01 July 2009

Blessed Junipero Serra

1 JULY 2009. Today, in the United States, is the optional memorial of Blessed Junipero Serra, priest.

The American Revolution began in the east in 1776, but at the same time on the other side of the continent, the catholic missions were spreading into what would become the State of California. That same year, 1776, the Franciscans founded Mission San Juan Capistrano, which is famous now for its annually returning swallows. In fact, San Juan Capistrano was the seventh of nine missions established under Father Serra.

Father Junipero Serra was born in Spain on the island of Majorca on November 24, 1713. In 1730 Serra joined the Franciscan order and was soon noted for his academic abilities. Even before his ordination to the priesthood, he was appointed as lector of philosophy. Father Serra later received a Doctor of Theology and was a professor at the Lullian University at Palma and the missionary college of San Fernando, Mexico. But, Father Serra suddenly gave up his academics and, following his yearning, set out for the new world to convert the native peoples to Christianity.

After arriving in Vera Cruz, Mexico, Father Serra and a companion walked the 250 miles to Mexico City. Along the way Father Serra injured his leg (it is told his leg became infected from an insect bite) and the injury plagued him the rest of his life. For 18 years Father Serra worked to establish missions in Central Mexico and the Baja Peninsula.

According to the Catholic Encyclopedia:
At his own request Father Serra was assigned to the Sierra Gorda Indian Missions. He served there for nine years, part of the time as superior. He learned the language of the Pame Indians and translated the catechism into their language. Recalled to Mexico, he became famous as a most fervent and effective preacher of missions. His zeal frequently led him to employ extraordinary means in order to move the people to penance. He would pound his breast with a stone while in the pulpit, scourge himself, or apply a lighted torch to his bare chest. In 1767 he was appointed superior of a band of fifteen Franciscans for the Indian Missions of Lower California.
In 1769 Father Serra joined a land expedition going north into California. The first mission founded in California was at San Diego. In San Diego food ran short and the mission was in danger of being cancelled. Father Serra and another friar, vowing to stay with the native people began a novena in preparation for St. Joseph's Day, March 19, the scheduled day of departure. And, on that day the relief ship arrived at San Diego.

Other missions followed: Monterey/Carmel (1770); San Antonio and San Gabriel (1771); San Luís Obispo (1772); San Francisco and San Juan Capistrano (1776); Santa Clara (1777); San Buenaventura (1782). Twelve more were founded after Serra’s death.

In 1773, Father Serra made the long trip to Mexico City to settle differences that he had with the expedition's military commander. Of the 32 articles that Father Serra brought, all but two were decided in his favor. These included the famous "Regulation" which protected the native peoples and missions. In fact, this regulation is said to have been the basis for the first significant legislation in California, a "Bill of Rights" for Native Americans.

Because the Spanish considered the Native Americans to be living inhuman lives, Father Serra and the other friars were made their guardians. Father Serra kept the Native Americans at the missions, lest they be corrupted to return to their non-Christian manner of living. While Father Serra was criticized by some "moderns" for his paternal treatment of the native peoples, their grief at his death was a witness to their love for him. Father Serra died in Montery, California on August 28, 1784 and is buried at Mission San Carlo Borromeo, in Carmel.

All of Father Serra's missionary life was marked by struggle with physical ailments, cold and hunger, and unsympathetic military commanders. Through this, Father Serra managed to hold on to an unquenchable zeal, which he fed by nightly prayer, often from midnight to dawn. In his missionary work, Father Serra baptized more than 6,000 and confirmed more than 5,000.

Besides extraordinary fortitude, Father Serra was most known for his zeal, love of mortification, self-denial, and absolute confidence in God. His executive abilities has been especially noted by non-Catholic writers. There is a granite monument erected to him at Montery (the patron of which was a non-Catholic). A bronze statute of heroic size represents him as the apostolic preacher in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco. And, in 1884 the California Legislature passed a concurrent resolution making 29 August of that year, the centennial of Father Serra's burial, a legal holiday.

In 1988, Pope John Paul II beatified Father Serra.

IMAGE: serraus.org


  1. I was taught, in catholic school, that Fr. Serra had his fingers chewed off by indian children, before he was burned at the stake. True/or false.

    1. That was St. Isaac Jogues who had his main digits gnawed off. Not only him but his companion priests as well.

      The natives in the area where he was knew that his hands were sacramentals; that is, the holy and venerable Hands of Christ. In the accounts of the natives, they respected but also feared Christ. They also feared the Devil in the Darkness more. In order keep the Darkness from harming their children, they said they must eat parts of the human body, particularly from people outside their tribe. Aside from the minor issue of canibalism, those particular natives actually no issue with Christianity whatsoever, but they just couldn't make the leap from actual human flesh to the Body and Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

  2. I have never heard of that before, and in looking through the few books I have on the lives of saints, I see no mention of it.


  4. Deus te abençoe. Abençoado Junipero Serra rogai por nós!

  5. Do you think we could get a copy in the original (unedited) language of...

    La Prelada de S. Fernando; Novena a la Concepción Inmaculada de Maria, distribuida por las nueve Letras de Ave Pulcra, printed at Mexico City in 1765.

  6. All that I am aware of is the English translation, which is available here:


    Based on the associated information at the above referenced website, it appears the Archdiocese of Los Angeles would be the best place to inquire as to the original version of the Novena.

    Pax Christi!