Junípero Serra was a Spanish Franciscan friar who established the a series of missions among the native peoples of what is today California. He is considered by many to be the founding father of California and is recognized as a saint by the Catholic Church.
Junípero Serra was born Miguel José Serra and baptized on November 24, 1713, in the town of Petra on the island of Mallorca, Spain. Though small for his age and somewhat sickly, as a boy he was filled with grand aspirations. The young José had developed an interest in reading the lives of the saints, fascinated in particular by the descriptions of St Francis of Assisi.
Joining the Franciscans
At the age of fifteen, José left home to enter the Franciscan University in nearby Palma to study philosophy. When he was seventeen, his intelligence and maturity permitted him to be admitted into the Franciscan Order, in spite of his superiors’ concerns about his health. Upon assuming the habit of St Francis, he took the name Junípero, which means “Jester of God.” His namesake was a real-life companion of St Francis of Assisi. In 1737 Serra was ordained a priest, and taught theology for seven years at the Llullian University of Mallorca, the most important university on the island.
The Dream of Being a Missionary
Though he received great acclaim as a professor, Serra was not content with an ordinary academic career. He was imbued with the zeal to visit other lands, so common to Mallorcans like him. For centuries, Mallorca had produced seafarers and cartographers (map makers). And it was indeed common for many Spaniards of Serra’s time to want to sail to the far-off “Indies” (as the Americas were commonly called). In addition, he could not forget the heroic tales of the saints that he read as a young man.
Serra’s dream did not involve discovering wealth or gaining fame as a soldier, but rather announcing the Christian event to those who had not yet encountered it. He was aware, however, that the first disciples had been sent by Christ in teams of two, and so for many months Serra prayed that God would send him a companion.
In 1749, his dream became reality, when he met another Franciscan of his province who wished to become a missionary in the Americas. His name was Francisco Palou, who would accompany Fr Serra on many of his journeys and eventually become the author of his posthumous biography. Together with several other Franciscan missionaries, they sailed for the Americas.
Voyage to the New World
Despite the arduous overseas voyage, when Friar Junípero and his companions finally landed at Vera Cruz on the coast of New Spain (today’s Mexico), he decided to traveled on foot to Mexico City, while the others et off on horseback. On that journey, Serra’s leg became swollen from an insect bite. This would physically hinder him for the rest of his life, especially in walking.
When he arrived in Mexico City, Serra studied and prepared for missionary work at the College of San Fernando, which was an important center for the training of Franciscan missionaries. Not long afterwards, he began missionary work with other Franciscan friars in Mexico’s Sierra Gorda Mountains, where he preached to the native populations and founded new missions in territories that had earlier been extremely hostile to the Christian faith.
While in the Sierra Gorda, Serra earned the respect of his superiors and was named ‘Presidente’ of the Franciscan missions of the region. He then returned to San Fernando College in 1758, where he once again took up the mantle of professor and taught philosophy for nine years. Nevertheless, he was still restless, longing to return to the missions. After all, he had left his professor life in Spain precisely for that reason. Until one day he received another call to the missions, this time to was considered to be the farthest reaches of the world: California.
Expedition to California
1768 Serra was appointed to lead a group of fellow Franciscan missionaries to take over the missions of Baja California (the Spanish had not yet founded any outposts in Alta California). These missions had been founded by the Jesuits, another order of missionaries, but the King of Spain became suspicious of the Jesuits’ loyalty and had chosen to expel them from all Spanish territories. The Franciscans were therefore ordered to take responsibility for the Jesuit missions in Baja California.
Friar Junípero arrived in Loreto, Baja California in April of that year. In March of 1769 he founded his first mission, San Fernando, Rey de España de Velicatá, in the northern part of the Baja California Peninsula.
In July of 1769 he joined an expedition to Alta (upper) California. He consecrated the first mission there on July 16 in what is today San Diego.
Missions Founded by Junípero Serra
During his time in Alta California, Junípero Serra oversaw the founding of nine missions:
He died at the San Carlos (Carmel) Mission, on August 28, 1784. His earthly remains are interred there.
On Sep. 23, 2015, Junipero Serra was declared a saint of the Catholic Church by Pope Francis.
Books about Junípero Serra
For kids: Serra: American Founding Father