Sunday, July 3, 2016

52 Saints ~ Week 27 ~ St. Junipero Serra, Part I

Statue of St. Junipero Serra at
Mission San Diego de Acala
This past Friday, July 1, 2016, we celebrated the feast day of St. Junipero Serra for the first time, since he was just canonized last September. I almost missed it because I was off work that day and I would not have gone to Mass except that there was a funeral later that day, and I wanted to go in and make sure everything was ready. And then, there wasn't another lector there, so I got to read. Even though the priest did not celebrate the memorial or even mention St. Junipero, I was very glad that things worked out as they did. 

I have always loved Junipero Serra, although my first reason for adopting him as a favorite saint was purely coincidental. I was born on his birthday. I'm sure that I learned in school that he was considered the founder of the state of California, and that I read about the missions, but I don't remember any details. Then in 1995, I read an article in Caelum et Terra magazine by Lesley Payne about taking her children to visit the California missions, and ever since then, I have had a great desire to visit them all. Later, I listened to a series of tapes by a man named John David Black, a protestant minister who was converted to Catholicism during a walking pilgrimage to all the California Missions, and that only whetted my appetite. 

Since then I have learned more about St. Junipero and the missions. One thing that purely delighted me was finding out that the saint's name before he became a Franciscan was Miguel José. All unawares, I had named my son Michael Joseph after him. And then, Michael's confirmation name is Francis. I love all these little connections and coincidences.

I had planned for this post to be the first of this series, and even had begun writing it, but Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity (who will be canonized on October 16, 2016) intervened and somehow St. Junipero kept getting pushed further and further into the future. I tried to read some books, and did read a good bit of one of them, but I never had the time finish them, and I don't remember what I read clearly. So, I decided that I should go ahead and write the post in the week of his feast day, and write more from my own perspective than stressing a lot of historical facts, but here are a few.

Miguel José Serra was born into a poor farming family in Majorca on November 24, 1713. He was a sickly baby and always very small for his age. He loved school but it was very unlikely that a boy from this small community would receive much formal education; however the Franciscan Friars who taught him recognized his exceptional intelligence, and he received a good education, and eventually was sent to the University of Las Palmas where he quickly excelled, and was soon studying with the more advanced students.

All of his life Serra had been intrigued by stories of faraway places, and while he was studying at university, he heard a missionary speak about the missions in Mexico. He conceived a desire to become a missionary himself, and learned all he could about Mexico and even California. He soon received a call to the priesthood, and at the age of 17, he asked the visiting Minister General for permission to become a Franciscan. Having told Serra that he was too young, and heard his reply that he was 17, the Minister General became angry because he believed that Serra was lying. At this time the young man still only looked about 13. The Minister General told Serra that he would have to wait.

However, the Minister General asked the professors about Serra and was surprised at the responses he got. He found that not only was Serra really 17, but that he was excelling in all his studies. He received glowing reports from everyone, and so consented that Serra should begin his preparation for the priesthood. He asked they young man if he realized that becoming a Franciscan friar meant that he might never achieve his ambition to become a missionary. A Franciscan friar's ministry is determined by his superiors to whom he owes perfect obedience, and his own desires do not always match the needs of the community.

For a long time, it looked like the Minister General's warning was prophetic. Serra was so brilliant that his superiors charted a course in academia for him, and thought that he might become a doctor the Church some day. They believed that his abilities were too great to be wasted on preaching to simple Indians. He became a professor of Theology at the Convento de San Francisco in Palma in 1740, and in 1744 at the age of 33 became the youngest person ever to be appointed to the Duns Scotus chair of Philosophy at Lulling University. It was not until 1749 that he was allowed to go to Mexico, and not until 1769 at the age of 56 that he began the work that think of when we hear his name. This is the year that he founded Mission San Diego de Acala. 

One reason that St. Junipero desired--not just wanted, but truly desired--to go to the mission field was to renew his own faith. It wasn't that he no longer believed, but it was that after so many years of dealing with theology and philosophy in an academic way, he felt that his love was growing cold. He wanted to renew his fervour by going to the missions in the same way that St. Francis Solano had done. And despite the fact that early in his missionary journey he wounded his leg in a way that would never heal, and that would cause him great difficulty in traveling, he never turned back from his original intention. In the fifteen years that remained to him after he came to California, he founded 9 of the 21 missions and oversaw some of the others. 

It was during the time that he was teaching at Lulling University that he met Francisco Palou, his lifelong friend and biographer. If you go looking for something to read about St. Junipero, most of what you will find is fairly recent books with fairly recent prejudices. This is not to say that there is no truth in them, but the best place to start reading about him is in the book written by the person who was there, Francisco Palou's Life and Apostolic Labors of the Venerable Father Junipero Serra.

Currently, there is a great outcry from some quarters condemning St. Junipero and the other missionaries who worked in California. I don't know all the ins and outs of the arguments, and if I did, I would hardly have room to write about them here. There may be, I'm sure that there are, some legitimate complaints, but it seems that there are a great many misconceptions also, and that many people are judging the missions with 21st century sensibilities, and little understanding of life in 18th century Spain and California. 

The only way that I can judge the work of the Franciscan missionaries in California is by the testimony of their contemporaries, and the fruit of their labors, the missions themselves. I was going to write about them here, but this post is already a great deal longer than I thought it would be. There have certainly been more than a few historical facts. I think that instead of making this post over-long, I will wait a couple of days and write about the missions in another post.

I mentioned above that I loved all the connections and coincidences, and here is another. In a way this whole series on the saints came about from the same source as my desire to visit the missions, since the magazine Caelum et Terra eventually led me to the blog of one the editors, Light on Dark Water and the plans for this series were hatched on that blog.

Janet Cupo is the proprietor of this blog.

If you want to see all of the posts in this series, click HERE.


  1. Appreciate your research and your devotion. The saint has significance for me because of my experiences in San Diego with my brother.

  2. I'm glad to hear that, Mary. Sorry to be so long in answering but it's been crazy here.


  3. I've been upset because I read an Internet article claiming that a second miracle did happen and was approved yet the canonization was already scheduled and so it was downplayed. Have you heard this too? If so can you please give me a link?

  4. I don't know Mark. Maybe you should contact the pastor at one of the Missions--maybe at San Juan Capistrano--and ask if he has heard about that.