During his recent visit to Washington, D.C., Pope Francis canonized Saint Junipero Serra, thereby officially recognizing him as a saint in the Catholic Church.
The 18th-century Franciscan’s mission field was primarily California, but he also had a keen sensitivity for the spiritual needs of Alaska.
Born Nov. 24, 1714 in Spain, the priest played a key role in the evangelization of California. The missions he founded took in thousands of Native American converts to Christianity as he helped establish the California missions in the 1700s, many of which became the centers of major cities like San Diego.
During his years leading the California missions, Saint Serra longed also to bring the Gospel and sacraments to Natives in the north. To this end he sent missionary priests on Spanish explorer ships heading from Mexico to what is now Alaska. While the Spanish fleets aimed to claim new territory for the Spanish king, Saint Serra hoped his missionary priests could utilize the voyage for a higher aim.
The first voyage fell short in 1774. The next year, part of a Spanish contingent arrived in what is now Sitka and Bucareli Bay (named after the Spanish Viceroy of Mexico Don Antonio María Bucareli). But the ship carrying priests was forced to turn back with a crew suffering from scurvy. Those who landed in Alaska claimed territory for Spain and erected crosses. But without a priest, there was no Mass.
After the disappointment of the 1775 trip, Saint Serra wrote to Bucareli: “There the crosses remain but … there are lacking those who can explain their meaning to those poor natives,” he said.
On Feb. 11, 1779 two Spanish ships slipped away from the dock at San Blas, Mexico and sailed into the dark toward Alaska. Three Catholic priests had joined the perilous mission — Father Juan Antonió Garcia Riobó and Father Matiás de Santa Catalina Noriega, Franciscans from Mexico, and Father Cristóbal Antonio Díaz, a secular priest from Peru.
After three months of travel and surviving extreme storms while begging aid from heaven the Spanish ships landed on May 3 in what came to be known as Bucareli Harbor.
The Spanish disembarked on Suemez Island, where Father Riobó noted that the Natives greeted them with with “signs and tokens of peace.”
Ten days later, on May 13, 1779 (the feast of the Ascension) the first Roman Catholic Mass was celebrated in Bucareli Bay on Suemez Island. In his journal, Lieutenant Don Ignacio Arteaga, commander of the expedition, described the scene.
“The 13th I descended to land with my Second in Command … with all the officers of both ships, carrying in the launch with all reverence the (statue of the) Virgin of the Rosary, and having disembarked on the beach … the Sovereign Lady was placed upon an altar which I ordered to be set up under a large tent.”
Mass was sung by the three chaplains. Just outside the tent, stood a cross made from two “pine” trees.
About 60 Natives — men, women and children — attended the Mass, wrote Arteaga. After the liturgy, the captains and officers carried the cross to a mountain where it could be seen from the bay.
Having ordered several gun salutes from the ships, Arteaga explained that “the Virgin was saluted from on board as well as on shore.”
The Spanish stayed in Bucareli Bay for 58 days.
Ultimately, the Spanish failed to establish a permanent settlement in Alaska and Saint Serra focused his missionary work in California.