June 30, 2017

St. Junipero Serra, Spanish Priest and Missionary

Saint Junipero Serra

Optional Memorial - July 1st

Saint Junipero Serra was born Miguel Jose Serra on the island of Majorca in 1713 and entered the Franciscan Order in 1730; it was then that he took the name Junipero in honor of St. Francis of Assisi’s humble companion, Brother Juniper. For the next eighteen years, Father Serra spent his time in classrooms, first as a student and later as a professor of theology at the University of Majorca.

But Father Serra also had a missionary spirit and, inspired by the work of St. Francis Solanus in South America, he left his relatively comfortable life in Spain for the New World in 1749. He landed first in Vera Cruz, Mexico, where he and a companion proceeded to travel on foot some 250 miles to Mexico City. On the way, Father Serra suffered a spider bite on his leg which did not heal; that plus his asthma would plague him and cause him discomfort for the rest of his life.

He served for several years in central Mexico and the Baja Peninsula, learning the native language and translating parts of the catechism and preaching. Following the expulsion of the Jesuits from all Spanish dominions in 1767, he also took over as president of the missions in the area. The future saint was fifty-five years old.

The threat of an invasion southward from Alaska by the Russians precipitated the next chapter in Father Serra’s life. When King Charles III of Spain ordered troops northward to counter the Russian incursion, Serra would accompany them as a missionary to the native peoples near present day Monterey, California. Nine hundred miles and two years later, he founded the mission of San Diego, which almost did not survive due to an acute food shortage; scurvy had killed the crew of a supply ship, and Serra was facing the possibility of having to abandon the mission altogether. Always zealous in prayer, he made a nine-day novena to St. Joseph. On the ninth day, another supply ship arrived and the mission was saved.

Eight more missions followed, including the one at San Juan Capistrano, famous today for the annual return of the swallows.  Not only did Father Serra work tirelessly to teach and convert the native peoples, he also taught them more efficient methods of both agriculture and animal husbandry.  Despite his Spanish background and his location on the far western side of the American continent, Father Serra also took an interest in the American Revolution; during the years 1775 to 1783, Father Serra took up a collection from his mission parishes in California, which he sent to General George Washington to help the war effort.

By 1784, Father Serra was worn out by his labors. In his time in the New World, he had baptized over 6,000 people and confirmed over 5,000. He died on the 28th of August in 1784 of tuberculosis, and it is said that among the Native Americans, there was an outpouring of grief at his funeral. Father Serra is the patron saint of religious vocations. O God, who by your ineffable mercy have been pleased through the labors of your priest Saint Junipero Serra to count many American peoples within your Church, grant by his intercession that we join our hearts to you and carry before all the image of your Only Begotten Son.

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