St. Junipero Serra’s memorial is observed only in the US, and though he was born in Majorca, off the coast of Spain, it’s fitting that he be celebrated here.
Serra, a Franciscan priest, was 35, an advanced age in the 18th century, when he volunteered for the missions in Mexico. He taught in Mexico City before volunteering to serve in the remote mountain missions of Sierra Gorda. He is remembered both as the first European missionary to learn the local language and as an outspoken advocate for the native populations in property disputes.
Once the Spanish determined to explore “Upper California,” the site of the current state, Serra accompanied the soldiers and adventurers. He was 55 years old.
Those who came to California came for many different reasons, not all of them peaceful or noble. But Serra’s good dream was to establish a series of missions along the Pacific coast, each a day’s walk from the next. For the next 15 years, Serra worked. He worked right up until his death at age 70. By the time he died, Serra had established nine missions — the first at San Diego — running some 600 hundred miles from the south to San Francisco in the north. Included in the Serra-founded missions is the one at San Juan Capistrano, believed to be the oldest standing building in California. It is also the only remaining church building in which Serra is known to have presided as a priest.
Serra walked all 600 miles, visiting the people who settled around the missions, saying Mass and baptizing and confirming new Christians. He is recorded as having personally confirmed over 5,000 people.
When John Paul II beatified Serra on September 25, 1988, there was an outcry from some Native American groups. The Spanish settlement of the Americas is a story of horror and heroism. We must remember that Serra, a man of his century, was also a man who saw and loved the people to whom he ministered. Serra believed that native peoples were full human beings deserving of full human rights. And, he argued, native peoples baptized by Spanish priests, had the same political and ecclesiastical rights as the Spanish.
In 1773, Serra left California and travelled to Mexico City to argue for the removal of the territorial governor, a man Serra believed encouraged corruption and the abuse of the native peoples of California. What he presented to the authorities in Mexico on behalf of the indigenous people he served is what we would come in this country to call a bill of rights.
Consider making a pilgrimage this year to visit one or more of the missions Serra established. His birthday is November 24. You could conclude the trip at Carmel, where Serra is buried under the floor of the church.