St. Junipero Serra

(1713-1784)

Founder of the Spanish missions in the state of California and a leading figure in that state’s history was Jose Miguel Serra, better known by his Franciscan name in religion, Junipero Serra.

Serra was a native of Petra, on Spain’s Mediterranean island of Majorca. The son of a farmer, he joined the Franciscan friars in 1730. Because of his intellectual talents, he was assigned to teach his brethren philosophy even before he had been ordained to the priesthood. After ordination in 1738, he won his doctorate in theology at the Lullian University in Palma, and in 1743 he was appointed to that institution’s Duns Scotus Chair in philosophy.

Professor Junipero, nevertheless, dreamed of being a missionary to the New World. He got his wish in 1749, when he was assigned to the Apostolic College of San Fernando in Mexico City. En route to Mexico, he stopped long enough at San Juan, Puerto Rico, to preach his first American parish mission.

Between 1750 and 1758, Junipero was assigned to the difficult missions of the Sierra Gorda, northeast of Mexico City. Here he proved an able administrator. Recalled to Mexico City in 1759, he passed the next nine years in administrative duties at San Fernando College and as a missionary working in five different Mexican dioceses.

Spanish Jesuits were then operating missions in Lower California. In 1767, however, the Spanish government, engaged in a mounting international war against the Society of Jesus, banished these “blackrobes” from their Mexican labors. Their missions in Baja California were reassigned to Franciscans, and Fray Junipero was chosen as superior. Then in 1769, Spain decided to settle northern California (the present state) in order to protect its land claims against other nations. Padre Serra, appointed superior of the missionaries assigned to this pioneer task, made the long march north in 1769 in the company of Gaspar de Portola, military head of the expedition. On July 16, 1769, he and his friars established their first California mission at San Diego.

During his term as “president” of the California missions, Serra set up eight other missionary foundations northward along the “Camino Real”: San Carlos Borromeo (his headquarters, at Monterey-Carmel, 1770); San Antonio (1771); San Gabriel (1771); San Luis Obispo (1772); San Franicsco (1776); San Juan Capistrano (1776); Santa Clara (1777); and San Buenaventura (1782). (Father Serra’s successors would establish 12 more missions by 1830.)

The Serra missions followed the “reduction” plan long used among the Indians of Spanish America. Nomadic Indians who showed interest were invited to come and live permanently in those villages, where they would be taught the Christian faith and community life as farmers. The friars exercised a paternalistic control over their charges, but they did introduce them to the arts of farming, cattle-raising, and various European mechanical skills. Since the natives showed a natural talent for music, the Franciscans also trained them in that art, especially choral music.

These missions were, of course, of political use to the Spanish; and the friars would have been imprudent if they did not have Spanish troops nearby for their protection. In addition to the military presidios, civil colonies eventually arose near some of the missions; for example, San Jose in 1777 and Los Angeles in 1781. But Serra and his confreres always kept Spanish soldiers and settlers at their distance from the mission Indians, for the lay Spaniards were only too ready to exploit them. In 1773, when the Spanish in California began to treat the Indians quite badly, Father Serra made an arduous but effective trip back to Mexico City to speak to the viceroy in their defense.

Fray Junipero gave himself heart and soul to his Indians. The Franciscans never persuaded all the California Indians to settle in the missions, but the founder was at last able to count over 6,000 baptisms and 5,000 confirmations.

Serra died in the harness, at Carmel, on August 28, 1784. At his funeral he was given both military and naval honors, bearing witness to the role he had in the settlement of Upper California. His name and image were to appear frequently on the California map thereafter, and in 1931 that state placed his statue in the Hall of Fame of the Washington Capitol. When the move for his canonization was launched, some historians and Native American activists asked if he had not been responsible for the harsh treatment that some of the friars gave to the mission Indians. The Holy See apparently thought not, for Pope John Paul II declared him “blessed” on September 25, 1988.

–Father Robert F. McNamara

Update: Junipero Serra was canonized by Pope Francis on September 23, 2015.

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