New Book Offers Fresh Perspective on Junípero Serra

Santa Clara University professors share details about their book.

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Eleven years ago, a future connection with the Vatican was unforeseen by California historians and husband-and-wife authors Rose Marie Beebe and Robert Senkewicz as they began working on their book Junípero Serra: California, Indians and the Transformation of a Missionary. It is a timely read ahead of the Sept. 23 canonization of Father Serra at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, during the papal visit.

But following a phone call from the Franciscan headquarters in Rome last fall, the unsuspecting couple learned their recently released book had just been chosen by the Vatican as the major source for the positio, the official Vatican documents connected with the canonization of Father Junípero Serra.

Beebe and Senkewicz are professors at Santa Clara University and shared details about their book in a mid-August interview with the Register.


Why did the Vatican choose your biography?

Rose Marie: We think our biography is probably the most evenhanded. We emphasize Serra the man in the context of his time. We’ve used Serra’s own words, so he is speaking to you through this book — through his writings that we’ve translated. We feel that, by using his own words, we give readers a fuller picture of the man, instead of just giving an analysis.

Bob: Also, our book happened to be the most recent book that had come out and was ready exactly at the time the Pope announced the canonization.


What are examples of older translations of Serra’s writings in juxtaposition to yours?

Rose Marie: In one entry in his diary … Serra was writing about the Chumash Indians, who helped to carry him across a muddy area, when he couldn’t walk, and he used the word compasión (compassion) to describe his feelings toward them. We translated the word as “compassion,” but the old translation referred to his emotion as “spurs of pity.” But “spurs of pity” is not what Serra was saying. He was grateful for the help the Chumash had given him.

Bob: What helps in the translations is that Rose Marie is perfectly bilingual. She learned Spanish and English, together, as a child.

Rose Marie: Yes. My mother was born in Cuba, and my grandmother never learned English. So I learned Spanish naturally. I think the gift that my grandmother gave me was the home Spanish I learned, the nuanced Spanish. I think I can pick up on other meanings of words in different contexts taken from life experience.


You consider your new translations the main contribution of your book. Why?

Rose Marie: One thing about the old translations is that they are done word-for-word. For instance, in one letter, Serra writes fuego y nieve (fire and snow). But in English we would say “fire and ice.” A lot of times people will say, “Oh, that’s 18th-century Spanish.” But it really isn’t. There might be variant spellings, but when you read the Spanish to any Spanish speaker today, they would understand what Serra was saying. Again, nuance is really important. Otherwise, it’s stilted, and you’re losing the author’s voice, which is the main thing you want to preserve. But we really appreciate those who worked on earlier translations, and we’ve tried to build upon their work.

Bob: The Academy of American Franciscan History did the earlier translations of Serra’s letters in the mid ’50s to mid-’60s, in conjunction with his cause for beatification. Perhaps, then, the notion was that a saint was somebody who was more elevated and transcended the human condition. But Rose Marie is trying to get into the humanity of the person.


The book contains many historical images and hand-drawn maps. How does your collection differ from other biographies?

Bob: First of all, we do appreciate the University of Oklahoma Press for allowing us to publish a hardback book of 500 pages, which is amazing. And to have three separate color sections is also amazing. The reason that images were so important for us is because Serra was a follower of Don Scotus, a 13th-century Franciscan theologian. Scotus insisted that God could be met not only through the mind, but also through the heart and affections. Serra was concerned about getting good artwork from Mexico City to decorate the missions. He thought the native peoples could approach God through the beauty of the art, like a bridge.

Rose Marie: We tried to include images not found in other biographies. It was a treasure hunt. I located images from Austria, the British Museum, France, Argentina and other places.


Will you be present at the canonization in September?

Bob: Yes, we have been invited to participate by the Franciscans in the Serra cause. We actually wrote in English and in Spanish the one-page biography on Serra that will appear in the program. The head of the cause said, “Okay, you’ve got a 500-page book. Now, reduce it to one.”

This book has come to be something we never expected.


What have you learned about Father Serra through writing this book?

Bob: We discovered him as a complex man. We also discovered that he struggled against of lot of internal and external difficulties, and so he became much more of a human figure to whom we could relate. In one letter he said that he was so agitated that he kept crossing things out. Who hasn’t, as a writer, had that kind of experience?

Rose Marie: I love his sense of humor. It’s something I didn’t know about him. For example, as he was dying, he tried to put his visitors at ease, and said, “Thank you so much for coming to throw a little bit of earth on top of me.”

Jennifer Sokol writes from

Shoreline, Washington.

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Sister Mary Rose Chinn’s Junípero Serra-Inspired Missionary Journey

By Anna Abbott

The upcoming canonization of Blessed Junípero Serra, founder of the missions system in California, highlights the importance of evangelization for the Church. Sister Mary Rose Chinn teaches religious education at Mission San Buenaventura in Ventura, the last mission Father Serra founded in 1782 before his death.

Sister Mary Rose considers Father Serra as her intercessor and a companion in mission: “We don’t go it alone on our journey of faith. I relate to Father Serra; not just his story, but because of his love for Our Lady of Guadalupe, our spiritual mother, and his life as a missionary, leaving the security of home and going forth to spread the message of Jesus Christ for love of God and love of others. I have embraced both: our Blessed Mother and the life of a missionary at San Buenaventura Mission, with people not of my own ethnic background or culture.” Blessed Serra traveled from Mallorca, Spain, to the New World; Sister Mary Rose’s parents were first- and second-generation immigrants from China and Japan.

Sister Mary Rose’s spiritual journey to the Church was long and varied. “In the fifth grade, I was invited to church,” she recalled. “It was my introduction to Christianity. All my parents taught was the Golden Rule. I was introduced to Jesus as Lord and Savior. I went to summer camps and developed my prayer life.”

When her family moved from Nebraska to Manteca, Calif., she continued to pray and read the Bible. She wanted to attend Bible college, but ended up studying nursing at Chico State, saying, “I liked science because it proved the existence of God.”

At Chico State, she became involved with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, an evangelical-Christian campus ministry, and was a co-leader for Bible study. At that time, she attended a missionary convention. “I was drawn to missionary work,” Sister Mary Rose said. “I went to Mexico for missionary work in Michoacán for the Red Cross. I went to Sacramento with Nurses’ Christian Fellowship and worked as a nurse.”

At that time, a Catholic roommate invited Sister Mary Rose to Mass, even though Sister Mary Rose had been attending Methodist and nondenominational churches. “I saw sacrifice at the Mass,” she recalled. “It was offering Jesus on the altar. I studied Christology with a priest. It was a one-on-one program, rather than RCIA, and my roommate was returning to the faith. I prayed to Jesus to learn more.”

She attended daily Mass, read Scripture and prayed the Rosary. “I felt the Lord led me to the Catholic faith, with Jesus being present in the tabernacle, because of the Eucharist.”

Sister Mary Rose entered the Catholic Church in 1978. She joined a women’s community that began to serve in Mission San Buenaventura in 1985. Under the guidance of a priest, she shared in the responsibility for the community originally called Handmaids of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, Mary and Joseph, when it received official recognition in 1989. The community was recently re-founded as Handmaids of the Triune God as a public association of the faithful on Dec. 12, 2013.

Father Serra inspires her in her outreach: “Blessed Serra is special. He was the first missionary to the Americas. We want to be missionaries like him. His canonization has been long in coming.” She also supports his legacy. “There has been a distortion of his history [by some]. If he was as cruel and torturous to the Indians, why did they pray around him as he died? It’s a shame California wants to remove him from Statuary Hall (in Washington). The economy of California began with the missions. The missions are still around. Abraham Lincoln gave the missions back to the Catholic Church.”

Sister Mary Rose imagines how Father Serra would partake in the New Evangelization today: “I don’t think he’d build churches nowadays, but rather, he would fill the ones we have. To attract people of today, he would probably go out where they are to reach them, like going to the soccer fields, concerts, gyms and bars, just to strike up conversations with them. Father Serra would be a hands-on kind of guy, involved with the people in their daily lives.”

At Mission San Buenaventura, Sister Mary feels blessed to be following in Father Serra’s footsteps. “The Lord gave me the desire to be a missionary, and he has fulfilled it. I have helped people caught between cultures and who are learning another language. The Lord calls all to be missionaries in the Great Commission.”


Anna Abbott writes from Napa, California.