Asking St. Junipero Serra’s intercession for California

Three young adults and their dog complete Lenten Mission pilgrimage from San Diego to Sonoma

‘I really wanted to do something for several years to pray for California. To ask God to bring about a radical reconversion to him.’

            -Hope Waterman, California Mission pilgrim

By Valerie Schmalz

A trio of twenty-something young adults and their dog Laika walked more than 800 miles in the footsteps of St. Junipero Serra on a Lenten pilgrimage to pray for California that spanned the 46 days from Ash Wednesday to Easter Vigil.

Hope Waterman, 27, Matthew Geier, 27 and John Paul Hanson, 24, began walking after the 7 a.m. Ash Wednesday Mass at the first mission, Mission San Diego de Alcalá, and concluded in time for Easter Vigil in Sonoma, where the 21st and farthest north California mission was founded by the Franciscan friars.

“I wanted to do something for several years to pray for California,” said Waterman, who was inspired to make the pilgrimage to ask the intercession of St. Junipero Serra who founded California’s mission system. The idea came to Waterman as she was praying with 40 Days for Life in October 2020 in Lander, Wyoming, as the widespread desecration and vilification of St. Junipero Serra’s statues and reputation in California was making headlines in the second half of 2020. Statues in San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Rafael were among a number of statues vandalized and St. Junipero Serra’s reputation attacked, with the state of California officially removing his statue from the state capitol last year.

 “The thing I could do to bring about the radical reconversion of California was to pray to the man who brought the faith to California in the first place and to walk the missions of California as a prayer and penance for the salvation of California,” said Waterman, an emergency medical technician in Wyoming who grew up in California and in Texas. “I decided to do it in Lent and start off on Ash Wednesday.”

Waterman met Geier, a park ranger at Chino Hills State Park and a musician with a medieval and renaissance ensemble, when she was scouting and planning the pilgrimage earlier this year. Geier thought it sounded like a great idea and his boss agreed, giving him six weeks off. Hanson was a childhood neighbor and is a family friend who up until two days before the expedition was undecided. “I meant to say no,” said Hanson when Waterman called him in Irving, Texas, to find out his final decision, “and somehow I said yes.”

Waterman’s dog Laika, named for the Sputnik canine who was the first to orbit the earth in 1958, made up the pilgrimage’s fourth.

It was the vilification of St. Junipero Serra – a saint canonized in 2015 by Pope Francis during his visit to the U.S. – that led Geier to join the 46-day pilgrimage organized by Hope Waterman. “The idea that someone who is a canonized saint in the Catholic Church, that he’s having his name and reputation smeared through the mud by people who did not know that he had such love for the native peoples of California,” motivated Geier he said, noting that Junipero Serra grew up in comfort and was a professor at a university in Mallorca. “He left all of that.”

The 21 missions, beginning with the first one founded by St. Junipero Serra in San Diego in 1769, are integral to the state, Geier said. “It’s to try to restore a proper appreciation for the missions as a foundation of California. This place was such a deeply Catholic place. The whole society of our state has grown up around these missions. “

“The whole society of our state has grown up around these missions. “

Matthew Geier, California Mission Pilgrim

Because of his commitment to the reputation of St. Junipero Serra and to California’s Catholic heritage, Archbishop Cordileone met with the pilgrims just hours after he learned they had arrived in San Francisco Holy Thursday. He blessed their pilgrimage, their banner and various religious articles, praising the initiative which he called “blazing the trail for what I think we should be doing here, a Camino California.”

Archbishop Cordileone blessed the pilgrims, their banner and their journey.

For Hanson, Geier and Waterman, it’s been quite a journey: sun, rain, sore feet and a rosary together every night, “unless we fall asleep during the rosary,” noted Hanson. Most nights they camped out, but in a few cases members of the informally organized California Mission Walkers put them up and several nights they stayed in hotels. Gregory Wood, a Catholic psychotherapist and member of the Mission Walkers, connected them with several families. Wood is also coordinator of the St. Serra Walking Pilgrimage, July 23-24, in Southern California.

The three pilgrims walked everywhere, refusing rides because Father Serra walked everywhere. They only stayed indoors at places that would allow dogs.

“It’s really fun,” said Geier. “The three of us have been on the road for six weeks. Both John Paul and I had never been back packing before.”

“People have offered us all kinds of things. It’s been encouraging to see so much kindness and generosity and hospitality,” said Geier, adding that people see them with huge packs on their backs and identify them as people in need. “I didn’t know that it was out there being offered to those in need. That is kind of the humbling thing.”

“It’s a beautiful place with lots of nice people,” said Hanson.

“This is what we need as a Church–young people who are on fire and evangelizing,” said Wood.

They made it! The three pilgrims at the Sonoma Mission. (Photo courtesy Gregory Wood)