Monday, July 01, 2013


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by Brother John M. Samaha, S.M.

        A man of conspicuous ability and virtue, Blessed Junípero Serra (1713-1784) is heralded as “the Apostle of California” by both church and secular historians.  In addition to his extraordinary holiness and zeal, non-Catholic writers especially have noted his remarkable administrative talents.  Ample testimony in word and in art indicate the high esteem in which his memory is held by all classes and ages in California.  Non-Catholic Jane Stanford (co-founder with her husband, Leland, of Stanford University) had a granite monument erected to Serra in Monterey.  A bronze statue of heroic proportion depicts him as missionary and colonizer in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park.  The figure of this intrepid Franciscan represents the State of California in Statuary Hall of our Nation’s Capitol.  In 1988, the Marian Year, Pope John Paul II beatified Fray Junípero Serra.

        Junípero Serra was a competent writer and record-keeper.  Fortunately many of his letters and documents are extant.  His best known writings are the Diario of the journey from Loreto (Mexico) to San Diego (California), and the thirty-two article Representación presented to Viceroy Bucareli requesting better administrative conditions.

A Prolific and Consequential Writer

        Historians of California have always regarded the writings of Fray Junípero Serra “as indispensable for an understanding of men and events in the Hispanic era.”  Known for his tireless attention to detail and to the functions of his office as President of the Missions, Serra once lamented that “half my life is passed at a writing desk.”

        Between 1955 and 1966 four volumes of Serra’s writings were gathered and translated into English under the editorial guidance of Father Antonine Tibesar, O.F.M., then published by the Academy of American Franciscan History.  The contents comprise a wide range of letters, reports, memoranda, register entries, and related information.

A Rare Find
        But there was one fascinating item that had eluded historians, editors and translators:  Fray Junípero’s Novena de Alabanzas en Honrra de la Purissima Concepción de Maria Ssma. con el Titulo de Prelada (Novena of Prayers in Honor of the Most Pure Conception of Holy Mary under Her Title of Queen).  This is a small book containing prayers honoring Our Lady under the title of her Immaculate Conception.  This Marian novena had long been attributed to Serra by bibliographic experts.  Eventually evidence of authorship was forthcoming, and this background is quite interesting.

        In March 1943 Father Demetrio Garcia, a Spanish-born priest who worked in Mexico for many years, offered an incomplete copy of the Novena to Father Maynard Geiger, O.F.M., for the archives at Santa Barbara Mission.  The forty-five page Novena booklet had been printed at Mexico City by Don Xavier Sanchez in 1765, when Fray Junípero was 52 years of age.  According to the statement on the title page, this was the work of “the faltering tongue of a humble subject of the Apostolic College of San Fernando offered to Mary’s clients.”  In that era religious humility prevented the mention of an author’s proper name on a religious publication. The testimony of Mexico’s two leading bibliographers supported Father Garcia’s claim that the Novena was authored by Fray Junípero Serra.

        Jose Mariano Beristáin y Souza (1756-1817), a recognized scholar of that time, credits Fray Junípero Serra with a work described as La Prelada de S. Fernando; Novena a la Concepción Inmaculada de Maria , distribuida por las nueve Letras de Ave Pulcra, printed at Mexico City in 1765.  Beristáin was a competent bibliographer, a contemporary of Serra.  He would have had first-hand
evidence about the booklet’s authorship. The first edition of Beristáin’s monumental Biblioteca Hispano Americana Setentrional was published in 1796.

        Another top bibliographer, José Toribio Medina, who published at Santiago de Chile in 1907 La Imprenta de Mexico (1539-1821), also attributes the Novena to Junípero Serra.

        A second edition of the Novena was published in 1770 by Felipe de Zuñiga y Ontiveros at Mexico City by the same press that later printed Fray Francisco Palou’s Relación Historica de la Vida y Apostolicas Tareas del Venerable Padre Fray Junípero Serra.  Medina reports only two extant copies of the 1770 edition, his own and another belonging to Vicente de P. Andrade, also a recognized collector and bibliographer.  Medina noted that his personal copy had an engraved portrait of the Virgin Mary not found in the other copy.

        The composition style of the Novena lends credence to the assumption that it comes from the hand of Fray Junípero Serra, making it the only one of the friar’s writings published during his lifetime. 

        Novenas, special prayers for nine successive days, were a popular form of devotion in the New World as well as in the Old World in the eighteenth century and after.  This Marian novena attributed to Fray Junípero Serra is exceedingly well constructed and devout in content.  Most likely it was compiled in the years when Serra moved about central Mexico and the Sierra Gorda conducting missions and preaching retreats. 

Focus on the Immaculate Conception

     The Franciscans were always staunch defenders of Mary’s Immaculate
Conception, especially after their distinguished confrere, Blessed John Duns Scotus (1266-1308), provided the definitive theological explanation of that Marian privilege.  A loyal adherent to Scotism and the Subtle Doctor (as Blessed John
Duns Scotus was known), Serra was an ardent promoter of devotion to Mary’s Immaculate Conception. 

Throughout his life Serra exhibited a profound devotion to Mary under her title of the Immaculate Conception.  He was an unabashed client of the Virgin Mary, and his love for her did not diminish as he grew older, as evidenced in his many writings.  Incidentally, in his very last letter dated August 6, 1784, Fray Junípero Serra concluded with a reference to our Blessed Mother using the title he gives her in his Novena -- Prelada (Queen).

An English Edition
In 1971 Monsignor Francis J. Weber, archivist and historian of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, obtained a copy of the incomplete Novena from the archives of Mission Santa Barbara.  Later Dr. Michael Mathes was able to locate the Medina copy in the Biblioteca Nacional de Chile in Santiago, and had a copy made of that fragment for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles archives.  Finally in 1988, 223 years after the original publication, the two incomplete copies complemented each other and gave California for the first time a copy of the entire booklet, albeit a photocopy.   During that Marian Year of 1988 proclaimed by Pope John Paul II, Monsignor Weber accepted an English translation and edited the complete text into A Marian Novena Attributed to Fray Junípero Serra, which was published as a hardcover booklet of 35- plus pages under the auspices of the Archives of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles in a special limited edition of 350 copies.  This was a significant gesture for the beatification of Junipero Serra by John Paul II in that same year of 1988.

The contents of Blessed Junípero’s Marian novena include an introduction, an act of contrition, a prayer for every day, a special prayer for each of the nine days of the novena, a prayer after each day’s prayer, a final prayer, and a consecration prayer for Marian feast days to be dated and signed.  The work is a masterpiece of sound doctrine and devotion.

Fray Junípero Serra’s Marian novena is a tribute to his ability and holiness.


§  Note to editor:

The following two items are intended to be sidebars to complement this article, if the editor finds them useful.



        This brief final prayer of the Novena offers a taste of the flavor of the longer prayers composed for each of the nine days.

        “Most holy and immaculate Mary, since Almighty God has preserved you from all stain of sin, in order that you might be a worthy Mother for your only Son, who took on human flesh and became man in your womb, I beseech you, most pure and blessed of all women, to obtain for me complete pardon of all my sins so that I may merit in this life the eternity which I seek.  This I ask through your Son who lives and reigns through all ages, world without end.  Amen.”


        This excerpt from Fray Junípero Serra’s  “Introduction” gives some orientation to the style and content of his Novena.

        “Since the human heart is drawn toward the object of its affection, it is good and appropriate for us to grow in the knowledge and love of such an object.  For this reason, I do not hesitate to express the causes and motives underlying my love for Our Lady. . . .
        “Let us then hail her with the greatest confidence in this novena.  Let the sick seek health, let the poor find relief, let the sad be consoled, and let the pregnant bring forth children.  Be assured that every prayer directed to the Immaculate Conception will be answered. May we confide all our needs to Our Lady, especially seek her help at the moment of death to reach out for eternal glory. . . .

        “Each day then, these words [of our theme, Ave Pulchra] will sustain us as we pray.  And since words without deeds avail little, we should prepare to confess our sins and receive the Holy Eucharist, as the priest in charge will suggest.  Hopefully those making this novena will also give alms and engage in penitential works in accordance with the directives of their spiritual advisers.  This they will do for the glory of the Holy Trinity, whose beautiful daughter, mother, and spouse is our Holy Mother Mary.  Amen.”


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