‘Portola 250’ Mission Walk Retraces St. Junípero Serra’s Steps in California

Initiative to visit all 21 Catholic missions in the state hopes to reignite importance of faith’s place in society.

Above, the International Pilgrim Virgin Statue of Our Lady of Fatima will escort pilgrims throughout ‘Portolá 250,’ an initiative that is retracing the footsteps of St. Junípero by traveling to all 21 California missions in 21 days. Below, a map of all of the missions is shown from the Library of Congress.
Above, the International Pilgrim Virgin Statue of Our Lady of Fatima will escort pilgrims throughout ‘Portolá 250,’ an initiative that is retracing the footsteps of St. Junípero by traveling to all 21 California missions in 21 days. Below, a map of all of the missions is shown from the Library of Congress. (photo: Courtesy of Patrick Sabat, Blue Army; map, public domain)

SAN DIEGO — In 1769, St. Junípero Serra arrived in California with Spanish explorer Don José Gaspar de Portolá and immediately founded the first mission in San Diego. With a goal of reaching San Francisco Bay, the next mission would be 400-plus miles north in Carmel/Monterey — and, eventually, 21 missions would be founded in all. Junípero founded the first nine missions, with other missionaries founding the rest.

To mark the 250th anniversary of the founding of the first mission, an initiative called “Portolá 250” is retracing the footsteps of St. Junípero by traveling to all 21 California missions in 21 days. The trip begins Sept. 1 at the Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcalá.

“They brought the seeds of Christianity to California,” said James Aitchison, referring to the events of 250 years ago. He and Anthony DeBellis co-founded Portolá 250. While the current trek observes the anniversary, the goal is first and foremost to reinvigorate Catholic Christianity, reigniting the flames of faith. “The goal is to revitalize Christianity in California with the same fervent spirit as those early missionaries had.”

Following along the original El Camino Real, today’s Interstate 5, the venture has a bold vision. The World Apostolate of Fatima has provided the International Pilgrim Virgin Statue of Our Lady of Fatima to lead the trip. The statue will be escorted by the color corps of the California Knights of Columbus. Other organizers joining the effort are Catholic Action for Faith and Family, the Legion of Mary and faithful from parishes along the route — all punctuated by prayer and public witness along the way. All Catholics across the 12 dioceses along the route are encouraged to retrace the missionary footsteps.


Seeds of Inspiration

The idea grew from a conversation between Aitchison and DeBellis, who were discussing their goal “to get ourselves and our families to heaven,” the former told the Register. “Over these years we could see God taken out of our culture, our children’s lives, our government. We came to the conclusion: If we don’t do something in the environment to change the culture, it’s going to affect getting our families to heaven.”

As Knights of Columbus, the duo suggested a “Year of Prayer Campaign” during the fraternal organization’s statewide meeting.

Figuring in the International Pilgrim Virgin Statue of Our Lady, the “Portolá 250” (TheYearofPrayer.com) idea began to grow.


Society’s Dire Situations

David Carollo, executive director of World Apostolate of Fatima/Blue Army, calls the “Portolá 250” a great initiative.

“The biggest significance is that, obviously, our society is crumbling,” he said, “nowhere more seen than in California in such a strong way. … Nothing is outrageous there. This new normal is in no way normal. This is not of God. We have to make normal again the standards set by Our Lord and Our Lady, the standard of Judeo-Christian life.”

He sees hope in the 21-day initiative.

“Look at the missions and Junípero Serra, and you see how California was built by the Catholic faith,” Carollo explained.

Co-founder DeBellis pointed out that the state bears the stamp of what Serra accomplished in spreading the Catholic faith, from names of cities large and small, like Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Jose and San Gabriel, to countless street names.

Now, that legacy is in jeopardy, as Aitchison noted: “We’re paying a tremendously high price in morals from being absent from the public square,” at a “very high cost to the Church,” as reflected in lower numbers of people attending Mass and less priests and religious and students in Catholic schools.


Relighting the Fathers’ Faith

Aitchison added, “This time of the “Portolá 250” is a time “to move the path forward as a Church.”

With this initiative, “We want to help other people help themselves,” DeBellis added. “It’s all about working together as one.” The organizers hope many of the 10 million California adults who identify as Roman Catholic in the state will turn out and come together to raise their voices, along with those of their families, as one during and after the three-week initiative.

DeBelllis sees a “premiere stop” falling on the anniversary of 9/11, when the tour arrives at noon on the south steps of the State Capitol in Sacramento to pray the Angelus and the Rosary.

“This event on 9/11 is to reintroduce ourselves into the public square,” Aitchison explained. “Archbishop [Salvatore] Cordileone has said: Let’s show up and be the moral conscience for society. Are we willing to risk being the moral voices?”

Encouraging faith fundamentals, beginning with weekly Mass attendance, is also a key element of the initiative.

As is looking to Our Lady, as reflected in the International Pilgrim Virgin Statue of Our Lady of Fatima.

“It’s time we bring the virtue that Our Lady and the statue represent back to California and the rest of the country,” stressed Carollo. Seeing this as “an initiative of hope and a statement about reclaiming California,” he finds it “also a statement about reclaiming our country from the things not of God. If we expect peace and tranquility in the country and world, we’d better turn back to the basics.”

Thomas McKenna, founder of Catholic Action for Faith and Family, concurs.

“The Portola 250 is a pilgrimage of hope and healing for the faithful in California,” he told the Register. “Just as the Spanish missionaries 250 years ago ventured into California to spread the truth of Our Lord, Jesus Christ, by establishing the missions, today we are bringing the Pilgrim Statue of Our Lady of Fatima to all the 21 missions throughout the state to pray for a restoration of Christian moral values and asking for reparation for the evil propagated here. This is what Our Lady came to ask when she appeared at Fatima more than 100 years ago. And the Fatima message is more timely today than ever.”

Sponsoring parishes will host tour stops with the statue. The faithful will also be able to venerate pieces of the Crown of Thorns, the veil of the Blessed Mother, St. Joseph’s mantle and relics of St. John Vianney. Several visits will include a talk about the Fatima message’s continuing relevance, Mass, Rosary, Benediction, a procession and time for private prayer in front of the relics and statue.

Over the course of the journey, Jesus Christ will be the foundation of the effort.

Aitchison said they are “finding a pent-up desire in people to do something positive. We’re the Church of Jesus Christ, the Way, the Truth and the Life. We’re here to seek his face and do his will.”

“As we re-enact this sacred expedition by visiting 21 missions in 21 days,” Aitchison concluded, “we will beseech Our Lord, Jesus, to revitalize Christianity in California once again through the intercession of St. Junípero Serra and by asking Our Lady of Fatima to shower her graces on all the dioceses of California and on individual and family lives everywhere.”

Joseph Pronechen is a Register staff writer.


For a complete list of stops and updates on the tour and to submit prayer intentions, visit TheYearofPrayer.com and TheYearofPrayer.com/calendar/.