Friday, August 5, 2016

How my family and I discovered Fray Junipero Serra.

Over 30 years ago, when my children were coming of age, Estela and I picked a school for them here in Mexico City called the "Colegio Junipero". but we didn't have the slightest idea why it was called "Junipero". I even thought it was named after the "Juniper tree".

Statue of Fray Junipero at
dawn at the Plaza de la
Crececita., Querétaro City
We picked the Junipero because it had a hybrid educational program: 8:00 to 1:00 in which they followed the parochial academic program of California's Catholic schools in English, and from 1:00 to 3:00 with the official Mexican educational program in Spanish.

The Church of the Santa
Cruz, Queretaro City,
once part of the Franciscan
Mission where Fray Junipero
spent time preparing his
This wonderful grammar school where my children went, was under the direction of a Franciscan nun, Sister Ellen, from California.

The main altar of the Church of the Santa Cruz in
Querétaro has the original stone cross that
miraculously appeared to the Chichimecas when
they lost the battle to the Spanish troops during
the Conquest of the City in the 16th Century
 There was a church beside the school, "Saint Patrick's Church", where the children of the Colegio Junipero attended Mass. "Saint Patrick's Church" was very colonial-Californian in style, with its terra-cotta tiled roof, whitewashed walls, and central portico with arched-covered pathways enclosing the atrium on several sides.

At this little chapel outside
the Church of the of the
Santa Cruz is packed full
every morning for
7:00 am Mass.
My children loved going to Mass at Saint Patrick's, because after services, they were treated to a very uniquely Catholic-American tradition in the church hall: "Coffee and Doughnuts" (although the coffee was obviously for the adults only, the children had doughnuts with fruit juice).

To avoid the children wasting a big whole half-eaten doughnut, instead of regular circular doughnuts, the church gave the children the "hole in the center" small round doughnut, easier for the children to hold and eat.

At the chapel of the Santa Cruz, the small but
beautiful altar.
Not being a native born Mexican, I was always fascinated by traveling with my children to every possible part of the country.

The chapel at the Fort of the San Blas.

In the late-1980's, our r children were 9, 8, 4 and 2 years old, I took them to a small remote beach town out on the Pacific Coast of Nayarit: the abandoned port of San Blas, an important stop-off harbor during the 16th and 17th centuries for the Nao de China, the trade route from China to the Philippines, that ended in the port of Acapulco.

The route of the Nao de China (taken from an
illustration provided by the Museo Nacional del
Virreinato, Conaculta, INAH, México)

After spending the entire morning at the beach at San Blas, I took my children up to an old abandoned fort, with cannons. San Blas had a reputation among English pirates such as Drake and Cavendish as a port with weak defenses against siege, attack and eventual pilferage, so the Spanish had to build the fort overlooking the San Blas bay.

My children and I exploring
the ruins of the abandoned
fort of San Blas.

Inside the fort, my children made a discovery: a statue of Fray Junípero Serra. "Look Dad, here is the Fray Junipero our school is named after!", they told me. At this point I realized that their school was named after an 18th-century Franciscan Missionary, and not after a tree.

The pastor of the parish church of San Blas, told
them the story of how Fray Junipero taught the
people of San Blas how to become good Christians
Although Henry Wadsworth Longfellow never came here, he wrote a poem entitled  The Bells of San Blas, giving this old port a melancholic but accurate description:
They are a voice of the Past, 
Of an age that is fading fast, 
Of a power austere and grand; 
When the flag of Spain unfurled Its folds o'er this western world, 
And the Priest was lord of the land.
The chapel that once looked down 
On the little seaport town 
Has crumbled into the dust; 
And on oaken beams below
The bells swing to and fro, 
And are green with mould and rust.
As my children got older, they received school assignments about Junipero Serra. Initially we found out that he was very much attached to the Missions of Querétaro, of the Sierra Gorda, of which today the most beautiful extant churches are those in the villages of Jalpan, and in the smaller village of Concá. One early morning in the late 1980's, I traveled to a paper mill on the edge of this region, and after my business meeting, I drove over to Tequisquiapan, to take a cup of coffee.

Estela standing by the town
square's central fountain at

Walking around Tequisquiapan, I entered into a Tourism information office, and a gentleman at the desk gave me an introduction to the Sierra Gorda, and the Missionary Route of Fray Junipero Serra. I was encouraged to drive over to Jalpan, and not to miss nearby Concá.
My business appointment that morning at the paper mill had been such a sour experience, that I whimsically and somewhat irresponsibly took off on a drive by myself to visit Jalpan and Conca. My first stop, 98 miles (162 Kilometers) was Jalpan, a three hour drive. I was overwhelmed by the beautiful baroque façade of the Mission Church. I knocked on the door of the parish, and asked for the pastor. I cannot remember his name, but he spent a good part of his afternoon explaining the history of Jalpan and of the Sierra Gorda, and likewise encouraged me not to miss the Mission church of Conca.
After a 40 minute drive, some 20 miles north (33 kilometers) of Jalpan, was the small town of Arroyo Seco, where the Conca Mission is located. It was dark by the time I reached Concá. Since my conversation with the gentleman at the desk at the Tourism office at Tequisquiapan, I had felt enchanted the entire day, as I felt pulled towards the Missions of the Sierra Gorda. In what was a full day since breakfast that I hadn't called my wife, I finally found a place to spend the night in Concá, a series of bungalows with a stream going through the garden, I called home and told her I wouldn't be able to make it home until the following day. Afterward, I walked back from my hotel to the Misión Concá and looked at its beautiful façade in the moonlight.

As you study Baroque Art in Mexico from the period of New Spain, especially, that created during the 18th Century, you realize where the European influence ends, and the native Mexican artistic creativeness and style takes up. I have seen it hundreds of times, but never as evidently and as beautifully as on the moonlight façade at Concá.

Catholics profess a Creed by which we claim we believe in the Communion of Saints. I have never questioned that belief, but I sometimes believes it involves a great deal more than meets eye. Perhaps
the Saints can intercede to God on our behalf. If there is any truth to this, maybe it might be that I feel a certain fellowship with certain saints and martyrs. I believe this may be my case and Fray Junipero Serra.


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