Here’s a sneak preview of the incredible story of Blessed Junípero Serra’s evangelization of the Wild West.
The Franciscans of Spain had great plans for Junípero Serra. Soon after the 17- year- old Serra came to them in 1730, they decided the unusually bright novice had the makings of a great theologian. For 14 years, they sent him to their best schools, and when the young priest completed his education, they honored him with a chair in philosophy at the Lullian University in Palma, Majorca. His future as a great scholar and teacher seemed secure.
Father Serra, however, didn’t want to be a great scholar and teacher. He wanted to be a missionary. And, after much prayer, Serra got what he wanted. In 1749, his superiors reluctantly granted his request to sail for the Americas. Months later, Serra and his companions arrived on the shores of Mexico.
For the next 19 years, Serra taught and preached at missions throughout Mexico. His reputation as an enthusiastic proclaimer of the Gospel was unmatched. For that reason, in 1768, Serra’s superiors asked him to go north and evangelize the Native Americans of Alta California. Despite suffering from asthma and painful ulcers in his legs, the 55- year- old Serra enthusiastically embarked upon his new task. Within 15 years, he personally founded nine missions: San Diego, San Carlos at Monterey, San Antonio, San Gabriel, San Luis Obispo, San Francisco, San Juan Capistrano, Santa Clara, and San Buenaventura.
During those years, Serra traveled over 24,000 miles up and down California’s coast, not only laying the foundations for California’s first cities, but also teaching the region’s people how to successfully farm their land. As a chief defender of the rights of Native Americans in their disputes with Spanish colonists, Serra regularly pressured his government to adopt more native- friendly policies. For similar reasons, when he learnedof the war for independence taking place on the other side of North America, he took up a collection in his missions and sent it to General George Washington.
Considered the Father of Catholicism in California, Father Junípero Serra died in 1784. Pope John Paul II beatified the Franciscan on September 25, 1988.