Pope USA

Junipero Serra: Sainthood & Legacy

“Would to God, my brethren, that I had a whole forest of such junipers.” Francis of Assisi, “The Little Flowers”

As a priest, I have a very practical relationship to Father Junipero Serra, since week by week, I preside and pray with my fellow Catholics at Mass — in the very churches, and the local community that Serra built.

My adopted town of Monterey, California contrasts greatly with the city of my youth, Newark, N.J.. But even in those days, as an altar boy, I watched television’s “Cisco Kid,” and most especially “Zorro,” and got an impression of the old California, and how the Franciscan padres had a stronghold on the religious imagination, expressed most boldly in the names of settlements such as Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco.


After all, our history books were about the thirteen original colonies, and mostly of Protestants like the preacher Jonathan Edwards. With little or no information about the Spanish, and later Mexican histories of Texas and California which contained the stories of Catholics, and most famously of Father Junipero Serra.

To correct this, for my fifth grade class project, I set about creating an ambitious clay model of a California mission church — complete with a courtyard and trees, and with benches borrowed from my Lionel train set. This was my take on California’s Catholic history. Many years later when I began celebrating Sunday mass at the San Carlos Cathedral, my mother believed that this was a divine sign, or some sort of blessing on me, and my work as as transplanted Californian.

Now I take lessons from a group of friends who know Monterey and Carmel, and have been here for generations. Among the best interpreters of Serra’s legacy is Father Peter Crivello, the pastor of San Carlos Cathedral, as well as the corps of docents  who provide tours for the many visitors.  Over the years,volunteers like Tim McFaddan and Jerry Hornor have heard questions from young people as well as foreign guests, and have ready answers to questions about the distinct historical periods and the layers of meaning for the architecture and art work. Moreover so many people have been helpful to me — as we come to terms with the holiness and the imperfections of Junipero Serra.

It was his vision – to introduce the Christian faith to the peoples and the new territory of Alta California, and despite all of the challenges to his legacy today, aspects of that legacy are worth considering and even celebrating. We need to acknowledge past mistakes, and even cruelty to native peoples and their culture who were here on this land, and long before Europeans arrived.

To be certain, Junipero Serra was the Franciscan friar and founder of California, and the man who Pope Francis will declare a saint on Sept. 23 in Washington, D.C. as part the pope’s visit to the United States. What accounts for Pope Francis special devotion to Junipero Serra? As the first pope from the Americas, they share Saint Francis of Assisi as a patron and model of spirituality. It is this relentless focus on divine mercy that both Pope Francis and Junipero Serra speak.

In his 1744 sermon, Serra states:

The mercy of God is most gentle in its extension. It is the kind of divine mercy that extends itself to all men and women, no matter how many of them are sinners nor how many times they have sinned. God’s mercy is not just for a certain time. No, it persists through all the centuries as the psalmists says: “The mercy of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting toward those who fear Him.” The Lord’s mercy extends from the beginning to the end of time. It is not restricted to a certain number of sins. Indeed, it hardly knows how to count: “His mercy is beyond measure.” It is not limited to a certain kind of person… In a word, it applies to everything, since it is boundless: “the mercy of God is without equal.” 

A movement outward to mission territory, and going out to those people on the periphery may be a second association of Pope Francis and Junipero Serra. In a way, taking the gospel “on the open road” defined the very California culture we have come to know.

Those of us who live in California are familiar with a recent television commercial for the 2015 Jeep Grand Cherokee, with its upbeat and peppy state-song: “I love you California.”

As the bright red SUV bolts out of the Carmel Mission’s interior courtyard to explore the Big Sur coastline, and the restive state that is California — this is a way of saying, how this sacred place has mobilized our dreams for the road ahead, so ready to be explored.


The Carmel Mission (circa.1884)

The Mission, at the crossroads of Rio Road and Highway One, gathered the native peoples of the Esselens and the Ohlones, ranchers, farmers, Mexican soldiers, and later Americans to this part of the “New World.” And herein lies so many diverse and sometimes conflicting narratives of peoples, their identities, and their stake in the history of California.

FullSizeRender-9In 1931, when Serra’s statue, was placed under the dome of the Nation’s Capital in Washington, D.C., to honor the state of California, the friar is depicted holding the cross in one hand, and a replica of the Carmel Mission in the other.

It was “Founders Day,” at the Carmel Mission on Sunday June 28th when I presided the 5:30 PM Mass at the Basilica church for a congregation of parishioners, friends, and mostly tourists.


Standing at the main altar, it’s a challenging church to negotiate and celebrate Mass — with its presider’s chair to the right, a very narrow altar table, the tabernacle on the back wall, and the congregation seated down the very long nave.

From my vantage point, at a distance from the front doors, I see tourists, with cameras, unsure of themselves, and even startled to find that there are real people in a worship space attending Mass.

Serra’s relics, mostly bones in a box-shaped reliquary, are buried to the right of the main altar. To the left of the main courtyard, there is a museum of artifacts and paintings, a bookstore; the buildings are surrounded with floral displays of bougainvillea, roses, cactus, and giant dahlias.

The church and the parish grammar school of today bear little resemblance to the site founded in 1771 by Father Junipero Serra (1713-1784).

Beginning in the 1930’s, and over a fifty-year period, the craftsman and artisan, Harry Downie, re-imagined the church and its surroundings to bring it to its present and unique romantic Moorish-style.

Just two-years ago, the ceiling/roof and overall structure were restored for seismic integrity, and the building with its precious artifacts were thoroughly cleaned.

It is a place of worship and education, a place for Sunday Mass, and sacraments of the Church, funerals of parishioners, destination weddings, the annual Carmel Bach Festival, and even the occasional automobile show.

See the recent article by Dennis Taylor, “Carmel Mission Founder’s Day: History Started with Indigenous People, Mexican Land & Father Serra.”


Hay Field San Carlos

San Carlos Cathedral, The Royal Presidio Chapel (circa.1896)

In June of 1770, Father Junipero Serra had traveled by sea to reach the port of Monterey, and along with Gaspar de Portola established the Presidio of Monterey, the military fortification, with its own distinctive church, the Royal Presidio Chapel, the San Carlos de Borromeo Cathedral.

The Cathedral’s plaza, in what is today downtown Monterey, reaches out to a local soccer field that covers over the historic remains of the presidio. After a recent major restoration, first-time visitors to the Church can see how the present day architects and artists copied elements of the original bright red and green wall decorations by placing plastic coverings over portions of the original artwork.

This church, along with the military fortification, is the oldest site in Monterey, and the church structure itself has the distinction as the oldest continuous house of worship in California, and the first architecturally designed public building in the state.

Today, San Carlos remains a vibrant and diverse parish community of Latinos, Italian-Americans, and U.S. military and their families who live in what remains the very first neighborhood of California. At Christmas time, the windows of the old adobe homes, that surround this town, glow in the warm candlelight, providing a glimpse of old Monterey.

By 1771, because of conflicts with the military and the need for a source of fresh water, Father Serra brought his Franciscan friars to the second religious site in the mountains along the Carmel River to San Carlos de Borromeo de Carmelo, know as the Carmel Mission.

Both churches exist today, along with six others in the Monterey Diocese, that are from the early “mission period” of Spanish and Mexican rule of the Alta California. At their peak, the twenty-one California mission churches were about a day’s ride on horseback from one community to the next, from San Diego to Sonoma.

What do we make of the historical legacy of Junipero Serra?

A recent biography “Junipero Serra — California’s Founding Father” by Steven W. Hackel (Hill & Wang, 2013) details the life of Serra, providing glimpses of the university-trained theologian and accomplished preacher. Hackel provides important insights. For example, Serra had not traveled off his Island of Mallorca, before leaving for Spain and the New World. Consequently, the mainland of Europe may have been as unusual to him as the exotic peoples and their cultures that he found in Mexico.

Gregory Orfalea‘s “Journey to the Sun: Junipero Serra’s Dream and the Founding of California”(Scribner, 2014) is another of the recent books about Serra, and helps to complete the story, with a sympathy toward Serra’s overall goals. It has been given a helpful summary in StJunipero.org website created by the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the Pontifical Commission for Latin America. This a very complete website containing important profiles and study guides suited for learners of all ages.


Ruben Mendoza teaches California history at CSU Monterey Bay, and has been working “to dig a little deeper” into the history around Monterey. In a recent LA Times article by Louis Sahogun “Often Criticized, Serra Get a Reappraisal from Historians,” Mendoza responds to Serra’s critics, and deals with the complexity of the Spanish and Mexican colonial period.


For the National Catholic Reporter, Father Tom Reese interviewed Santa Clara University historian Robert Senkewicz for an article “Junipero Serra: Saint or Not?” Senkewicz and Rose Marie Beebe carefully examined the spiritual and religious language of Serra in his preaching appeals and pastoral style. Senkewicz tells Reese how Serra’s used a gradual missionary strategy to better foster community among native peoples. The Senkewicz/Bebbe’s “Junipero Serra: California, the Indians and the Transformation of a Missionary” (University of Oklahoma, 2015) is a recent important addition to the growing historical literature about Serra. The NCR article is a helpful summary of important aspects of Serra’s rise to sainthood, despite the mixed historical interpretations.


On July 30th, Santa Clara University provided a forum entitled: “Junipero Serra: Man Behind the Canonization Controversy,” with historians Rose Marie Beebe and Robert Senkewicz.

America provides a forum of ideas about Serra, including a recent piece by Jeffery M. Burns, “Serra’s Sainthood: A Cause for Healing or Controversy? (8/31-9/7, 2015).


What does the spiritual/religious legacy of Junipero Serra mean for us today?

Here are reflections from friends of mine — who have addressed Serra’s spiritual and religious legacy.


        Most Rev. Richard J. Garcia, Bishop of Monterey

I think especially the older missions, like San Miguel and San Antonio, they are still serving the people in so many ways. These places take me back to the time of Blessed Serra.

It’s almost haunting to walk into these older missions that are so large and to see what the people did there, and how they must have worshipped. It brings to mind what these times must have been like.

There was an event a couple of years ago, fifteen horse riders came from the Northern California and were visiting each of the missions on horseback. So they invited me to celebrate Mass at Mission San Antonio.

So beautiful in front of the mission, and then they came into the church. That was really beautiful. This is the legacy to keep these churches as best as they were — especially now that we are retrofitting them for earthquakes.

So going to places like San Antonio and San Miguel, those missions that are so removed from city centers – these take me back.

And interestingly, it’s been really good because our youth have gone to San Antonio on “youth days” and they get a feeling of what it must have been like and they are intrigued by the whole place — how beautiful it is, how old it is, and going through the military gates.

The mission that I’m especially grateful for is Soledad. It’s very small but still has the cemetery. Two years ago, on the anniversary of Serra’s birth…. Father Dennis Gallo had a prayer service with everyone was walking in procession, and the native peoples were there as well – burning incense, and all that. It was really beautiful.


Very Rev. Peter A. Crivello, V.G. Pastor, San Carlos Cathedral, Monterey

Fr Junipero Serra chose to go the “extra mile” for the sake of spreading the gospel.  Already a professor of theology both in Spain and in New Spain, present day Mexico, his heart burned with passion to go out into uncharted territory to share the Good News of Jesus Christ. 

He chose to do this. He could have remained comfortable in his own spiritual and academic world.  Yet he chose to make many personal sacrifices to plant the seeds of faith by establishing the Missions in California.  

He can be an inspiration for us today to make choices to “go that extra yard or mile” to share our faith, so that others may come to know the joy of the Gospel.  He reminds us still today, as members of the Church we are called to share in the “one mission of Jesus Christ.”


Father Ed Holterhoff, Pastor, Saint Timothy’s, Morro Bay

Fra Junipero Serra, like many saints, is a contradiction.  He also was a product of his time.  As a founder of the Mission churches, he left an enduring legacy, religiously, culturally, and artistically.  

The study of the missions is part of the core curriculum of all California schools.   He was passionate and intrepid, qualities that we admire in every hero, as is exemplified in his voyage from Europe to the ’new world’ and his journeys up the coast of California.  He also was faithful to the spirit of St. Francis, living in simple, if not spartan conditions.   A more contemporary model is Mother Teresa.  

But he also was implacable.  Like any founder, he could not have accomplished what he did if he were not so.   Without the Conquistadores, however, he would not been able to fulfill his vision of converting the natives.  There was an intrinsic element of force that characterized his whole missionary endeavor, even though he represented the softer side of the Spanish invasion.  

The very fact that Fra Junipero Serra was beatified in Majorca, his birthplace, and  will be canonized in Washington D.C. — neither the location of his actual ministry — already indicates controversy and disagreement.  

Furthermore, Pope Francis just apologized to the Indians of Latin America on his past trip for the colonizing practices of the European missionaries and now he is canonizing Junipero Serra in North America.  Far Junipero Serra was a great priest but not every great priest needs to be canonized, especially 250 years after their death.


Jerry Hornor, Docent, Royal Presidio Chapel, Monterey

Under Spanish and Mexican rule, the roles of the church and government were inextricable and Father Serra’s influence on California history, both religious and secular was formidable. No one living in or visiting California today can escape his legacy.

As docents at the Royal Presidio Chapel (San Carlos Cathedral), we welcome thousands of visitors from around the world each year. Ours is not a mission site, rather it is the last original Presidio Chapel in California. Here, Father Serra, his companions and his successors ministered to the Spanish and Mexican soldiers and their families.

As our visitors stand on the ground above the remains of the chapel where Father Serra preached or sit in the church completed after his death, his presence and that of succeeding generations of Californians is palpable.

Surely canonization in Washington D.C. will sharpen Serra’s religious and spiritual influence among many Catholics. It will also focus the national media on the negatives of his legacy as an agent of the Spanish empire. The people who do or claim to represent the native people of Alta California will remain upset and vocal.

I admit as an old soldier, I identify with the trials and tribulations of both the Spanish Soldiers and their Padre Chaplains who were likeable and interesting characters with stories of growing maturity and redemption.


Virginia Saenz McCarthy, Filmmaker, teacher at Saint Mary’s College of CA, social activist.

By the time Franciscan Friar Junipero Serra served the institutional aims of the Roman Catholic Church in the new world, the Order of Friars Minor had – on some level – lost the original charism of it’s beloved founder Francis – patron saint of animals and ecology, brother and friend of birds, flowers, the destitute and poor. It is difficult to imagine the humble beggar Francis accepting a salary from the Spanish government and traveling with the Spanish military to subjugate native peoples, destroy nature and the sacred lands of these people so as to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ. Rather more believable is that Francis would have lived in solidarity with the natives willing to experience every violence and indignity visited upon him by the Spanish and the church and proclaiming that “perfect joy” is to accept “willingly, out of love for Christ, all suffering, injury, discomfort and contempt… (for) in the cross of tribulation and affliction we may glory… Amen.” (Floretum)

The same institutional amnesia and insensitivity exemplified by Serra’s missionary stratagem appears to be operating in Pope Francis’ decision to canonize Serra despite decades of protest and outcry from the direct descendants of the people decimated by the mission system. By canonizing Serra, Pope Francis legitimizes the personal and cultural violence visited upon the native people of California as well as the resulting ecological destruction as a valid means to an end – namely the expansion of the institutional power, wealth, population – and, of course, the Faith – of the Roman Catholic Church. Two obvious ironies cry out for consideration.

First, from the moment he was elected, Pope Francis has unequivocally crafted his image as a champion of the oppressed and the poor. Secondly, in his encyclical – Laudato Si – and at the recent Vatican-hosted climate conference he has categorically positioned himself as a champion for the environment and ecological conversion.

In canonizing Junipero Serra, Pope Francis turns a deaf ear to the cries of the poor and oppressed – the descendants of the native peoples of “California” and their ancestors. These ancestors include human beings and the entire created world. Like Saint Francis, the indigenous ancestors lived in an intimate relationship with nature, with brother sun and sister moon, brother wolf and sister flower – as do their descendants.

By canonizing Serra, Pope Francis disregards the real and ongoing psychological, cultural and natural devastation wrought by the mission system. Secondly, the system employed by the Spanish to enrich the empire through the exploitation, domination and subjugation of the native peoples and the land is essentially the precursor to the current economic model responsible for our global warming crisis. While Serra’s deleterious actions can be understood within the context of his culture and times, the decision by Pope Francis to canonize Serra at this time in history is scandalous. Sadly, like Serra, the Pope is an institutional man and the institution takes precedence over all. Amen.


Ginny Prior, Journalist, teacher at Saint Mary’s College and travel writer.

As a former San Francisco radio news anchor on KSFO, I remember the last time Junipero Serra was in the news.

His 26 foot tall statue and surrounds had long been a landmark on Interstate 280 in Hillsborough, but by the early 1990s the site had – shall we say – fallen from grace.

It was about this time that an ‘angel’ came onto the scene. A county worker named Jerry Morissette, who transformed the rest stop from a garbage and graffiti infested pit into a beautiful botanical garden with flowers and fruit trees. Morissette was a former monk and he cared for the site as if Serra, himself, had sent him – living in a storage shed and welcoming weary travelers with fresh coffee. It was touching and tender and showed the respect one man had for the founder of our California missions.

Does Father Serra deserve Sainthood? Some will say no. But his mission system opened up California to travelers across the land. And the image of him kneeling as he points west across the interstate serves as a reminder that his unwavering vision was to bring Christianity to the new frontier.


2 thoughts on “Junipero Serra: Sainthood & Legacy

  1. Admiring the time and energy you put into your site and in depth information you
    present. It’s awesome to come across a blog every once
    in a while that isn’t the same outdated rehashed material.
    Great read! I’ve saved your site and I’m adding your RSS feeds to
    my Google account.


Leave a Reply to Mike Russo Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s