YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Junipero Serra advocates need just one more miracle

To be named a saint, the founder of California's missions has to be credited with a final miracle. One possibility: a Panamanian artist who is still alive after 14 brain surgeries.

August 28, 2009|Steve Chawkins

SANTA BARBARA — In a basement at Old Mission Santa Barbara, a filing cabinet is thick with claims of miracles that didn't make the grade.

A man falls off his horse and, thanks to Junipero Serra, he gets up unscathed. A woman visits Serra's tomb in Carmel and something stirs her deeply, changing the course of her life. An alcoholic gives up drinking and credits Serra for seeing him through.

They all believed their experiences to be miraculous -- but none was deemed the miracle needed to lift Serra into sainthood, a goal church officials announced 75 years ago today, the 225th anniversary of his death.

Serra, the revered and reviled Franciscan priest who founded California's missions, has one officially recognized miracle to his name. A nun in St. Louis was healed of lupus after praying to him, leading to Serra's beatification in 1987.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, September 02, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 61 words Type of Material: Correction
Junipero Serra: An article in Friday's Section A about efforts to canonize Junipero Serra, the Franciscan missionary, reported that the mission in Santa Barbara was one of the nine he founded in California before his death in 1784. The mission was the 10th established in California and was founded two years after Serra's death by his successor, Fermin Francisco de Lasuen.

But sainthood requires a second miracle, defined by the church as an event that cannot be explained by science but can be attributed to the candidate's intercession from beyond the grave.

Two years ago, Serra advocates thought they had found one. A Denver woman who had prayed to Serra delivered a healthy baby, despite a dire prognosis. The case went to Rome, but physicians for the Vatican concluded it was not a miracle.

Now there's another possibility. Sheila E. Lichacz, a Panamanian artist, has survived 14 brain surgeries for tumors called meningiomas, after being told time and again that she was dying. One-third of her skull was removed in surgery and replaced with acrylic plates. But they too were removed after causing life-threatening infections.

Now a large part of her brain is covered not by bone or plates, but only by flesh.

Yet at 66, she is exuberant and stylish. On a recent trip to Santa Barbara to confer with priests about her medical history, she wore a brilliant blue pantsuit with matching hat and turban, heavy silver chains and a black leather belt of her own design studded with 13 silver crucifixes. Her words tumble out in a cascade of religious fervor.

"Have you ever seen anything like this?" asks Lichacz, who still has four benign tumors in her head. "Have you? Brain surgery for 45 years? Blessed Junipero -- that poor man, he needs me. He gave it all, I'm telling you, and -- I'm not bragging -- I'm giving it all too."

Whether her story will reach the Vatican is an open question. The process of discerning miracles is grindingly meticulous and has become even more demanding as science explains once-mysterious phenomena.

Serra's top advocate is Father John Vaughn, a Franciscan priest who lives at the mission. Ten years ago, he was appointed Vice Postulator for the Serra Cause -- the fourth in a succession of priests charged with ushering Serra to sainthood.

"I felt honored; I felt humbled," says Vaughn, who, as former minister general of the Order of Friars Minor, led the world's 16,000 Franciscan monks for 12 years. "I guess I felt terrified too."

In his brown robe and rope belt, Vaughn walks slowly through the gardens and down the cool, 189-year-old corridors of Mission Santa Barbara. Now 81 and a stroke survivor, he is keenly aware that his job might outlast him. It took 755 years, after all, to canonize St. Bede.

In Serra's case, much of the heavy lifting has been done. Roman Catholic scholars spent 14 years scouring letters, diaries, church documents, biographies and accounts of those who knew him. They conducted research in 125 libraries. At hearings in California, they took testimony from about 50 descendants of the Indians who toiled at Serra's missions and the Spanish soldiers who guarded them.

Twice Serra's body was exhumed, as prescribed by church tradition, to ensure that he was still in his resting place. Hundreds of shavings from his bones were removed as relics to aid the faithful.

"All the groundwork has been laid," Vaughn said, leading a visitor into the mission's archives. On a wall, part of an embroidered vestment worn by Serra was displayed in a frame. In the vault, a death register written in Serra's bold hand told somber stories of early Santa Barbara; its first entry was for a child named Maria Antonia -- possibly the daughter of a Spanish soldier and an Indian mother -- who died Dec. 22, 1782.

On the shelves, volume after volume -- some 10,000 pages in all -- constitute the transumptum, the complete record of the case for Serra's sainthood.

Santa Barbara was one of nine missions he founded before his death in 1784. Serra, a native of Majorca, the largest island of Spain, evangelized for years in remote regions of Mexico. Seeking to convert as many Native Americans as possible, he hobbled through uncharted California on a painfully ulcerated leg, walking thousands of miles to establish religious communities. At one point, he walked back to Mexico to lobby for a decree barring soldiers from sexually abusing native women.

Los Angeles Times Articles