APPLETON — When Pope Francis canonizes 18th century priest Franciscan Fr. Junipero Serra on Sept. 23 in Washington, D.C., local members of Serra International will gather in Green Bay to celebrate the good news about the priest, soon-to-be-saint, whose name the group carries as their own.
“Our group is filled with a great deal of enthusiasm for the man who did so much for Hispanics and for Native Americans in California,” said Serra club member and retired Green Bay physician Dr. Jim Falk.
Fr. Serra, whose feast day is July 1, is best known for his missionary work to convert tens of thousands of Mexicans and Native Americans in California as well as establishing nine California missions.
Pope Francis will canonize the Spanish priest during a special Spanish Mass at 3:30 p.m. Sept. 23 in an outdoor ceremony at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception and the adjoining campus of The Catholic University of America.
More than 50 Serra International members — whose mission is to encourage and support seminarians as well as existing priests, women religious and those pursuing religious vocations — will gather and watch the canonization Mass on television at the Chancery on the diocesan grounds in Allouez.
“We are happy to have the Holy Father say Fr. Junipero Serra is a saint,” said Falk, noting Serra walked hundreds of miles to establish missions destined to become communities like San Diego and San Francisco. “We see him as a fighter in his own way, converting people and establishing missions with whatever was available, which wasn’t much. Sept. 23 is going to be a great day of prayer and jubilation.”
Serra, known as the patron saint of vocations. was beatified by Pope John Paul II on Sept. 28, 1988, with the pope noting Serra “sowed the seeds of Christian faith amid the momentous changes wrought by the arrival of European settlers in the New World.”
“It was a field of missionary endeavor that required patience, perseverance and humility as well as vision and courage,” Pope John Paul II said.
Born on the Spanish island of Mallorca in 1713, Serra became a Franciscan friar, sailed to Mexico in 1749 where he converted thousands of Hispanics to Christianity and later established a series of missions along the California coast.
His sainthood has been controversial among some Native American groups for some methods he used to convert tribes to Christianity.
“I know there has been criticism, but saints aren’t perfect people. He strived to help people live a holy life. He did so much to spread God’s love and words in the U.S. and Mexico to people who had never heard of Jesus. This (canonization) will be just so beautiful,” said Cindy Bell of Green Bay, who, along with her father, former Serra International president Jim Madigan of Green Bay, are traveling to Washington to attend the canonization Mass.
Bell, who proudly possesses a relic of a piece of cloth once part of a robe belonging to the new saint, said she hopes to have it blessed while in Washington, but doesn’t know where she will be sitting among the crowd expected to top 1 million.
“My dad, as a former Serra International president, is assured of one of 50 tickets reserved for Serrans at the Mass, but I might be three blocks away by some Porta Potty watching on a JumboTron,” Bell said.
Jim Madigan, who previously met Popes Paul VI and John Paul II, said he is happy that Fr. Serra is being canonized “because of his endless enthusiasm to bring Jesus to the Hispanics and Native American of California.”
“He was a great pioneer Catholic missionary going up the coast of California. He had to walk a great deal between missions and deal with shortages of food. He also had to learn the language of the Native Americans in order to convert them. He did all that because of his great love of God,” added Madigan.
Jean Fiedler, who will be watching the canonization on television with fellow Serrans, said introducing Catholicism to people who had no concept of the Catholic faith, and teaching them life-sustaining skills like farming “changed their lives.”
“I have nothing but admiration for Fr. Serra. He walked the length of California, sometimes on roads and sometimes where there no trails at all,” Fiedler said. “He was a commanding presence in our young country.