Following in the Footsteps of Saint Junípero Serra

Brother Anthony Serviam Maria, a Franciscan Friar of the Immaculate, loves to travel, but Condé Nast and Travel + Leisure would not be interested in his story. It is a story that parallels that of Jesus’—of learning, teaching, joy, struggle, suffering, and grace.

While ministering to youth in England, it dawned on him that he wanted to experience more deeply what he was teaching. In essence, he was calling his students to witness to the Faith in their day to day living. How better to witness than on pilgrimage? Just before heading out on pilgrimage to continental Europe, he learned that his application to extend his temporary Visa was denied by the British government. So he returned home to the States. It was during this time of transition that he began to think how he could accomplish what he had planned to do in Europe somewhere more close to home. He did not want an outdoor adventure like the Appalachian Trail or religious tourism like getting on a bus and checking out Catholic historical sites, but a true spiritual pilgrimage. Having a devotion to Saint Junípero Serra made walking the California missions a natural fit. A couple he met at the parish he was temporarily assigned offered to help him with air travel. He had a week to research what he would do once he arrived in California.

Brother Anthony at Mission San Francisco Solano, popularly known as Mission Sonoma.

Brother Anthony left Covington, Kentucky on May 1, 2017, bound for San Diego. His first destination was Mission San Diego de Alcalá, founded by Saint Junípero Serra (1713-1784) on July 16, 1769. His goal—to walk an approximately 800-mile spiritual pilgrimage of the twenty-one California missions. Origen (c. 185-254) wrote of pilgrimage as “the desire of Christians to search after the footsteps of Christ” (Quoted in Stark, God’s Battalions, 79). This can be said for Brother Anthony. The walk that he would complete had been done by a handful of people in recent memory and for many reasons, but rarely the way he did it—in one fell swoop (most break it up into stages) and with no money. Brother Anthony would walk the El Camino Real, or The Royal Road, like the friars did in the late-18th and early-19th centuries. Like them, his life would be solely dependent upon his faith and trust in God and neighbor.

Unlike the famous pilgrimage Santiago de Compostela in Spain and its scallop shell markers, there is no clear trail on the El Camino. Most of it follows Highway 101. Brother Anthony did have a guidebook, though, written by Butch Briery, a veteran Camino walker.  He also had help from friends like Bob Brunson of Monterey, California, a Secular Franciscan and veteran walker to all of the California missions. Bob’s April 22nd post on the Facebook page of the California Mission Walkers, a group devoted to people who have an interest in walking between California’s Spanish Missions, was “I offered to get him a phone and encouraged him to email or blog from public library’s, but [Brother Anthony] is pretty set on doing this old school.” Doing it “old school” is a reference to how many pilgrims did it in the Middle Ages—one started the pilgrimage with the first step out the door of their home and depended on the charity of others for what they needed along the way. Like the pilgrims of old, Brother Anthony had good and bad days.

Just over two weeks and 250 miles into his pilgrimage, Brother Anthony made it to Mission Santa Bárbara (founded on December 4, 1786, the 10th and the only one to be continuously in the hands of the Franciscan order since its founding). The friars there opened their doors like the monasteries of the Middle Ages, as if the stranger were Christ himself.

Days before, while at Mission San Buenaventura (founded March 31, 1782 by Saint Junípero Serra, the 9th and last founded during his lifetime, and one of six he personally dedicated), the pastor and his associate were kind enough to send emails to contacts to their north asking for assistance for their new friend and pilgrim. Again, Brother Anthony shared through Timothy Matonak on the CMW Facebook page, “This [help from San Buenaventura] has gotten me in the door with very prompt and warm welcome in the last two places that I have been. To be honest, it was a bit strange being warmly welcomed. Normally I am considered with great suspicion, which I think is normal since they often get people who say that they are pilgrims but really only want to steal the silver and make off in the night. The missions have had many problems like this. . . . I have met many good priests and religious, all of whom have been very generous with me and taken me into their homes and lived, though only for a day, as if they had always known me. Each place I stop at, I find myself in the middle of their lives.” It seemed as if the days of fearing having nowhere to lay his head were behind him. Public access or a kind person made concern about water rare. However, Brother Anthony ran into a problem on Mother’s Day. For the first time he was refused water. “The man, who owned a very nice house, just shook his head and hands and said, ‘Oh no. Go over there.’ So I did . . . and I met a wonderful Catholic family. . . . they invited me in and we talked about the faith for a few hours, especially how to grow in holiness and how best to lead their children back to the faith.”

While back on the road, he reflected on the experience, connecting it to Saint Paul’s direction; “. . . do not forget to entertain strangers; for thereby some have entertained angels unawares” (Heb 13:1, revision of the Challoner-Rheims Version). With a new lease on life and full of hope, and about to enter days of solitude on the rural Central Coast, he concluded, “ I trust God will take care of all the big and little things as He has already proven to do so on the pilgrimage.”

On May 22nd, it was announced on the CMW Facebook page that Brother Anthony was at Mission San Miguel Arcángel, the 16th California mission founded. Nearly destroyed in the 2003 San Simeon earthquake, the church reopened on September 29, 2009. It was the halfway point. Amazingly, he had covered 120 miles in a week! He wrote of this leg of the pilgrimage, “Many beautiful things have happened, and many trying things as well. Last week could be compared to a time of spiritual consolation while this week would be more of a purgation.” He would be turned away by two parishes, then welcomed for two nights by wonderful religious, and rejected the next two nights. The next night, late in the evening, he arrived at a parish hoping to find refuge, only to find it closed. His only option was the street. He shared, “I was safe, had water and even a homeless man was trying to give me money. I wondered to myself at first where God’s providence was, leaving me out in the cold with nowhere to go? So I walked around and prayed and that is when I met this homeless man that was living on the wrong path. We had the most wonderful talk about God—His mercy, His Church, Heaven and how to get there. . . Meeting Neil was a wonderful experience. I have met many homeless, but none so open and longing for God.”

I can say with confidence, having visited all twenty-one missions, that the next leg of the trip—even in a car—can be compared to Jesus’ time in the desert. From San Miguel, Brother Anthony would walk for two days to Mission San Antonio de Padua, the 3rd mission and founded July 14, 1771 by Saint Junípero Serra. It served the Salinan Indians and is currently located on a military base. It is the remotest of the missions and today has around 30 parishioners. Brother Anthony called the challenge of reaching Mission Antonio well worth it. “It seemed to radiate a deep spirituality and I was left all alone for the night to pray before the Blessed Sacrament. This was a great consolation since I have had to bare many days and nights with no Mass or even the ability to kneel before our Blessed Lord for the span of a day or two.” From Mission San Antonio the walk continues to King City, then Mission Nuestra Señora de la Soledad (founded October 9, 1791, the 13th), onto Salinas, the city of Steinbeck, and to the site of many pilgrims destinations, Mission San Carlos Borroméo del rio Carmelo (the 2nd founded, June 3, 1770, by Saint Junípero Serra, and the apostle of California’s final resting place). Once in Monterey, Brother Anthony was roughly 550 miles into his pilgrimage.

Brother Anthony at the California Missions Museum near the replica of his favorite mission, San Antonio de Padua.

Brother Anthony once again experienced what he calls the “faith turned cold,” most often exuded by parish secretaries, who make no distinction between a Catholic religious asking for Christian charity in the name of Christ and that of a homeless man. They create excuses like the priest only meets with those who have an appointment. Brother Anthony reflects, “I still seem to meet those souls who very much love our Dear Lord. The other day when I arrived at a Mission I was met by a couple of ladies. One had seen me a few miles away and went home and made me an egg sandwich, something that she used to take her father when he worked in the fields. So I walked into the gift shop and asked to leave my bag and stick so I could go look around and pray, only to turn and see two ladies bearing many gifts . . . I stayed in that place overnight and was so generously taken care of . . . At 7am a Mexican woman that I had never met brought me handmade tacos. Even as I was trying to leave two ladies drove after me to give me a few more things. Their simple, generous faith was beautiful and really helped me to face the 35 mile an hour winds that I was getting ready to walk headlong into as I traveled to my next destination.”

Brunson’s June 12th update included many mixed blessings. On his way to the San Francisco Bay area, Brother Anthony reflected on an experience of the perfect joy of Saint Francis of Assisi, when he was turned away coldly in Salinas. His legs were having trouble doing their intended task, and to top it off, he found the Blessed Sacrament in dire straits in a local parish. “I found our Lord in an ugly room behind the main altar of the church. The Tabernacle was a cheaply painted box the size of a small refrigerator or a microwave and that is what it looked like. As refrigerators like this tend to sit on a small table and are pushed off to the side against a wall, so I found our Lord. I knew at this point that if they would treat our Lord this way then someone who comes in His Name might not have a chance, and that is how it turned out.” Both the Lord in repose and Brother Anthony seemed in a rut. He prayed and did just as Jesus instructed: “Whoever will not receive you or listen to your words—go outside that house or town and shake the dust from your feet” (Mt 10:14).

Brother Anthony reflected on the ups-and-downs of the day, “The beauty of this rejection [at a local parish] is that it had nothing to do with me. I was sad for [them], and for the fact that our dear blessed Lord seems to have very few who want to serve Him in His Name, as He deserved to be served, but God is faithful. Never has he left me without what I needed. My job is to walk and His to provide food, water and shelter and when I couldn’t walk and had no food or water or shelter he gave me the strength to walk until I could find it. Not only to walk it but it was such a beautiful walk! Isn’t this how life works? Every day passes and another begins, every problem ends and some joy returns, every life ends, and for those who are faithful, Joy is theirs forever!”

On June 21st, fifty days after leaving Mission San Diego de Alcalá, Brother Anthony reached his final destination, Mission San Francisco Solano, the last to be established (July 4, 1823) and the only one under Mexican governance. He had used plenty Shoe Goo adhesive on his sandals over the roughly 800 mile walk. His material needs were met, praise God, but more importantly his soul was nourished. He lived the motto of Saint Junípero Serra, “Move forward and never turn back” (¡Siempre adelante y nunca para atrás!).

image: MARELBU [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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Christian Clifford is the author of four books about Catholic Church history in Spanish-Mexican California. His latest is Pilgrimage: In Search of the Real California Missions, the story of his epic 800-mile walk of the California Missions Trail. He can be reached at

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