Spanish Franciscan priest, explorer and colonist of California, and founder of the missions of California, Saint Junípero Serra is known as the “Apostle of California” and “The Father of the California Missions”.
Saint Pope John Paul II beatified Serra in 1988. He was canonized as a Saint of the Catholic Church by Pope Francis during his official visit to the United States on September 23, 2017 on the East Portico of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception In Washington D.C..
In his Homily, Pope Francis identified the character of Saint Junípero Serra and the spirit of his missionary life.
“Today we remember one of those witnesses who testified to the joy of the Gospel in these lands, Father Junípero Serra. He was the embodiment of “a Church which goes forth”, a Church which sets out to bring everywhere the reconciling tenderness of God. Junípero Serra left his native land and its way of life. He was excited about blazing trails, going forth to meet many people, learning and valuing their particular customs and ways of life. He learned how to bring to birth and nurture God’s life in the faces of everyone he met; he made them his brothers and sisters. Junípero sought to defend the dignity of the native community, to protect it from those who had mistreated and abused it. Mistreatment and wrongs which today still trouble us, especially because of the hurt which they cause in the lives of many people.
Father Serra had a motto which inspired his life and work, not just a saying, but above all a reality which shaped the way he lived: ¡siempre adelante! Keep moving forward! For him, this was the way to continue experiencing the joy of the Gospel, to keep his heart from growing numb, from being anesthetized. He kept moving forward, because the Lord was waiting. He kept going, because his brothers and sisters were waiting. He kept going forward to the end of his life. Today, like him, may we be able to say: Forward! Let’s keep moving forward!”
Junípero Serra was born Miguel José Serra Ferrer on November 24, 1713 in Petra, a farming village in Mallorca’s central plain and was the son of peasant farmers, the 3rd of 5 children. At the age of 16, Miguel entered the Franciscan friary and took the name Junípero, after a close follower of St. Francis of Assisi. On September 14, 1730 he entered the Order of Friars Minor (O.F.M.).
As an academic, he was appointed a lector of philosophy before his ordination to the priesthood. He later received a doctorate in theology from the Lullian University in Palma Mallorca. In 1744, he was named Professor of Philosophy at the monastery of San Francisco and at Lullian University. For 17 years as an academic Saint Junípero Serra was known as a bright, articulate scholar, speaker and a writer. In 1749, he responded to the call for Franciscan missionaries to the New World, set sail from the Spanish port of Cadiz and joined the missionary college of San Fernando in Mexico.
The Spanish colonial life was restricted to urban centers such as Mexico City but the outlying areas were still uncharted by European colonist, and the Indians were indifferent, reluctant and even hostile towards the Spanish settlements. These unexplored areas were considered missionary territory and this is where Father Serra wanted to go to spread the word of Christ.
The Mexican Missions
Father Serra was 36 years old when he reached the port of Vera Cruz, Mexico, on December 8, 1749 and walked to Mexico City. It was during that journey of 24 days that he had an injury to his leg that made walking sometimes difficult. This afflicted him for the rest of his life. He traveled to Mexico City to dedicate his mission vocation at the shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe. He spent the next 17 years in missionary work in New Spain Mexico.
His first assignment was in the rugged, mountainous Sierra Gorda region in North-Central Mexico where he remained for 9 years, preaching to Indigenous Peoples, translating a catechism into the regional langu
age and strengthening the 2 missions already established in the area. His second assignment was to journey out from Mexico City into coastal villages and mining camps. In those 8 years he walked over 6,000 miles, preaching at retreats and administering the sacraments.
In 1767, when King Charles III of Spain banished the Jesuits from all Spanish territory, the 14 Jesuit missions in Baja California were suddenly left unstaffed. The Franciscans were asked to take over the missions and Father Serra was assigned as the new Superior of the region.
The next year, Jose de Gálvez, the Spanish inspector-general decided to explore, establish presidios and found missions in Alta California, the area which is now the state of California. This project was intended both to Christianize the extensive California Indian populations while serving Spain’s strategic interest by providing additional security for the Manila Galleon trade. This also helped to limit Russian explorations and claim to North America’s Pacific coast.
In 1769, Fr. Serra asked to join Captain Gaspar de Portolá’s expedition to establish missions at 3 strategic points, San Diego, the Monterey Bay area, and the Santa Barbara Channel area, each with a presidio or garrison for protection. These outposts would represent Spain’s claim to the region if challenged by England, Russia or another imperial power.
The Portolá Expedition
Fr. Serra joined the expedition of Don Gaspar de Portolá and reached San Diego on June 27, 1769 after a difficult land and sea voyage they founded the first mission.
San Diego was the rendezvous point from which Portolá and a small band of soldiers were to head north to find Monterey Bay and secure its harbor. After months of difficult preliminary exploration, the main expedition left in April of 1770 and founded the presidio and mission at Monterey in June.
Bernardino de Jesus, 5 year old local Indian boy, was Fr. Serra’s first baptism in California which took place on 26 December 1770. Lt. Pedro Fages, head of the Monterey Presidio, was the God Father.
The 2nd mission, San Carlos Borromeo, was first established at Monterey but at Fr. Serra’s urging due to unfavorable conditions in Monterey, it was moved permanently beside the Carmel River in 1771. The Carmel Mission, as it is known today, became the headquarters of mission operations in Alta California.
The California Missions
Father Serra argued openly with the Spanish Army leaders over the proper authority of the Franciscans in Alta California, which he thought should be greater than that of military commanders. In 1773, he convinced the authorities in Mexico City to increase support for expansion of his missions and to expand the authority of the Franciscans over both the army and the baptized mission Indians. He also urged Spanish officials to establish an overland route to Alta California, a suggestion which led to colonizing expeditions led by Juan Bautista de Anza which established civilian settlements at San Francisco in 1776 and at Los Angeles in 1781.
In 1773, difficulties with Capt. Pedro Fages, the military commander and governor at Monterey, compelled Fr. Serra to travel to Mexico City (an overland and sea journey of over 2,400 miles) to argue before Viceroy Antonio María de Bucareli for the removal of Fages. At the request of Viceroy Bucareli, he drew up a proposal document (Representación) with 32 articles. Bucareli ruled favorably on 30 of the 32 articles and removed Fages from office after which Fr. Serra returned to Carmel. Unfortunately, the relationship with the replacement military governor, Fernando Rivera y Moncada, was not a great improvement.
In 1778, Father Serra was given permission to administer the sacrament of Confirmation for the faithful in California. After he had exercised his privilege for a year, Governor Felipe de Neve, asserting his authority, directed him to suspend administering the sacrament until he could get approval from Rome. For nearly 2 years Fr. Serra had to refrain until the Viceroy proclaimed that he was within his rights. Governor de Neve prevented Fr. Serra from establishing any new missions during his 5 year governorship.
Father Serra wielded significant political power (and was involved in numerous political conflicts) because his missions served economic and political purposes as well as religious ends. The number of civilian colonists in Alta California never exceeded 3,200, and the missions with their Indian populations were critical to keeping the region within Spain’s political orbit. Economically, the missions produced all the colony’s cattle and grain, and by the 1780’s, were even producing surpluses sufficient to trade with Mexico for goods.
Father Serra personally oversaw the planning, construction, and staffing of each mission from headquarters at Carmel. He travelled on foot to the other missions along the California coast to supervise mission work and to confer the sacrament of Confirmation. It is estimated that Serra travelled more than 6,000 miles in the Alta California missions.
The missions established by Fr. Serra or during his administration were San Diego de Alcalá (1769), San Carlos Borromeo (1770), San Antonio de Padua (1771), San Gabriel Arcángel (1771), San Luis Obispo de Tolosa (1772), San Francisco de Asis (1776), San Juan Capistrano (1776), Santa Clara de Asis (1777), and San Buenaventura (1782). He was also present at the founding of the presidio of Santa Barbara (1782).
During the remaining 3 years of his life, he once more visited the missions from San Diego to San Francisco, travelling more than 600 miles in the process, in order to confirm all who had been baptized. He confirmed 5,309 persons during the 14 years from 1770. He established 9 missions, with a total of 21 missions eventually being established along the El Camino Real, from San Diego to Sonoma, some 700 miles.
On August 28, 1784, at the age of 70 and after traveling many thousands of miles by sea and land, Father Junipero Serra died at Mission San Carlos Borromeo and was buried there the next day under the sanctuary floor. It was 35 years to the day that he left Cadiz, Spain for the missions of the new world.