About Serra

Junipero Serra

The name of Junipero Serra is well known in the United States of America, particularly to residents of the State of California. It was to that State that Serra brought Christianity during the eighteenth century and in which he established a chain of missions known as the Spanish Missions.

A statue of Serra, one of two people that California was permitted to nominate, is displayed in the Hall of Fame in Washington DC.

For the many, particularly residents in countries other than the United States of America, who WAS Junipero Serra?

The Early Years

Miguel Jose Serra was born in the village of Petra on the island of Majorca (Spain) on 24th November 1713 to farmers Antonio and Margarita Serra. His sister, Juanita, was born three years later. There were three other children who died while they were young.

Majorca had only one bishop who lived in the capital, Palma. Whenever the bishop was on visitation to a Parish, people took the opportunity of having their children confirmed. Taking advantage of one such visitation, Serra’s parents had Miguel confirmed before his second birthday.

The first years of the young Serra’s life were spent in the countryside working with his parents on the family farm. By his seventh birthday, Miguel was becoming knowledgeable about farming, produce and livestock. This knowledge was invaluable years later in his missionary work.

Although Miguel’s parents were illiterate, they wished him to have an education and took him to the school of the Franciscan Friary which was only a few minutes’ walk from their house.

When he was fifteen, Miguel told his parents that he wished to become a priest. It was a big sacrifice for a farming family to give up their only son but they took him to Palma and made arrangements with one of the priests at the Cathedral for board and lodgings at the priest’s house. Whilst under the care of the priest, Miguel learned how to recite the Divine Office in choir and attended lectures. He began his studies at the Friary of St Francis.

By the beginning of 1730, Miguel had decided that he wished to become a Franciscan and, after being declined admission at his first interview – he was considered to be too young and frail-looking – entered the Novitiate at Palma. After six months, he was considered to be sufficiently advanced to be clothed in the Franciscan habit  This took place on 14th September 1730 and, from then on, he wore the grey habit and hood, the white knotted cord and the sandals of the Greyfriars.

Miguel received his spiritual formation from the Master of Novices and learned the history of the Franciscan Order, of its Spanish Provinces and of its missionary activities. The Order had a rich history going back to its formation in 1209AD by St Francis of Assisi. In all of his time in formation and after his ordination, Miguel’s parents supported him in his choice.

On 15th September 1731, Miguel made his religious profession by pronouncing his first vows as a Franciscan. At his profession, Miguel took the name of Junipero, a companion of St Francis of Assisi known for his humility and simplicity. Thereafter, he was known as Brother (Fray) Junipero.

Between 1731 and 1737, Junipero studied extensively. He was ordained a Deacon in March 1737 and a priest later in that year. He continued his studies after his ordination.

From 1737 to 1743, Junipero lectured in philosophy at St Francis’ Friary and, in 1743, was appointed a Professor of Theology at the Lullian University in Palma. Junipero longed to be a missionary in the New World (America) but had to wait until 1749 for his opportunity. He, with Fray Francisco Palou and several other friars, sailed from Spain in August and set foot on Mexican soil, at Vera Cruz, on 6th December 1749. Mexico was also known as New Spain.

New Spain

After a few days rest to regain their land legs, Junipero and a friar from Andalusia chose to walk the 400 kilometres from Vera Cruz to Mexico City, even though they were entitled to travel by horseback. Junipero was in good health and sincerely felt that he had the necessary stamina to maintain the Franciscan tradition the hard way. This was the first time in Junipero’s thirty-four year American career that he would demonstrate his dedication in this way.

The friars walked for about 24 kilometres a day for seventeen days. A serious problem, however, developed on the journey – Junipero’s left foot became swollen. He was also bothered by a burning itch that he blamed on a mosquito bite. The mosquito was later identified as one whose sting could be very fierce. Without proper treatment and rest, serious complications arose – in Junipero’s case, the result was an affliction that tormented him for the rest of his life.

With a festering foot, Serra hobbled into the outskirts of Mexico City on 31st December 1749 and stayed at the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe. On the following day, New Year’s Day, he managed to walk the last 7 kilometres to the College of San Fernando that was located on the other side of the city.

Sierra Gorda

Between 1750 and 1767, Junipero was assigned to the Mexican Home Missions. With several others, he was sent to reactivate the run-down mission to the Pame Indians in the Sierra Gorde, a large area directly north of the capital. The area is in the heart of the jagged Sierra Madre mountain range and was home to a few Spanish colonists and the Indians. The valleys were few and small and what arable land was available was rocky. It took the group sixteen days in burning heat to walk over barely visible paths to reach the mission at Jalpan.

Serra immediately set about learning the Pame language so that he could preach to the Indians in their own language. He spent just over eight years in the Sierra Gorda and was successful in his labours for the improvement of conditions for the Indians and for placing the mission on a successful base. Shortly before his recall to the College of San Fernando, Serra finished supervising the construction of a large church. Some years earlier, the prosperity of the mission permitted taking on such a project.

After he returned to the College, Serra conducted Parish Missions in Mexico City for many years. He was sought after as a confessor and as a leader of retreats. In all this time, Serra concentrated on his spiritual development.

Baja California and the Californian Missions

The Jesuits had been expelled from the Baja Missions (Lower California) by order of the King of Spain. The Viceroy of New Spain, Marques de Croix, in consultation with the Inspector-General, Jose de Galvez, recommended that the vacated missions be entrusted to the Franciscans of San Fernando College. Fray Jose, the Guardian (Superior), called for fourteen volunteers and Serra was among those chosen. Serra was appointed, reluctantly but in obedience to his vows, as President of the Missions of Baja with Fray Francisco Palou as his substitute.

The missionaries left the College early on the morning of 14th July 1767. Travelling at a rate of about 32 kilometres a day, they reached the city of Tepic, near the north coast, in thirty-nine days. Unexpected events, however, kept the friars in Tepic for almost six and a half months. On the evening of 14th March 1768, the missionaries boarded the small vessel Concepcion to continue their journey to the mission fields. The town of Loreto was some 320 kilometres north along the east coast of Baja and the ship reached there on Good Friday, 1st April.

Serra and Palou were surprised to learn that they were in charge of spiritual matters only. The everyday management of the missions was in the hands of the military. The recently-appointed Governor, Don Gaspar de Portola, explained that, following the expulsion of the Jesuits, he had placed a soldier-commissioner in charge of each mission so that the properties could be protected. Though it relieved the missionaries of many burdens, it impeded their work. Serra remained at the Loreto Mission for over twelve months whilst his friars went about their conversion efforts in the nearby mountains and desert.

In May 1768, the Inspector-General wrote to Serra telling him of Spain’s intention to settle Monterey. Spain was concerned that Russia would move into its territories. England’s establishment of colonies in the Americas compounded Spain’s concerns. Land and sea expeditions were planned. All parties would travel to San Diego and a further land party would then set out out from San Diego for Monterey.

By return mail, Serra congratulated Galvez and offered himself as the first volunteer to erect a cross in Monterey. For Serra, the opportunity for which he had been waiting for so long had, at last, materialised – that of planting the faith on unworked soil.

Junipero then spent about a month visiting the missions to the north of Loreto. At the same time, Galvez visited the missions to the south and was angered at what he found. He had expected to find that the settlements were more established and scolded the soldier-commissioners for their poor administration. On 17th August 1768, Galvez signed a decree turning the missions over completely to the Franciscans.

The expedition flagship San Carlos sailed from San Blas on 9th January 1769. Those on board included Fray Fernando Parron, Lieutenant Pedro Fages and twenty-five soldiers. A month later, the second ship – the San Antonio – was despatched.

Portola was the leader of the overland expedition which was divided into two – the first was led by Don Fernando de Rivera (accompanied by Fray Juan Crespi), the second by Portola (accompanied by Fray Junipero Serra). The starting point for the expedition’s second part was the Loreto Mission which was about 1,450 kilometres south of San Diego.

Attempts by Portola to dissuade Serra from travelling to San Diego, due to the condition of his foot, were to no avail. Serra offered to follow the expedition rather than delay it with his health concerns. The expedition set out on 26th March with Junipero starting his journey two days later. He was provided with two servants but little else. Riding a sick and ageing mule, Serra departed with no extra clothing and little in the way of provisions. That evening, he arrived at San Xavier Mission where he stayed for three days with Fray Francisco Palou.

Palou also tried to dissuade Junipero from travelling but was similarly unsuccessful. Palou then provided a better mount. Serra resumed his journey but was so crippled that it required two men to lift him onto the mule and to adjust him in the saddle. It was a long, slow trip to San Diego over rough and inhospitable terrain but Serra finally arrived at San Diego on 1st July. The ships were waiting at San Diego to meet the land expeditions.

With orders from Galvez to establish the first mission, Serra and the others surveyed the area for a suitable site. The immediate outlook for constructing the mission, however, was bleak. By the time Serra arrived, twenty-one sailors and some of the soldiers had died of scurvy. The Rivera expedition had run short of food and everyone had been on rations for the last few days. Friars Parron and Crespi were weak and Serra was still in pain from his infected foot and leg. Whilst the friars ministered to the souls, the ship’s doctor did what he could to heal the bodies.

Portola and the San Antonio captain decided that, with the few sailors still able, the ship should return to San Blas for more provisions and supplies. In the meantime, Portola would continue the overland search for Monterey leaving a skeleton guard with Serra. The ship sailed on 9th July and reached its destination twenty-one days later. However, another nine sailors died en-route. On 15th July, the Portola expedition of seventy-four men (soldiers, friars and Baja Indians) left for Monterey.

Following Portola’s departure, Serra turned all of his energy to building the mission. He and the others began erecting several simple shelters. Junipero founded his first mission, the Mission San Diego de Alcala, on 16th July 1769. It was named in honour of a Franciscan, St Didacus.

A dispirited Portola expedition returned to San Diego on 24th January 1770. Although it had travelled almost 1,500 kilometres and had encountered many Indians, the expedition failed to recognize Monterey even though it was set out on cartographers’ maps.

A sorry state greeted the expedition – one supply ship had been lost at sea, another had limped into port with many of its crew suffering from scurvy and Indians had attacked the camp (there were casualties on both sides). Portola was determined to return to Lower California unless another supply ship arrived.

Serra was aghast at the thought of leaving the mission and came to an agreement with Portola. He would lead the Company in a Novena to St Joseph to finish on his feast day, 19th March. If the ship didn’t arrive, San Diego would be abandoned. On 19th March, the soldiers began packing up for their departure on the following day but the ship arrived during the afternoon.

Re-supplied, Portola set out again and, this time, easily identified the bay at Monterey. Serra travelled on the supply ship to Monterey and, once the men and materials were ashore, a start was made on building the fort and Mission. The Mission was established on 3rd June 1770. The name chosen for the Mission was San Carlos Borromeo.

His expeditionary job completed, Portola handed over local authority to Lieutenant Pedro Fages and returned to Mexico City. Construction of the fort and Mission took twelve months.

Serra decided to move the Mission to the banks of the Carmel River, some eight kilometres from the fort. He wanted to be closer to the Indians. More importantly, he wanted the Indians to see that the Church was not totally subject to the military. Fages resented the move but could do nothing as Serra had higher permission.

Buildings were needed at the new site – a chapel, huts, a guardhouse for a few soldiers and, eventually workshops and a dormitory for the Indian girls. Although the name of San Carlos Borromeo was retained, the Mission was soon called “Carmel”.

In collaboration with Fages, it was Serra’s task to find sites for missions and to assign his friars. Four coastal sites between San Diego and Monterey had been considered – San Buenaventura, San Gabriel, San Luis Obispo and San Antonio de Padua. The names had already been approved by the Spanish authorities. Fages and several friars sailed to the new mission sites on 7th July 1771.

On the following day, Serra, with two friars and a small group of soldiers and helpers, set off on pack animals to find a site for Mission San Antonio in the Valley of the Oaks. Six days later, he found what he wanted. Serra hung bells from a tree and was so overcome with emotion that he rang them continuously.  Drawn by the sound, a solitary Indian approached, much to Serra’s joy. Before the end of the day, the Indian returned with several companions.

Although they had to work together, relationships between Serra and Fages deteriorated. Fages wanted to be in charge of everything including the Missions and control of the missionaries. Matters came to such a point that, in October 1772, Serra undertook the tedious journey to Mexico City to meet with the new Viceroy to set out his concerns and to ask for the transfer of Fages away from the Missions. None of Serra’s concerns touched on person-to-person troubles. The Viceroy agreed with Serra’s submissions and Fages was transferred to other duties.

A new Governor for the two Californias (Upper and Lower), Don Felipe de Neve, took up residence in Monterey on 3rd February 1777. Whilst he was an able enough man, the Governor became a thorn in Serra’s side. He interfered with Serra’s right to confer the Sacrament of Confirmation. The faculty for Serra to confer the Sacrament had been obtained from the San Fernando College through the Viceroy, the Archbishop and the Court of Spain.  The Governor asked to see the original permission so that he could countersign it. Serra could only produce authenticated duplicate letters which the Governor refused to recognise.

It was two years before the dispute was settled in Serra’s favour.  Despite the interference of the Governor, Fray Junipero visited each of the missions and fort churches between San Diego and San Francisco. He travelled over rough roads and was always in the company of a military guard. He eventually conferred the Sacrament of Confirmation on over 5,000 people, the vast majority of whom were Indians. Junipero was in his late sixties and weighed down with several infirmities.

Fray Junipero Serra died at Carmel Mission on 28th August 1784, just short of three months from his 71st birthday. The day before he died, he awoke at dawn to recite the Divine Office and, later, made his way painfully to the Church to receive Holy Communion. Back in his room, he spent the day quietly and the night sleepless, mostly on his knees. His funeral took place on the following day.

Several friars, some of Spain’s officials, many soldiers and sailors and a large number of Indians attended. In a show of love and devotion for their pastor, the Indians had come from near and far. Junipero’s remains were laid to rest in the sanctuary floor of the Carmel Mission Church.

Serra spent fifteen years in the Spanish Missions and, in that time, established nine missions: San Diego de Alcala (1769), San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo, San Antonio de Padua and San Gabriel Arcangel (1771), San Luis Obispo de Tolosa (1772), San Juan Capistrano and San Francisco de Asis (1776), Santa Clara de Asis (1777) and San Buenaventura (1782).

Following Serra’s death,  other twelve missions were established – Santa Barbara (1786), La Purisma Concepcion (1787), Nuestra Senora de la Soledad and  Santa Cruz (1791), San Juan Bautista, San Jose, San Fernando Rey de Espana and San Miguel Arcangel (1797), San Luis Ray de Francia (1798), Santa Ines (1804), San Rafael Arcangel (1817) and San Francisco de Solano (1823).

Junipero Serra was beatified in Rome on 21st September 1988 and was canonised in September 2015 by Pope Francis in Washington DC. His feast day is celebrated on 1st July.