A common blessing given by parents to their children in Mallorca at the time Miguel Serra grew up there was “May God make a saint of you.” In Father Serra’s case, it happened—by a long, uncharted path. The story of a boy from a small island in the Mediterranean, who founded the long chain of California missions may have begun when he admired the beauty of creation: almond trees flowering, glimpses of blue sea, olive orchards he’d harvest with his father.
After joining the Franciscan community, Serra chose the religious name “Junipero,” or clown of God, after one of St. Francis’ first companions, a man filled with laughter, glee and pranks. It seems an odd choice for a serious, academic sort, but perhaps he remembered Francis’ comment, “Would…that I had a forest of such Junipers!”
Like many people of his time, Serra had always been eager to become a missionary. When he heard a call to go to the New World, he seized the chance, despite being considered “older,” at age 35. In an odd arrangement, the Spanish government paid the priests’ expenses, helping to cement their settlements in Mexico and California, warding off encroaching Russian settlement.
Serra would spend his first 19 years in the new world around Mexico City and Oaxaca. There he was introduced to the debate which raged through the 18th century between friars and government authorities over what to do with the native populations. Some thought the friars infantilized the natives, whereas the Franciscans simply wanted to protect them. (Understandable when some Spanish soldiers were nicknamed “Exterminators.”) The natives caught in the middle of the debate were oddly voiceless.
Serra also began practices there which he’d continue as president of the missions in California: learning languages and utilizing hands-on ritual like washing feet and Christmas pageants, building beautiful churches and pitching in on construction. As Kenan Osborne, OFM says, a key element of Franciscan life is “getting your hands dirty with good cheer.” He finally left for California in 1767 at 54, an age by which most people of his day had retired.
To be continued…
Excerpt from When the Saints Came Marching In, available from Liturgical Press, 800-858-5450, litpress.org/family