Defending St. Junípero Serra, with Holy Water, the Rosary—and the Arts

St. Junipero Serra, a holy man dedicated to the earthly and heavenly well being of Native Americans has been denounced as a racist, a genocidal monster. One CBS news report even libeled the saint as a slave owner.

On Juneteenth 2020, haters brought their ire against the founding father of California to San Francisco. Hundreds of protesters, many of them dressed in black, toppled and defaced statues in Golden Gate Park. Many figures whose statues were attacked had no apparent connection to racism or slavery. For example, the mob graffitied a monument to Cervantes and his characters, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.

Prominent among the statues attacked that day was St. Junípero Serra’s. His statue was overturned. Both the statue and its pedestal were defaced with red spray paint. “Stolen Land” was scrawled on the pedestal.

Dismayed by the vandalism, I was happy to see Archbishop Cordileone take an unusual and gutsy step. Not stopping with issuing an eloquent statement of protest—which would likely be ignored even in the unlikely event it was read by Serra’s detractors, the archbishop also used powerful spiritual weapons at his disposal.

Park workers had cleaned the graffiti from the statue and taken it away to storage when the archbishop went with about two hundred of the faithful to the site of the empty pedestal. On that drizzly day, wearing an amaranth purple skull cap, and the amaranth cassock proper to his role as a bishop under a lace-trimmed alb, with a deep purple stole around his shoulders, Archbishop Cordileone blessed the area with holy water and performed a minor exorcism. He then led a rosary of reparation.

In a clip now posted at the archdiocesan website, the archbishop said, “An act of sacrilege occurred here that is an act of the evil one. Evil has made itself present here.”

Archbishop Cordileone went on to say he grew up in San Diego, near the first mission Serra founded in Alta California when it was under Spanish rule, the area which now makes up the state of California. So, he said, he has a heartfelt connection to the saint. “I’ve been feeling great distress and sort of a deep wound in my soul when I see these horrendous acts of blasphemy and disparaging of the memory of Serra —who was such a hero, such a great defender of the indigenous people of this land.”

Remarkably, the archbishop has also defended St. Junípero Serra in many other unique and creative ways—using the arts.

Through the Benedict XVI Institute for Sacred Music and Divine Worship that he founded, with the savvy assistance of Maggie Gallagher, the institute’s Executive Director, Archbishop Cordileone commissioned a new Mass setting, a painting, and a poem in honor of the saint. During a Zoom event, “The Making of Missa Sancti Juniperi Serra,” Gallagher said that following the Renaissance model of commissioning great works of art from within the heart of the Church, all of these works were funded by a generous patron, Mr. Terry Castor of San Diego, in honor of his deceased wife, Barbara. Anyone who celebrates the Missa Santi Juniperi Serra is asked to remember Barbara Castor in prayer.

Missa Sancti Juniperi Serra

During the ZOOM event on April 30, 2022, Archbishop Cordileone spoke about how the idea to commission a Mass in honor of St. Junípero Serra was formed.

The archdiocese would be hosting a Sacra Liturgia Conference at the end of June, an international event which, as the archbishop said, “brings together great minds and hearts of people who are working to promote and renew sacred liturgy in the Church and regain the beauty that the liturgy deserves. I thought that since the last day of the conference is July 1, the feast day of St. Junípero Serra, a perfect way to bring this to a conclusion would be to celebrate a Solemn High Pontifical Mass —in the extraordinary form because that’s the form of the Mass that St. Junípero Serra himself celebrated.”

The Mass would be celebrated in Mission Dolores Basilica, which was built in 1876 adjacent to the original Church of Mission San Francisco de Asis to accommodate larger congregations. Mission San Francisco was founded by Padre Francisco Palóu under the direction of St. Junípero Serra in 1776, and the adobe mission church built in 1791 is the oldest surviving structure in the city. (EWTN recorded the Mass, and you can view it at Cathedrals Across America—Solemn Mass for the Feast of St. Junípero Serra.)

Archbishop Cordileone continued, “I asked Frank to compose a Mass in honor of St. Junípero Serra that would be reflective of the mission era here in California.” This is the third Mass setting composed at the archbishop’s request by Frank La Rocca ( , who is the Benedict XVI Institute’s composer in residence.

La Rocca then spoke about how he went about making his composition evoke the experience of what a Mass from that time would have been, “One important way is through the choice of the instruments accompanying the singers. It would be a small ensemble just like the ones they had in the missions of maybe a string quartet, a couple of flutes, perhaps a small portable organ.”

At the premiere, La Rocca’s music was performed on baroque-style string instruments and flutes to contribute to the authenticity, but modern instruments will be able to perform the music as well.

Musical instruments played to accompany Masses with Gregorian chants by the Indians in the Mission bands.

In addition, Frank La Rocca said he wove throughout his Mass setting the tune of one of St. Junípero Serra’s favorite hymns, “Salve Virgen Pura,”—”Hail Pure Virgin.”

“In addition to the hymn I wanted to make allusions to Gregorian chants from Missa Orbis Factor, which certainly would have been one of the most commonly heard Mass ordinaries in those days.”

La Rocca used the Salve as a Prelude, and worked it in as a thematic element of the music for the Mass, using the melody and derivatives of it in the music accompanying the ordinary the texts of the Mass. He wrote me later in an email that this technique is known as a “Parody”—a term that has nothing to do with mockery.

St. Junípero Serra and the American Saints Painting

Figurative artist, Bernadette Carstensen ( is Benedict XVI Institute’s painter in residence. During the Zoom event, she unveiled her commissioned painting “St. Junípero Serra and the American Saints.”

As Carstensen pointed out, the saints are standing in the painting against a classic California landscape on Mount Tamalpais with roses and columbine that grow there. Columbine also represents the Holy Spirit. The roses look to be Roses of Castile, of the kind St. Juan Diego found growing in winter and gathered into his tilma after the apparition of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico.

The figure of St. Junípero Serra in the middle stands with arms upraised similar to the pose of his statue that was toppled in Golden Gate Park. From left to right on either side of Serra are Blessed Michael McGiveny; St. Elizabeth Ann Seton; Servant of God Father Augustus Tolton; Saint Damian of Molokai; Saint Mother Cabrini; a Native American representing the Huron Christian martyrs; St. René Goupil, representing the Jesuit martyrs, and St. Kateri Tekakwitha. At the saints’ feet are Spanish tiles depicting the nine missions founded by St. Serra. Below is a dedication to Barbara Castor.

The Liturgy of the Hours of Saint Junípero Serra

Benedict XVI Institute poet-in-residence James Matthew Wilson spoke about and read his poem, “The Liturgy of the Hours of Saint Junípero Serra.”

“I wanted to write the poem as a prayer . . . so we could read the poem and pray the poem.” Wilson said he used the rhyme royal scheme to honor St. Serra’s long and painful walk along El Camino Real—which in English means the royal road. Each stanza of seven lines, in iambic pentameter with a rhyme scheme of ABABBCC is about a different object from a different stage of Fr. Serra’s life starting from his youth in Mallorca, intended for us to ponder the object and think about what it can teach us about his spiritual life.

Eloquence beyond Words

Using the eloquence of the beauty of music and art, poetry, and architecture to defeat lies and ugliness is a profound idea. Research has shown that repeating the lies of opponents even when we have strong arguments against the lies may paradoxically strengthen belief in the lie among those who have believed it already. Besides, some people will not have heard the lie before, and it doesn’t help to spread it even further.

The arts are so convincing because they captivate people and grab people’s emotions, and even when they don’t completely bypass the intellect, they enrich the understanding.

A More Truthful Image

Recently I came across this review at website of the restored Carmel Mission where St. Junípero died and was buried, which portrays a more truthful image of the saint, “Walking through the primitive furnishings and reviewing the very basic library housed in the place, with tools and instruments available a couple of centuries ago illustrates the very primitive conditions in which the inhabitants lived and worked and the sacrifices made by the man that brought European culture and civilization to this part of America.”

St. Junipero Serra’s ascetic cell at Mission Carmel, where he died and was buried.

This article is adapted from an essay that first appeared in the Fall 2022 Edition of Latin Mass Magazine. Republished with a few modifications, with permission.

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