Class with St. Junípero Serra: Inspiration from the patron saint of vocations

Note to reader: The following article was in the Fall 2018 issue of Today’s Catholic Teacher (1967-2020).

Governor Jerry Brown (CA-D) called Junípero Serra “one of the innovators and pioneers” in California history. Bishop Robert McElroy of the Diocese of San Diego referred to Serra as a “foundational figure” of the Golden State. Not everyone admires Serra, though. In certain circles Junípero Serra symbolizes 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). Pope Francis succinctly presented Serra’s relevance to disciples today 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!” In other words, his life can inspire us to proclaim the Gospel with joyful hearts, amid the many challenges. 

A Brief History

Marco Polo traveled an estimated 15,000 miles to see what existed beyond his known world. The Lewis and Clark Expedition, 7,000 miles, to see what the fledgling United States had acquired in the Louisiana Purchase. Saint Junípero Serra traversed an estimated 24,000 miles to share the Gospel message.

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 that it was not the life God was calling him to and in 1749 he traveled 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. The government of Spain wanted to keep Russia and Britain out of the lands they claimed, so they organized an expedition, intent on occupying what is now the state of California.

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 Spaniard never came into contact with the vast majority of the 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, occupied by 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. Two of these priests were killed at the hands of natives. A tragic unintended consequence of the cultural exchange was the majority of California Indians who did convert died due to diseases for which they had no immunity. James A. Sandos, author of Converting California, wrote, “Spanish authorities and Franciscan missionaries . . . sought to bring Indians into a new Spanish society . . . and were distressed to see the very objects of their religious and political desire die in droves.”

Professional Growth Plan

I created my professional growth plan at Serra High School on our school’s namesake. I had a brief conversation with a colleague about the vandalism of statues of Saint Junípero Serra occurring in California. I explained how sad it was and he agreed and said, “We know better [about the holiness of our school’s namesake]” Another time a different colleague asked me how I share my passion for Junípero Serra with my students. A few days later, I was teaching my students about how the monasteries of the Middle Ages were known for their hospitality. A student asked, “Serra was a monk. Didn’t he kill a whole bunch of Indians?” The following day, a student said a teacher had once told him that Serra had enslaved the Indians. I think Saint Junípero Serra was trying to tell me something. Possibly because we are a diocesan school, we seem to struggle to find a specific charism based on our school’s namesake. It all led me to think how ideal it would be to present to the community a Serran Spirituality. Therefore, I decided to incorporate my knowledge of and passion for Saint Junípero Serra directly into my classroom teaching. But how?

My outcome became, “Specifically, as a result of this plan, students will know the school’s namesake more intimately, deepening their understanding of the school’s core values [Faith, Wisdom, Service, Community. Leadership] and what it means to be a part of the Serra brotherhood [a bond based on the values of respect, integrity, inclusion, and compassion]” and “Be encouraged to turn to St. Junípero Serra to intercede on their behalf (Doctrinal Elements of a Curriculum Framework for the Development of Catechetical Materials for Young People of High School Age, III. B. 6.).”

The goal is to present to the school’s principal and president quotes and reflections pertaining to our school’s namesake for use on the school calendar. This would help the school meet a growth area of the Western Catholic Education Association Self-Study Report, that states, “The school has identified a need to develop a recognition of the qualities and traits of St. Junípero Serra and incorporate this into the school calendar and traditions.” 

So, in essence, the students would present what was most important to them and help others to reflect and pray in the future, thus creating a charism at the grassroots level through a focus group.

Class with Saint Junípero Serra Lesson Plan

We began with the Prayer for the Intercession of  Junípero Serra. For Prayers for Vocations, visit the USCCB website.

My research on the life of Saint Junípero Serra led me to fourteen direct quotes ( I numbered them and split the students into pairs to begin our class with Saint Junípero Serra. 

I set up the context and objective by reading the following to the class,

Saint Junípero Serra was a complex man living in complex times. He once told the territory’s governor that if the natives should kill him, that they should be forgiven and pardoned. He penned what would go down in history as the native bill of rights. Yet he was also a man of his time, using self-flagellation as a form of penance and upholding corporal punishment, actions peculiar to us today.

Foremost, Saint Junípero Serra identified himself as a spiritual father. However, his spirituality can be challenging for one to discern due to the bulk of his extant writings pertaining to his role as an administrator. It is hard to incorporate one’s deep devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary in a letter that deals with requesting plates from a government official. The following are provided to help one get to know his beliefs and how they affected the depths of his soul. 

In pairs, one member read the quote aloud and then both made a quick note ( The plan was created for a 40-minute class. Students spent around two minutes with each quote. The lesson was created for 11th-grade boys, but it can be adapted for any grade level. I recommended they note one of the following after reading each quote . . .

  • something interesting.
  • something surprising.
  • a question.
  • an important term.
  • the key point.
  • a three (3) word summary.

Pair-Share Samples

A student remarked for the September 1741 entry: “Serra was a true scholar.”

A student wrote for the August 20, 1749: “Serra is just like everyone else; he relies on other people to motivate him and encourage him to do good things.”

A student noted for May 15, 1769: “I thought it was interesting that Serra saw the Indians as Adam and Eve before the apple, which showed that he felt they weren’t evil.”

A student noted for the July 3, 1769 entry: “Sacrifice, salvation, hardships”

A student wrote for the February 10, 1770 entry: “The Indians revolted, yet Serra continued to preach the name of God.”

A student commented for June 18,1771: “The Indians are learning a lot from Serra and he learned a lot from them.”

A student asserted for the May 21, 1773 entry, “Indians are kind, even without Jesus.” For the same date, a student asked, “Did the Indians of the tribe convert to Catholicism?”

A student noted for August 22, 1775: “It is important to remember that Serra was on a hard journey and he needed help from God.”

A student remarked on March 1, 1777: “Key point: No matter what people believe they can show compassion for others.”

A student commented on the January 7, 1780 entry: “Religion does not serve as a blockade to love.”

The above samples are from students who identify as Agnostic, Atheist, Baptist, Buddhist, Catholics, a convert, a Hindu, a Mormon, and a Sikh, proof positive that the lives of the saints stirs the human spirit.

With approximately ten minutes left in class, I asked the students to individually reflect on the exercise.


Select the quote that was most memorable to you. They are attached (Discerning the Spirit) for your reference.

1. Note the number and date
# _____ Date ______________

2. Select one (1) to respond to.

a. How did it help you deepen your understanding of the School Prayer, School’s Core Values, OR School’s definition of Brotherhood? Find them at
b. How does what Saint Junípero Serra wrote relate to the world?

Reflection Samples

2. a. In the quote from May 15, 1769, Serra explains his beliefs that everyone, even Gentiles, were loved by God . . . . I believe that this relates to the line from the Junípero Serra School Prayer, “Help us face the reality of working together as a community.” Through this quote, Serra helped strengthen my understanding in the Padre Brotherhood and that we should love everyone, help anyone in need, and treat everyone equally. We shouldn’t hold grudges or biases based on others beliefs or past actions. Instead we should follow Jesus’ and Serra’s lives of always helping each other out and always expressing God’s love. 

2. a. The quote from September 1741 has helped me understand the meaning of the school’s values. One of the values mentioned is wisdom. In his quote, Saint Junípero Serra explains how one should look towards God in seeking wisdom. This directly aligns with the core values of the school, which state we should be challenged to rigorous study in pursuit of the truth. Saint Junípero Serra also mentions the pursuit of truth, saying that by following God’s light we may be guided toward the truth.

2. a. The quote from March 1, 1777, helped me deepen the definition of brotherhood because it gave me a sense of spreading the love through kindness to one another. The brotherhood is helping other brothers out and not leaving anyone behind, wanting to help them keep up and strive for greatness. This goes with what the school believes a Padre is, “a man of respect, treating others with love and kindness.”

2. b. Serra wrote on February 10, 1770, that he had to teach the Indians how to speak Spanish, but they also had to teach him how to speak their language.  This relates to the world because people need to be able to learn how to communicate effectively. If people can’t do that then the world will be a nasty place.  When people are able to communicate well people work out problems, get stuff done and will be able to not only learn from the experience but be able to show others as well.  This helps people to live peacefully. 

To conclude, I hope that you will spread the good news about Saint Junípero Serra with your students. You will not be disappointed. His life will surely inspire them to be living gospels. Saint Junípero Serra, pray for us!

Christian Clifford is a veteran Catholic school teacher and author of books about Catholic Church history in Spanish-Mexican California. Clifford’s writings have appeared in California Teacher, Catholic San Francisco, Catholic Standard, Today’s Catholic Teacher and on Aleteia, Catholic Exchange, Crux, Patheos, and the Philippine Daily Inquirer. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with his wife and son. For more information, visit