Saints for Our Times: Junipero Serra will be canonized Sept. 23

By Mary Lou Gibson

He did not come to the New World seeking fame and fortune as so many others did. His goals were to bring Christianity to the Indians, colonize the territory of New Spain and perhaps receive the crown of martyrdom. Father Junipero Serra was so successful in achieving his first two goals that he gained fame beyond his wildest dreams.
Father Serra was beatified by St. John Paul II in 1988, and Pope Francis will canonize him on Sept. 23 in Washington.
Many Californians regard Father Serra as one of the state’s founding fathers and “the man who civilized California,” according to biographer Abbe Omer Englebert. Father Serra’s legacy lives on in the missions he founded and governed and in such cities as San Francisco, San José and San Diego.
After his ordination, Father Serra was a philosophy lecturer at the University of Palma in Spain, where he occupied the most honored post in the department. After more than 10 years at the university, he left Spain for Mexico and the mission fields of the New World.
Father Serra and his group of Franciscan friars arrived in Veracruz in late 1749 and set out on foot for Mexico City, 270 miles away. Englebert writes that during this journey, Father Serra was bitten by either a poisonous insect or a snake. The wound became infected, leaving him in pain and seriously lame for the rest of his life.
Father Serra’s first assignment was at Sierra Gorda, 100 miles northeast of Mexico City. The area was settled by the Pame Indians, who were exceedingly hostile to previous missionaries, having killed four of them and forcing several others to return to Mexico City, Englebert writes.
For the next eight years, Father Serra and his friars worked among these Indians. He visited each of the five missions at least once a year, making the 80-mile tour on foot. In addition to teaching the Pames about Christ, the Franciscan missionaries established the Pames as individual owners of the land. Englebert notes that this strategy differed from the communal settlements the friars established later in the California missions.
In 1758, Father Serra and his friend, Father Palou, left the Sierra and headed for San Saba, Texas, where they hoped to take the place of two missionaries who had been killed by the Apaches. But Father Serra never made it to Texas. The Apaches and Comanches were armed and supported by the French in Louisiana and the situation in Texas was in such turmoil that the mission of San Saba was delayed.
So Father Serra went back to Mexico City and became a roving missionary for the next few years. In 1774, he finally went to California, where during the next 10 years, he achieved his most extraordinary work. He was then 61 years old.
His extraordinary success in converting the Indians to Christianity was because he found them an interesting and lovable people. In his diary, Father Serra wrote, “They have charmed me beyond measure.”
While Father Serra did not have much trouble with the Indians, he did have serious trouble with some of the Spanish military commanders. Because the mission system operated under the guidelines of the Catholic Church and the Spanish government, the clergy and military worked together at the missions and were frequently at odds over how to deal with the Indians.
Pedro Fages was the commander of the California missions headquartered at Monterey. He and Father Serra were diametrically opposed in how they governed the missions. Father Serra was so outraged over the abuses of the soldiers and Commander Fages toward the Indians that he traveled to Mexico City to propose that the missionaries have complete charge of the Indians and that Fages be removed. The viceroy granted both requests.
The Indians’ most urgent need was for food and clothing. The friars bought clothing for them and established farms. They wanted to Indians to have enough to eat. Father Serra wrote, “religion will find its way into their heads by way of their stomachs.”
Englebert writes that Farther Serra’s mission system resembled the communities of the early church. Everyone worked under the direction of the friars, who provided the people with food, clothing and all the other necessities of life. The friars introduced new and more reliable food sources to the Indians and taught them how to raise crops and livestock.
Many historians attribute the success of California’s wine industry to the Spanish missionaries who brought olives, grapes, citrus, pears and apples to be planted in the state’s 21 missions. Father Serra personally founded nine missions: San Diego, San Carlos, San Antonio, San Gabriel, San Luis Obispo, San Francisco de Assisi, San Juan Capistrano, Santa Clara and San Buenaventura.
John Kleinz described Father Serra as a pioneer in helping the Indians reach an amazing development in agriculture, raising cattle and creating arts and crafts. For his humanitarian and cultural leadership, the California legislature erected a bronze statue of Father Serra in the Hall of Statuary in the Capitol in Washington. At the time of his death in 1784, more than 6,000 Indians had been baptized at the Spanish missions.
Father Serra’s feast day is July 1. He is buried at the Carmel Mission in Monterey.