Orange County and Pope Francis: Native American priest to meet pope for Father Serra canonization

The Rev. James Nieblas has always been there for his tribe.

When there is a baby to be baptized, he’s there. When he is called in for a confirmation, he makes the drive from Los Angeles to San Juan Capistrano. A death? The tribal community turns to Father Jimmy for the funeral Mass; as always, he’ll be there.

And, in a big way, he’ll be with his people today when he meets with Pope Francis in Washington, D.C.

The meeting is slated to happen just after the canonization Mass of Father Junípero Serra, the Spanish friar who built nine of California’s 21 missions, including the one in San Juan Capistrano.

Like many native families in Orange County, Nieblas’ is forever linked to the mission, as a descendant of the Native Americans who built it. And, like many, he feels the conflict that comes with Serra’s canonization.

Many in Nieblas’ native community are Catholics and, as such, they’ve accepted the church’s decision to confer sainthood on Serra, who helped colonize the region in the late 1700s. But many also say the church should not celebrate a man who played a role in the destruction of their ancient culture and, indirectly, had a hand in the deaths of thousands of their ancestors.

It’s why Orange County Bishop Kevin Vann chose Nieblas, 68 – the first Native American priest to be ordained from this tribe, the Juañeno, Acjachemen Nation – to meet with the pope.

When they meet, Nieblas will give Pope Francis some native icons – a gourd rattle and an elderberry clapper stick. He’ll also give the pope a rosary and the photo book “San Juan Capistrano,” which tells the stories of native families and their historical ties to the town and the mission.

After that, they go off script. Nieblas doesn’t know what the pope will tell him or what he might tell the pontiff. All he knows for sure is this: It’s going to be an emotional moment.

“I think I’m going to cry,” he said. “It’s such an honor.

“For me, and my tribe.”


Nieblas’ parents divorced when he was young. His grandmother, who owned a Mexican restaurant in San Juan Capistrano, raised him.

Jimmy was a lot like his grandma – strong, quiet, but full of fun and mischief, said his cousin Jerry Nieblas.

Jerry and Jimmy grew up together. They went to the mission school, walked home together in the afternoon, and snacked on tortillas and beans. Jerry recalls that his cousin was Grandma’s favorite.

“He’d be out with us and he’d get in trouble, too,” Jerry Nieblas said. “But he’d get a bowl of sherbet and the rest of us would get punished.”

Even as a child, Jimmy was a devout Catholic, his cousin said.

“He had a Spanish altar in his room. He’d hold pretend Mass for us. He was very serious when he did Mass, even then.”

Still, Jimmy’s decision to go off to a Los Angeles-area seminary school after he finished eighth grade came as a shock to his younger cousin.

“I still remember the day when I saw that gray station wagon come up El Camino Real,” he said.

It stopped right in front of their grandma’s house. Jimmy was ready, his hair combed back and his black pants and white shirt still crisp. The suitcase he held was packed.

“A priest got out of the station wagon, took Jimmy and left,” Jerry Nieblas said.

“I didn’t see him again until several years later.”

When Nieblas was ordained, it was a big day for the family. His grandma came to his ordination in a wheelchair. She died soon afterward.

Hers was the first funeral Mass that Nieblas performed after he became a priest.


Since his ordination as a Salesian priest, Nieblas has served as a priest and a youth pastoral counselor. For 17 years, he worked at Don Bosco Tech in Rosemead; he served at Bishop Mora Salesian High School for about 25 years.

These days he’s a counselor at St. John Bosco High School in Bellflower, where he supervises students in the game room before and after school. Peter Uyanne, a junior, describes Nieblas as “the most down-to-earth priest” he has ever met.

“The first few days I was at the (game room), Father Jim was watching me play foosball,” he said. “Then, one day, he came up to me and said: ‘Why do you even play foosball? You’re awful at foosball.’

“We’ve had a lot of great conversations since then.”

Even when Uyanne didn’t say much, he said, Nieblas understood him.

“If I’m quiet after a test that didn’t go well, he’d walk up and ask me what was going on,” he said.

Nieblas might joke in the game room, but not when he performs Mass.

“His Mass is also very different from others I’ve been to,” Uyanne said. “I’m always sitting up during his homily and paying attention. … He gets personal; he talks about his own life.”

In his homily during a mother-son breakfast at the school, Nieblas talked about why he perseveres to be a good priest and help as many people as he can.

It was a promise he made to his grandmother.

“He talked about his grandma and sitting at her deathbed,” Uyanne said. “He said her last words to him were, ‘Be good, Jimmy.’”


Nieblas hopes he has kept his promise to his grandmother.

Soon after Vann selected him as a representative to meet Pope Francis, Nieblas wanted to inform his tribe. So, on Aug. 31, he called for a unification Mass at Serra Chapel, the mission where Father Serra held Mass.

“I did it that way because I did not want (the canonization) to divide us as a tribe,” he said.

After the Mass, his family came over to him and said a prayer. Another cousin, Matias Belardes, also came up to the altar.

Belardes, in addition to being Nieblas’ cousin, is also the leader of their tribe. Weeks before the Mass, he’d signed a resolution opposing Serra’s canonization. But he’d come to support the man he still calls Jimmy.

“It was the right thing to do,” Belardes said. “Even though we have wounds from the past, the right way now is forward, to heal and reconcile.”

Instead of blessing the tribe, Nieblas asked them to come up and bless him and the peace offerings he was carrying on their behalf to Pope Francis.

They did.

Contact the writer: 714-704-7909 or

Leave a Reply