Junípero Serra was a Spanish priest 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.
Where Was Junípero Serra Born?
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 Franciscan Order
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 being 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.
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, who had been seafarers and cartographers for centuries, and indeed common to many Spaniards of Serra’s own time who wished 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.
Voyage to the Americas
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.
Serra and 19 other Franciscans left Spain August of 1749 aboard the ship Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe (Our Lady of Guadalupe) and arrived in the Port of Veracruz, in today’s Mexico, on Dec. 6 of that year.
Instead of traveling on horseback from Veracruz, he and a companion chose to walk to Mexico City, a journey that took them three weeks. During that time, Serra was able to get to know something of the landscape and people of his new home. 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.
Upon arriving in Mexico City on New Year’s eve, he spent the night at the shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe on Tepeyac Hill, in thanksgiving for his safe arrival.
The next several months would be spent at the College of San Fernando, where Franciscan priests trained to be missionaries. There, he learned the language of the native people of the Sierra Gorda region north of Mexico City, where he would be sent in 1750.
Missionary in the Sierra Gorda
In the Sierra Gorda, the eager friar was able to dedicate himself to missionary activity for almost eight years. This region had been the site of intense warfare between Spanish authorities and indigenous groups. Over the years, various religious orders had attempted to evangelize the local Indian people, known as Pames, with little success.
While in the Sierra Gorda, Serra dedicated himself to building on the small local community of those who had already accepted Christianity. He taught economic and agricultural techniques, and proclaimed the gospel, especially through visual means. The richly decorated churches built under his supervision are testaments to the Francisans’ vision of creating Christian temples that combined both native and European elements. The missions under Serra’s care became very prosperous and known far and wide for their public festivals and devotions.
Serra’s time in the Sierra Gorda was also marked by something that would mark his later missionary years: clashes with government authorities. The military governor of the region, José de Escandón, had encouraged settlers to move onto the Indian lands near the missions. Serra and the other Franciscans resisted this practice. They also opposed Escandón’s insistence on speeding up the process of turning the missions into parishes, a practice known as secularization. For Serra, this would mean potentially leaving the Indians vulnerable to exploitation as laborers before they had the cultural means to defend themselves.
In 1758 Serra’s superiors requested that he return to Mexico City. He spent most of another decade in the College of San Fernando, attending to administrative duties and preaching at churches in order to revive spiritual practice among Catholics.
During his time in Mexico City, Serra never forgot his experience in the Sierra Gorda. As circumstances would have it, he was destined to return definitively to missionary activity. In 1767, King Charles III of Spain ordered the Society of Jesus, another Catholic religious order, to be expelled from all Spanish territories. The Society of Jesus, better known as the Jesuits, had been successful missionaries all over Latin America, and Spanish officials sought other religious orders to staff the outposts left abandoned by the Jesuits’ abrupt deportation. They soon decided that the Franciscans, led by Junípero Serra, would take charge of the the Jesuit missions in distant Baja California.
In 1768, Serra landed at Loreto, the southernmost tip of the Baja peninsula. He soon began assigning Franciscans to oversee each of the recently abandoned missions and established standard procedures for operating the missions. In Baja California, he met Governor Gaspar de Portolá, whose most recent task had been to remove the Jesuits from the area. He also met José de Gálvez, who the king had appointed to establish a colonizing effort in Alta or Upper California.
Expedition to Alta California
Serra’s imagination was kindled by the prospect of preaching the gospel to people who had never heard of it. He soon offered to accompany the expedition with his brother Franciscans. Gálvez accepted, and in January of 1769, the first ships set sail for the upper part of the Pacific Coast. Serra would arrive in Alta California in June of 1769, after founding his first mission, and the last in Baja California, San Fernando de Velicatá.
In July of the same year, Serra established the first mission in Alta California, San Diego de Alcalá, near the native village of Cosoy, at what is today Presidio Hill in San Diego.
The goal of the Spanish move into Alta California was ultimately to establish a presence near the bay of Monterey, which the explorer Sebastián de Vizcaíno had entered in 1602, but which later Spanish voyages had failed to encounter. In June of 1770, thanks to an overland expedition led by Gaspar de Portolá, Spanish troops arrived at Monterey Bay. Serra arrived by ship and said a dedication Mass at the site believed to be the location that Carmelite priests with Vizcaíno said Mass 128 years earlier.
At Monterey, Portolá and his men founded a presidio, a military outpost for the north that would mirror the functions of the one founded at San Diego. Serra initially established a mission near the presidio, but later moved it to a location near the mouth of the Carmel river, with better access to water and close to a native village. He named the mission San Carlos Borromeo del Río Carmelo, after St. Charles Borromeo, the 16th century reformer bishop of Milan. San Carlos would remain the headquarters and home of Junípero Serra until his death.
How Many Missions did Junípero Serra Found?
Including Mission San Carlos Borromeo, Junípero Serra founded nine missions in Alta California. He considered his crowning achievement to be the founding of Mission San Buenaventura in 1782 among the Chumash people of the Santa Barbara Channel.
The nine missions founded by Junípero Serra in Alta California are:
Throughout his time in Alta California, Serra continued to oversee the mission chain, traveling between outposts to baptize and celebrate the sacraments. He also spent time dealing with the problems that arose when missionaries became discouraged or bitter about their lives far from home.
How Did Fr. Serra Die and Where is He Buried?
Eventually, however, the energetic friar’s health began to fail. He had dealt with various ailments for many years, including the leg wound from his arrival in Mexico, which had never healed. But at 70 years old, life on the frontier had taken its toll. In August of that year, his friend Fr. Francisco Palou came to visit Serra at San Carlos and administered the final sacraments to him in the mission church. Serra then returned to his cell, and on August 28, 1784 he died surrounded by friars, soldiers and indigenous people.
He was buried at Mission San Carlos Borromeo, where his remains still rest to this day.
On Sep. 23, 2015, Junipero Serra was declared a saint of the Catholic Church by Pope Francis.