ST. JUNIPERO SERRA IN MEXICO
St. Junípero Serra is most famous for founding nine missions in California and is subsequently known as “the apostle of California.” A statue of him in the US Capitol Building commemorates this achievement: California Senator B. Dockweiler said of him in 1927, “He is worthy of first place among the immortal heroes who created our nation.”
He was born in Majorca, Spain, in 1713. At the age of 16 he entered the Franciscan Order at Palma, taking the name of Junípero in honour of an early companion of St. Francis of Assisi. During his novitiate he became absorbed in reading the lives of the great Franciscan saints, particularly missionary saints. His heart was stirred—how he longed to become a missionary!
In the meantime, the clever Junípero, who was ordained at the age of 24, received a doctorate in philosophy and became a university professor at the age of 30. But his missionary dream never left him. When the missionary call came, he was more than ready!
But before he ever reached California he spent two decades in Mexico, work which provided the foundation for his evangelization of the state. For 200 years the Spanish missionaries had been unsuccessful in their evangelization efforts in the rugged mountainous Sierra Gorda region of Central Mexico. The Pame Indians of the region resisted their efforts every step of the way until Father Serra arrived in 1750. His work with the Pames was enormously successful and resulted in the construction of five Mexican Baroque mission churches, all of which are active parishes today.
Father Serra, who had a fervent devotion to Our Lady, dedicated two of these churches to her: The one in Tancoyol is dedicated to Our Lady of Light and the other, in Aguas de Landa, is dedicated to Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception.
These mission churches, designated a UNESCO world heritage site in 2003, are notable for their extraordinary, elaborately carved facades, “sermons in stone,” facades which are unique in the Americas. They are a synthesis of the two cultures, blending Christian symbolism with superb indigenous artistry.
In 1749 he set sail for America, accompanied by friars Juan Crespi and Francisco Palou, his former student (who would also become his biographer). The three would be lifetime companions in the New World. After a tortuous crossing they arrived in Veracruz, Mexico, on December 6, 1749. Junípero decided to walk (in imitation of St. Francis) to Mexico City, a distance of 275 miles over four mountain ranges. Walking (despite his injured foot) became his preferred mode of transportation in the new country.
When he reached Mexico City he headed straight for the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe. There he would pass the night in prayer. It was December 31, 1749. Father Serra would dedicate all of his future missionary works to Our Lady of Guadalupe on this night.
The kindly Father Serra worked tirelessly for his beloved Pames. His years in the Sierra Gorda, according to biographer Abigail Fitch, were “arduous years of unremitting labour.” “He habitually spent his entire salary on the Indians,” she says. “He won the hearts of them all” states Father Palou. He sewed brightly-coloured clothes for the children (“they squealed with delight when he came round”), taught the Pames skills and trades and worked alongside them in constructing the churches. By the time of his departure nine years later, the missions were not only thriving spiritually, they were thriving agriculturally and economically as well.
His one primary goal was to transmit the truths of the Catholic faith. “His religion was alive, a glowing spark burning in the depths of his soul. It was his one great passion in life,” records Fitch. A plaque in the museum at Jalpan records his final words to the Pames: “I arrived with nothing. I leave you with nothing, but I leave you with a great treasure, the faith.”
Recently I attended the Saturday 7pm Mass in Jalpan, the principal mission church of the Sierra Gorda. It was standing room only. The church was packed. Father Serra had done his job well.
He was canonized by Pope Francis in 2015. His feastday is July 1st.
Excerpts from this article have been taken from an article I wrote on the saint for ST. ANTHONY MESSENGER magazine.