This is a very special year for the members of Serra International.
|One of the William H. Hannon Foundation statues of Blessed Junipero Serra stands outside Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa in San Luis Obispo, Calif. The foundation funded nearly 100 identical statues that were placed throughout California. CNS photo/Nancy Wiechec
This global organization of lay men and women and its more regional Serra Clubs foster vocations to the priesthood and religious life. The movement is based on the life of Blessed Junipero Serra, a Franciscan priest from Spain who established nine missions in California and converted thousands of Native Americans to the Catholic faith.
On Wednesday Sept. 23, Pope Francis will canonize Blessed Serra during a Mass in Washington, DC. Two faithful Serrans from the Diocese of Nashville, Lloyd Crocket and Jerry Strebel, along with their respective wives, Elizabeth and Patricia, will be there to witness this monumental occasion.
Crockett and Strebel are both members of the Serra Club of Williamson County, but they arrived there in different ways.
“We were living in Memphis at the time, in 1982, and I made a Cursillo,” recalled Crocket. “It affected me greatly, and the following Monday I made the decision to accept an invitation to become a member of the Serra Club of Memphis.”
Crockett would continue with the Serra movement, and become one of its most prominent figures. From 2000 to 2001, Crockett served as the president of the USA Council of Serra International. After serving the policy-limited one-year term, he became a member of the Serra International Board for eight years. In 2007-08, he served as president of that body.
After retiring and moving to Franklin in 2002, he became a charter member of the Serra Club of Williamson County.
Jerry Strebel has always been active in church-related initiatives, like the Knights of Columbus and Catholic Media Productions. Five years ago, some of his fellow parishioners at Holy Family Church in Brentwood suggested he consider becoming a member of the Serra Club of Williamson County.
In typical Strebel fashion, he joined and immediately became a busy, dedicated member. He is one of the primary organizers of the annual Serra Club fundraiser held at Holy Family. Its proceeds help pay for the education of seminarians in the diocese. “We work very closely with Bishop Choby and the diocese and the Knights of Columbus to put on an annual banquet for the seminarians,” said Strebel. “It’s a big job – we had almost 700 people at the event last year.”
The 2015 banquet – the club’s seventh – raised $115,000. The first year it was held, $6,000 was donated. “Big difference, yet even that doesn’t cover the entire cost of the seminarians we have right now,” said Strebel. “Everybody is still glowing with the number of vocations we’ve had in the last two or three years.” Ten new priests were ordained for the Diocese of Nashville in 2014, as well as 29 new permanent deacons, and five more priests were ordained this year. The Nashville-based Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia Congregation had five sisters make their final vows this year, and 13 made their first profession.
Like Crockett, Strebel seems to be easily persuaded to take on leadership positions. He was recently named president of the Williamson County club, whose membership encompasses Holy Family, St. Phillip Church, St. Matthew Church and the Church of the Nativity.
Worldwide, Serra has a presence in 42 countries, and boasts approximately 22,000 members. For those thousands of Serrans, the recognition of their namesake missionary has been a long time coming.
“When Father Serra was declared ‘Blessed,’ we began a new project at the request of a Franciscan priest from California, who was charged by the Vatican to press the cause for Father Serra,” said Crockett. “He came out to Serrans worldwide, especially in the United States, asking us to begin praying for his canonization.”
Members took that request to heart. The Serra Club of Williamson County meetings open with a prayer for vocations and close asking for the perseverance of those in religious life. But they also say another prayer, which Crockett keeps tucked into his billfold. “It asks the Heavenly Father to look lovingly on the missionary journey of Blessed Junipero Serra, his steadfast efforts in founding nine missions in California, and the conversion of thousands of Native Americans, which inspired the formation and work of Serra International,” Crockett explained. “We pray that Blessed Serra be granted the ultimate honor of sainthood.”
And now that prayer is being answered. However, it doesn’t arrive without controversy. Critics contend that Father Serra did not treat the Native Americans of California in a fair and Christian way. They view him as an oppressor of the native people, and as a co-conspirator with the Spanish empire.
“What I have read about his life is completely the opposite,” said Crockett. “Yes, he was obstinate or purposeful in his efforts to Christianize. But I have read at least three books about the subject, and the cruelty against the Native Americans was not coming from Father Serra – it was coming from the Spanish Conquistadors, who were trying to enslave and take advantage of them.”
Crockett points to a trip Father Serra made from California to Mexico City and back, to talk to the Commanding General for Spanish forces in North America, requesting that his men change their aggressive practices toward the Native Americans. “Now to me,” said Crockett, “that doesn’t sound like a man who took advantage of the Indians.”
Regardless of his history, Blessed Serra’s canonization by Pope Francis has been a significant public awareness boost and recruitment tool for the local and international Serra movement, which has sought younger Serrans to carry the movement forward.
But it’s the more seasoned members who are feeling the deepest sense of pride, and maybe even relief.
“You have to appreciate that we’ve been praying for this, purposefully, for the last 15-20 years,” said Crockett. “Serra is, right now, better than 75 years old. Always in the back of our minds we wanted our patron to be recognized as a saint. That has finally come to fruition, and it is a wonderful, joyful day for all Serrans.”