16 Short Lessons From the Indomitable St. Junípero Serra

One can learn a lot about how to be an evangelizer from the great Apostle of California

A statue of St. Junípero Serra stands outside of Mission San Jose in Fremont, California
A statue of St. Junípero Serra stands outside of Mission San Jose in Fremont, California (photo: Nagel Photography / Shutterstock)

Junípero Serra was canonized Sept. 23, 2015, at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. July 1 is the feast day of St. Junípero. He is the patron of vocations and known today as the Father of the California Missions, Apostle of California, a Founding Father of the United States and the United States’ first Hispanic saint.

The following quotes give insight into the holy man Pope Francis called the “Evangelizer of the West”:

1. Father Junípero Serra to Governor Felipe de Neve: “When we [Fathers] came here, we did not find even a single Christian, that we have engendered them [Indians] all in Christ, that we, every one of us, came here for the single purpose of doing them good and for their eternal salvation; and I feel sure that everyone knows that we love them.” (Jan. 7, 1780)

2. Father Junípero Serra wrote his superior in Mexico City, Father Juan Andrés, with an update on life in San Diego. Referring to the Indian revolt on Aug. 15, he wrote: “And so it turned out, thank God, for seeing many of their companions covered with blood, they all fled. And I believe none of them were killed; therefore they can all yet be baptized.” (Feb. 10, 1770)

3. Father Junípero Serra to Father Francisco Pangua, his guardian in Mexico City, describing the native peoples: “They are in places one cannot visit without walking a long distance and sometimes going on hands and feet, but I put my trust in the Lord, who created them.” (Feb. 26, 1777)

4. Father Junípero Serra to Viceroy Antonio María de Bucareli y Ursúa: “Despite my lukewarmness, tears welled up into my eyes when I saw with what good will they [Chumash] came to my assistance, linking me on both sides by the arms to get me over the steep muddy hills, which I could not negotiate whether on foot or on horseback.” (March 1, 1777)

5. Father Junípero Serra to Governor Felipe de Neve: “We put ourselves out for the good of these poor people, and in doing so, work no harm to others. Nor do we undertake the work for any low or unworthy motive, as some parties have attempted to imply in some quarters.” (April 18, 1780)

6. On the expedition to San Diego, he wrote: “The blazing sun made the journey very painful. For the last four nights, a roaring lion quite close by kept us awake. May God guard us from it, as he has till now. ... Also, there were footprints of gentiles, but not one was seen.” (May 24, 1769)

7. Father Francisco Palóu wrote in Life and Apostolic Labors of the Venerable Father Junípero Serra: “The great heart of Father Junípero seemed too small to contain the great joy which overflowed his soul on seeing such magnificent worship rendered to God, whom he never ceased to thank for having sent such a goodly number of friars to help in the Missions and in the conversions.” (May 30, 1771)

8. Father Junípero Serra wrote to [Viceroy of New Spain] Antonio María de Bucareli y Ursua, Mexico City, “that at the first request of the Missionary Father ... he [Commandant of the Presidio] should remove the soldier or soldiers who may have given bad example [to the neophyte], especially in matters of incontinence, and that they be withdrawn to the presidio and another or others be sent in their place who are not known as indecorous and scandalous.” (June 11, 1773)

9. Father Junípero Serra wrote his superior in Mexico City, Father Juan Andrés, from San Diego, cautioning the Franciscans who may come to California of the many challenges they may encounter, ending with: “But to a willing heart all is sweet, amanti suave est.” (July 3, 1769)

10. Father Junípero Serra to Fray Paloú, San Diego: “I pray God may preserve your life and health many years.” (July 3, 1769)

11. Father Junípero Serra wrote home from Cadíz, Spain, to console his parents, writing that surely they would encourage him, “Always forward! Never turn back!” — ¡Siempre adelante! ¡Nunca para atrás! (Aug. 20, 1749)

12. Father Junípero Serra wrote to the Viceroy Teodoro de Croix, “In reference to the care we take of our converts, let me tell you: they are our children, for none except we have birthed them in Christ. The result is, we look upon them as a father looks upon his family. We shower all our love and care upon them.” (Aug. 22, 1778)

13. Father Junípero Serra wrote to Father Francisco Pangua, “Say, from time to time, a Hail Mary to our Immaculate Queen, that she should guide us, defend us, and look on us with a favorable eye, so that we may conduct ourselves as to be pleasing to her, and to her Most Holy Son.” (Aug. 22, 1775)

14. Father Pedro Font, writing from the College of San Fernando, Mexico City, shared about Serra, “Notwithstanding his many and laborious years, he has the qualities of a lion that surrenders only to fever.” (Aug. 26, 1773)

15. Father Junípero Serra wrote to Fray Miguel de Petra from Mexico City, “I realize my nothingness and feebleness for such a glorious enterprise. But God is powerful, and can call great things out of nothing.” (Sept. 29, 1758)

16. Father Junípero Serra wrote to Viceroy Antonio María de Bucareli y Ursúa in Mexico City, “One of the most important requests I made ... was that if the Indians, gentile or Christian, should kill me then they should be forgiven.” (Dec. 15, 1775)

One can learn a lot about how to be an evangelizer from St. Junípero Serra. What I take from the above are lessons on courage, respect, fidelity, humility, relationships, justice, sacrifice, perseverance and dedication.

St. Junípero Serra and Pablo Tac, holy California mission Indian, seminarian and scholar, pray for us!