Serra Retreat: Malibu’s Best-Kept Secret

Serra Retreat Director Father Mel Jurisich, and Assistant Director Father Warren Rouse stand next to a statue of Father Junípero Serra. Both are pleased with Pope Francis’ recent decision to canonize Serra. 

Father Mel Jurisich, director of Serra Retreat, is in an even better mood than usual these days. Last week, Pope Francis announced his intention to canonize Serra Retreat’s namesake – Father Junipero Serra – a Franciscan Friar from Spain who founded nine missions in California and evangelized the indigenous people of the Mexican and American West in the 1700s. There’s even speculation the Pope might visit California this fall to conduct the ceremony.

The West’s Franciscan Friars have been advocating Serra’s sainthood since the 1930s. 

“This has been a long process,” Jurisich said. “Our reaction has been one of excitement – we’re very pleased, because we’ve all been praying and working for this.” 

Aware that the Pope’s decision is controversial among some Native Americans who claim mistreatment at the hands of missionaries, Jurisich said he hopes historians can eventually verify a different story. 

“If you look at Serra’s life, he was a gentle man and tried to protect the people from Spanish soldiers,” Jurisich said. 

He said the missionaries were often caught in the middle between the natives and the Spanish political quest for colonization.

Serra Retreat, located on a wooded 26-acre knoll above Malibu Creek, has panoramic ocean and mountain views, and Mediterranean-style buildings that include 60 guest rooms, chapel, conference rooms and kitchen. The grounds feature manicured gardens, paths, walkways and overlooks with benches.

In 1928, May Rindge of Malibu’s founding family began constructing her 50-room dream house on the site, then known as Laudamus Hill. According to the Malibu Coastal Vision Civic Center Group, nearly $500,000 for lumber, concrete, marble, tile and hand-carved mahogany was spent from 1929-1932 on her “hilltop citadel by the sea.”

After Rindge died insolvent in 1941, the unfinished mega-mansion, 26 acres of land and thousands of crated Malibu Potteries tiles were sold in 1942 to the Franciscan Order for $50,000.

As a young Franciscan, Jurisich visited the property before the first big fire and said “the foyer was a Persian rug made entirely of Malibu tiles,” probably worth a fortune. 

Numerous fires have passed through the property over the years. 

“The big one in 1970 destroyed the original mansion – burned it to the ground,” Jurisich said. “The sheriffs saved May’s gun room of solid concrete, the two bathrooms connected to it, the garage and the laundry room.”

“The Franciscans were really among the founders of Malibu, yet we’re unknown to most of the people here,” he mused. “I think Serra Retreat is one of the biggest secrets in Malibu, even though we provide a service to the Malibu community as well as the greater Los Angeles area.”

“We try to be neighbor-friendly,” Jurisich added. “The people in our neighborhood consider us the jewel of the canyon. One resident told me, ‘When I see the cross at night, I know I’m home safe.’”

Jurisich isn’t sure how the entire neighborhood of nearly 100 homes came to be called Serra Retreat because only the Franciscan property had the name originally, but he figures a Realtor probably started it. He said it’s confusing at times, and they’ve been quietly lobbying to change the neighborhood’s name to Serra Canyon. 

The property today continues to function as a true retreat. The Franciscans have 16 weekend retreats planned for men and women in 2015 with the theme “Finding Meaning in Everyday Life.” They’ll also host a dozen weekend retreats for 12-step groups. In addition, Catholic seniors from six high schools come for 4-day retreats before graduation.

“Groups with addictions are big draws,” Jurisich said. “There’s an AA meeting here every day, Monday through Friday.” 

And, even though the facility is run by a Catholic order they also host “many Protestant and non-profit educational group retreats.” They also allow private retreats for individuals wanting a serene environment for prayer and meditation.

“Sam Anonymous” has been attending serenity retreats and AA meetings there for over 10 years. 

“And I’m not even Catholic,” he laughed. “Serra Retreat has become the center of my spiritual universe. I can just drive there, and by the time I hit the driveway, I’m in retreat mode — like a big exhale. The friars have always made time for me, and it’s the most spectacular setting for a recovery group — outside overlooking the ocean and canyon with hummingbirds and parrots.”

The public is invited to quietly enjoy the grounds of Serra Retreat from 9:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. weekdays. 

“We get 30-40 people a day … We’re in all the Korean tour guide books” Jurisich laughed.

Serra Retreat is located at 3401 Serra Road in Malibu. For more information, call 310.456.6631.