Two years ago, statues of St. Junípero Serra were desecrated and toppled within the Archdiocese of San Francisco. Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone did not cower amid the furor. There were shouts to cancel St. Junípero Serra, the 18th-century Franciscan priest and missionary who brought the Gospel to the Native peoples of New Spain’s Alta California. Archbishop Cordileone’s response was to simply draw from the deposit of faith: through prayer, honoring and knowing the faith’s rich tradition and history and, like St. Junípero, to keep moving forward and never turn back.
The pilot episode of a new series produced by EWTN, in collaboration with the Archdiocese of San Francisco’s Benedict XVI Institute for Sacred Music and Liturgy, examines Father Serra’s legacy in light of the push to delete him as a force for good in both California and American history. Titled In Search of America’s Catholic Founders, the inaugural episode focusing on St. Junipero is the first in a projected nine-part series about the American saints and their contribution to the planting of Catholicism in America.
Shot on location throughout California, the hour-long documentary integrates a variety of media to tell the story of Father Serra’s journey from Majorca, Spain, to Mexico and finally to modern-day California. Archbishop Cordileone is the primary interview subject, with additional interviews featuring Mission Dolores curator Andrew Galvan, a Native American whose ancestors were baptized at Mission Dolores in 1794, and artist Bernadette Carstensen, whose painting of great Catholic figures in American history served as a blueprint for the conception of the television series.
The documentary also incorporates scenes dramatizing Junípero Serra’s life from James Kelty’s docudrama Serra: Ever Forward, Never Back, which first aired on EWTN in November 2013. An array of music sung and chanted by the Franciscans and the Native people of the time is also heard throughout the documentary, including a number of renditions of the haunting morning song to the Virgin Mary, El Cantico del Alba. One version is the arrangement by Benedict XVI Institute composer-in-residence Frank La Rocca for his Mass of the Americas.
One of the recurring themes throughout the film is discussion of the heroic virtue of St. Junípero Serra. “People disparage him,” Archbishop Cordileone says of Serra in the documentary, “but people nowadays don’t come anywhere near the heroic virtue he had in caring for the Indigenous population here.”
Another major theme considered in the documentary is how rooted modern California is to its Catholic heritage — due in no small part, of course, to Serra and the Franciscans. This is evidenced by the many Spanish Catholic names, not the least being Sacramento, the state capital, or Los Angeles, the “City of Angels,” or San Francisco, Santa Monica, Santa Barbara, San Bernardino, San Diego and many more. The film argues that to truly erase the memory of St. Junípero Serra would be to fundamentally upturn California’s own identity. That is a concession little discussed by those seeking to cancel Junípero Serra.
The documentary opens by drawing a parallel to the lionized Founding Father George Washington and Father Serra. While the two did not meet, they were both immersed in their respective missions at the very same time: the American Revolution on one coast, then British land, and the establishment of the missions on the West Coast, then territory of New Spain. President Washington, while a slaveholder, remains a hallowed figure in American history; on the other hand, Serra’s mission of evangelization, and by extension the Catholic faith, has been vilified.
Such vitriol is nothing new for those who remain at the foot of the cross. In Search of America’s Catholic Founders: St. Junípero Serra seeks to demonstrate that while the California mission enterprise was not perfect, the missionaries nevertheless were bringing the mission of salvation to those who had not yet heard of Jesus Christ. And that is a gift still bearing fruit today.
WATCH ON EWTN
In Search of America’s Catholic Founders
Episode 1: “St. Junipero Serra”
Broadcast times (all times Eastern)
June 26, 10pm
June 30, 4pm
July 1, 10:30am
July 4, 11am