Junipero Serra: Created to Amaze

Mission bells, San Juan Bautista, California.


(originally published Oct 4, 2013  in Catholic San Francisco)

I recently went to the circus for the first time since I was a child. The show lived up to its name, “Built to Amaze.” I saw awe in my 5-year-old’s face. After immersing myself in Blessed Junipero Serra’s story, I can say with confidence that he was created to amaze.

For me, the gist is this: Serra left the comforts of Mallorca, Spain, to bring a new vision of love to total strangers. He personally baptized 98 percent of adult converts at Mission Carmel. He walked an estimated 4,000 miles in what is now California, with a seriously injured leg. When at his headquarters in Carmel, he slept on a wood board with four legs. He often pleaded with the crown and its agents, always suggesting to never forget the words of Jesus: “I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). Nothing could get in Serra’s way of pruning the vineyard he found himself. According to records at The Early California Population Project, Serra’s legacy was 101,000 baptisms, 28,000 marriages and 71,000 burials at all 21 missions and from the Los Angeles Plaza Church and the Santa Barbara Presidio. He alone confirmed 4,076. He embodied what St. Augustine shared, “Do not turn away from the one who made you, even to turn toward yourself.”

By visiting The Huntington Library exhibit commemorating Serra’s 300th birthday in San Marino, I wanted to learn more how to be a man of faith through Serra’s experiences. My prayer to Serra was that by visiting the exhibit and its 250 artifacts from 60 lenders, more light would be shed on his life so that I can better inspire the young men that I teach.

The Huntington is such a massive place that I actually got lost. When I saw two Norbertine priests and their students from St. Michael Preparatory School in Silverado,
I knew I was on the right track. Many of the objects at the Virginia Steele Scott Galleries, Erburu Wing resonated with my own faith journey. There was Serra’s notebook used as a student from 1731-1735 in Palma, Mallorca, reminding me of the intellect’s place in discipleship. I reflected on my vocation as teacher while peering at Serra’s personal
Bible (Venice, 1508), used while a professor in Palma. The letter from Abraham Lincoln dated March 18, 1865, returning the mission property to the Order Friars Minor, made me hope for better days ahead in church-state relations in America. While driving back to the Bay Area and hearing my 5-year-old son say “Are we home yet?” for the upteenth time, I recalled the 18th-century Franciscan tunic (habit) on display, worn until it fell off the body, a physical reminder of the order’s vow of Christian poverty. Serra must have
been smiling down on us. What I was most amazed by was an artifact that told so many stories. The baptism record from Petra, dated Nov. 24, 1713, for “Miguel Joseph Serre, son
of Antoni and Margarita Ferrer, a married couple,” made me think of my own baptism being noted at St. Andrew’s in Daly City. I am part of a
2,000-year heritage!

Let us pray that Serra’s life devoted to the service of others becomes better understood and that we more sincerely live the words of St. Francis of Assisi, “Preach the Gospel at all times. Use words when necessary.” He will amaze.

Christian Clifford is the author of three books about Catholic Church history in Spanish-Mexican California. For more information, visit