Junípero Serra

A Franciscan missionary and founder of the Spanish missions of California, Junípero Serra (1713-1784) was one of the most respected and best-known figures in California history.

Junípero Serra whose sobriquets "Apostle of California" and "Father of the Missions" typify the love and esteem with which he is still regarded, was born Miguel José Serra at Petra on the island of Majorca just off the eastern coast of Spain. Educated by the Franciscan fathers at Palma, Serra joined the order in 1730 and took the name Junípero in memory of a companion of St. Francis of Assisi. For several years following his ordination, Serra remained at Palma as both student and teacher. He received a doctorate in theology in 1742 and served as professor of theology at the Franciscan university in Palma from 1744 to 1749.

Then, at the age of 36, Serra joined a group of missionaries setting out for Mexico. In company with his pupil and friend Fray Francisco Palóu, Serra arrived in Mexico City in December 1749. Shortly thereafter he volunteered to go to the mission field of Sierra Gorda in northeastern Mexico, where for 8 years he served as preacher and teacher. He learned the Otomí language of the natives, built several churches which are still in use today, and established a successful and thriving mission system.

In 1758 Serra prepared for a new assignment at Mission San Sabá on the Texas frontier, but before he could go north, hostile Comanches attacked and burned the mission. The Church then ordered Serra to the Franciscan college of San Fernando in Mexico City, and from 1758 to 1767 he served as home missionary, preached throughout Mexico, and served as a commissioner of the Holy Office, or Inquisition.

California Missions

In 1767, when the Spaniards expelled the Jesuit order from New Spain, Serra became president of the former Jesuit missions in Baja California. He arrived at Loreto in April 1768 and immediately set about the task of improving and enlarging the mission establishments. In 1769 he volunteered to go to Alta California to establish the first missions there. During the march north Serra suffered from painful bleeding ulcers on his legs and feet, but he refused to turn back. He arrived at San Diego in late June 1769 and immediately began construction of the first mission plant.

During the next 15 years Serra devoted his time and energy to the Franciscan establishment in California. When others despaired, Serra persevered. By 1782 the indefatigable priest had founded nine missions: San Diego, San Carlos Borromeo de Monterey (Carmel), San Antonio, San Gabriel, San Luis Obispo, San Francisco, San Juan Capistrano, Santa Clara, and San Buenaventura. Slowly he overcame the fear and hostility of the natives and converted them to the Christian religion. Serra was as concerned with the Native Americans' physical well-being as with their spiritual life. He introduced domestic animals and new agricultural methods and trades to the neophytes at his missions and did everything possible to help the natives adjust to a different way of life. Under his care the California missions became the most successful and prosperous in all of New Spain.

Not only did Serra have responsibility for the missions, but after the founding of the pueblos of San José and Los Angeles he also administered the churches there as well as those at the presidios of San Diego, Monterey, San Francisco, and Santa Barbara. His devotion and constancy were in large part responsible for the growth and development of Spanish California.

Serra died in August 1784 at Mission San Carlos Borromeo and was buried in the mission church (at present-day Carmel), which has become a shrine to his memory. Monuments to Serra dot the map from Majorca to San Francisco, and several societies, including Serra International, have been established in his honor.

Further Reading on Junípero Serra

Although adulatory, the work by Serra's friend and companion Francisco Palóu, Life of Fray Junípero Serra (1787; trans. 1955), is the best known of the Serra biographies, available in several editions and translations. The best of the modern works is Maynard J. Geiger, The Life and Times of Fray Junípero Serra (2 vols., 1959). The study by Katherine and Edward Maddin Ainsworth, In the Shade of the Juniper Tree: A Life of Fray Junípero Serra (1970), is thoroughly researched, but the wealth of factual material tends to obscure Serra's personal qualities. Most histories of California devote at least part of a chapter to Serra's career. Particularly recommended is the discussion in Charles E. Chapman, A History of California: The Spanish Period (1928).

Additional Biography Sources

Habig, Marion Alphonse, Junípero Serra, Chicago, Ill.: Franciscan Herald Press, 1987.

Morgado, Martin J., Junípero Serra's legacy, Pacific Grove, Calif.:Mount Carmel, 1987.

Pirus, Betty L., Before I sleep, New York: Vantage Press, 1977.

Sullivan, Marion F., Westward the bells: a biography of Junípero Serra, Boston, MA: St. Paul Books & Media, 1988.

Weber, Francis J., A bicentennial compendium of Maynard J. Geiger's The life and times of Fr. Junípero Serra, S.l.: s.n., 1988, Santa Barbara, CA: Kimberly Press.

Weber, Francis J., Some "fugitive" glimpses at Fray Junípero Serra, S.l.: s.n., 1984.