In the Spirit of Saint Junípero Serra


(originally published June 2018 in NUESTRA PARROQUIA–A Claretian Publication)

Bishop Robert McElroy of the Diocese of San Diego a “foundational figure” of the Golden State. Not everyone admires Serra, though. To some Junípero Serra is synonymous with the negative outcomes of Spanish colonialism, though the historical record proves otherwise (the Church collected 2420 documents—7500 pages total—of Serra’s writings and 5000 pages of materials written about him from those who knew him, and testimony of people inspired by his life). As Pope Francis shared in the homily at Junípero Serra’s canonization on September 23, 2015 in Washington, D.C., “Today, like him [Saint Junípero Serra], may we be able to say: Forward! Let’s keep moving forward!” His life can help one to proclaim the Gospel with joyful hearts, amid the many challenges. Saint Junípero Serra traversed an estimated 24,000 miles to share the Gospel message, some of it walking and in great pain.

Saint Junípero Serra (1713-1784) came from humble beginnings. Born and raised in Petra, Mallorca, Spain, he responded to God’s call and was ordained a priest in the Franciscan order in 1737. From 1740-1749 he lived a comfortable life as a university professor. But he discerned, or recognized, that it was not the life God was calling him to and in 1749 he made the arduous journey to Mexico City. For the next twenty years he served the Christian Indians north of Mexico City. In 1769, he finally was given the chance to do what he had wanted to do for so long, be a missionary priest to the gentile. 

The government of Spain wanted to keep Russia and Britain out of the lands they claimed, so they organized an expedition, intent on populating what is now the state of California with Spanish citizens. The Sacred Expedition had five detachments–three by sea and two by land. The one with the military and spiritual leaders, Captain Gaspar Portolá and Father Junípero Serra, left Loreto, Baja California, by land on March 28 and reached San Diego Bay on July 1, 1769. The Sacred Expedition had 238 men, seventy-eight of whom were soldiers.

In 1776, two-hundred-forty settlers traveled from Mexico to colonize San Francisco. Priest, soldier, and colonist were surrounded by an estimated 300,000 Indians. The Spaniards never came into contact with the vast majority of the independent Indians who lived outside the Spanish sphere of influence. In 1790, just over two decades after Serra founded the first mission in present-day California at San Diego, eleven missions and four presidios had been constructed, with an estimated 30 priests and 211 soldiers. By the time the last mission closed its doors in 1836, due to the Secularization Law passed in 1834 by the Mexican Congress, 142 Franciscan priests had ministered in Alta California. Only two of these priests were killed at the hands of natives (Luís Jayme at San Diego in 1775 and Andrés Quintana at Santa Cruz in 1812).

How is God calling you to share His joy with others? Invite Saint Junípero Serra on your journey to discern how you can be, as Pope Benedict XVI put it in God is Love, “. . . fountains of living water in the midst of a thirsting world.”

Christian Clifford writes on the subject of Catholic Church history in Spanish and Mexican California. His latest book is the Catholic Media Association Book Award recipient Pilgrimage: In Search of the REAL California Missions, the story of his 800-mile walk of the California Missions Trail. He can be reached at