revolutionary War.
A saint's legacy
At 70, worn out from a life spent in service to the Gospel, Serra died on Aug. 28, 1784, at the Carmel Mission. At his funeral, perhaps no finer tribute was paid than that of the mourning natives themselves, who Serra’s friend and protégé, Friar Francisco Palóu, described as “lamenting the death of their father who, having left his own aging parents in his homeland, had come to this distant place for the sole purpose of making them his spiritual children and children of God through holy baptism.”
St. Junipero Serra’s zeal for souls, defense of human rights and dignity, and his firm reliance on God’s providence and mercy leaves a lasting and relevant example for all Catholics. Pope Francis remarked on Serra’s legacy earlier this year, saying, “He was one of the founding fathers of the United States, a saintly example of the Church’s universality and special patron of the Hispanic people of the country. In this way, may all Americans rediscover their own dignity and unite themselves ever more closely to Christ and his Church.” The Church anxiously awaits what else Pope Francis will teach us about this holy man when Serra is canonized Sept. 23.