Did you hear that Father Junipero Serra was canonized this week? (If you don’t know who I’m talking about, it’s time you got a copy of my book Along the King’s Road and visited some of the California missions!)
This is a huge deal for our missions. They have just been elevated in status from historically interesting to historically significant now that they’ve been founded by a saint.
Father Serra’s achievements were remarkable. He first landed in California in 1769, near modern day San Diego, where he established the first of the missions (pictured above). There had already been numerous attempts to establish missions here, but all had failed. He was 56 that year and already crippled from a chronic leg infection, yet he travelled the coast extensively to found 8 more missions and oversee their development and management until his death in 1784. He is now interred at his favorite mission, Carmel.
The canonization was not entirely without controversy. The missions were built with the intention to bring Catholicism to the native Americans. This was achieved at great cost to the local peoples, who were sometimes forced to work for the church, and whose populations were decimated by the diseases the Spanish brought with them (such as the measles epidemic of 1806, where a quarter of the Bay Area Native Americans died within 3 months)
Also controversial is the lack of miracles attributed to Serra. In most cases, two posthumous miracles are required to become a saint, although exceptions can be – and in this case are – made. In Serra’s case, the miracle was performed in 1960 when a nun was cured from a fatal disease by praying to him.
But no matter where your opinion stands on Father Serra’s new sainthood, the missions themselves still deserve a visit!