Saint Junipero Serra: Apostle of California

Saint Junipero Serra: Apostle of California

On July 1, Catholics in the United States and Franciscans throughout the world celebrate the memory of Saint Junipero Serra (1713-1774), the "Apostle of California."

St Junipero Serra statue San Diego 700pxlsStatue of Serra in San Diego, California, his first mission in what is now the United States, founded in 1769.

Formed in austere penitential environment

Born Miguel Serra to humble farmers in the village of Petra on the island of Mallorca (Majorca), Spain, he grew up close to a Franciscan friary where he received his elementary education. He entered the Friars Minor at Palma de Majorca in 1730 and was given the name Junipero after one of the early companions of Saint Francis. There he was formed in an austere penitential environment.

Early ministry devoted to teaching student friars

Ordained in 1737, the young Serra was considered brilliant; his early ministry was devoted to educating student friars in philosophy and theology according to the teachings of John Duns Scotus.

A missionary among indigenous peoples of America

In 1749, Serra abandoned his academic career, volunteering for mission work among the indigenous peoples of America, and was incorporated into the Missionary College of San Fernando in Mexico City. After serving in several other mission assignments, Junipero was placed in charge of the Franciscans who took over the Jesuit missions in Baja California when the latter were expelled from Spanish territory in 1767.

Leading the Franciscans north to found missions

Two years later, when the Spanish decided to expand their colonial effort into Alta California, he led the Franciscan mission north, founding Mission San Diego in 1769; the next year he founded Mission San Carlos Borromeo (Carmel) on Monterey Bay, which became his headquarters.

St Junipero Serra room at Mission Carmel 700pxlsSerra's room at Mission Carmel.

Zealous, self-sacrificing leadership

Eventually Serra would found seven other missions in Alta California. Despite failing health and great obstacles—including recurring tensions with the Spanish governors—he continued his zealous, self-sacrificing leadership until his death at Carmel in 1784, at age 70.

St Junipero Serra Mision San Carlos Borromeo 700pxlsMission San Carlos Borromeo del Rio Carmelo, near Monterey, California, founded in 1770. Serra made his headquarters here, and this is where he passed away. The present stone church was dedicated in 1797.

St Junipero Serra cenotaph Mission Carmel 700pxlsMemorial cenotaph to Serra at Mission Carmel dedicated in 1924.

“Keep moving forward”

Serra was beatified in 1988 and canonized by Pope Francis on September 23, 2015, who saw in him a person committed to the evangelizing mission of the Church:

Father Serra had a motto which inspired his life and work, a saying he lived his life by: siempre adelante! Keep moving forward! For him, this was the way to continue experiencing the joy of the Gospel, to keep his heart from growing numb, from being anesthetized. He kept moving forward, because the Lord was waiting. He kept going, because his brothers and sisters were waiting. He kept going forward to the end of his life. Today, like him, may we be able to say: Forward! Let’s keep moving forward! 

St Junipero Serra grave Mission Carmel 700pxlsSerra's grave in the sanctuary of the church in Mission Carmel.

Canonization provoked sharp reactions

Serra's canonization provoked sharp reactions among scholars and the public, especially with regard to his treatment of the native peoples. Serra again became a figure of controversy just last year, with the demonstrations in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, over the poor treatment of minorities in United States history. A balanced account of these various, conflicting perspectives may be found at: https://www.ncronline.org/news/justice/controversial-jun-pero-serra-supported-some-indigenous-catholics-california-mission.

St Junipero Serra biography cover 700pxlsThe most thorough scholarly biography of Serra, by Rose Marie Beebe and Robert Senkewicz, published in 2015 shortly before Serra's canonization was announced.

The spiritual vision that motivated Serra

Let's conclude by stepping back from controversy and reflect with Fr. Joseph Chinnici, OFM, eminent historian and president emeritus of the Franciscan School of Theology, on the spiritual vision that motivated Serra: https://serraus.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/chinnici-Spirituality-of-St.-Serra.pdf?fbclid=IwAR2Y2bhRVjNZZRMFS3DdeR3qH_qScLf8_4MQC0FB7ePEMEveUQiR9hrmMyU.

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Main image: The most common image of Serra, a copy of a portrait done in 1771, when he was 58.

Dominic Monti

Written by : Dominic Monti

Dominic V. Monti, OFM, is a Franciscan Friar of Holy Name Province (USA) and currently professor of Franciscan Research in the Franciscan Institute of St. Bonaventure University. A native of nearby Bradford, PA, he was educated at St. Bonaventure (BA); after joining the Order, he attended the Catholic University of America (STB), Union Theological Seminary, NY (STM), and the Divinity School of the University of Chicago (PhD). He devoted the greater part of his ministry to teaching the History of Christianity, in particular the history of the Franciscan movement. He has contributed two volumes to the Works of St. Bonaventure series and is author of Francis & His Brothers, a popular history of the Friars Minor. He is spiritual assistant to a federation of Poor Clares and the Franciscan Secular Institute, the Missionaries of the Kingship of Christ.
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