Father Junipero Serra is known as the Father of California's Spanish missions. He personally founded nine of California's 21 Spanish missions and served as president of the California missions from 1767 until he died in 1784.
Father Serra was born Miguel Jose Serra on November 24, 1713, at Petra on the island of Mallorca in Spain. At age 16, he entered the Franciscan Order of the Catholic Church, a group of priests who follow the teachings of St. Francis of Assisi. When he joined the order, he changed his name to Junipero.
Serra was an intellectual man who was considered to be brilliant. He became a professor of theology. It seemed like he would spend his life teaching and learning, but that changed in 1750.
Travel to the New World
In 1750, Father Serra was considered old at age 37. At that time, the average life expectancy was about 35 years. He was a small, frail man who was also in ill health. In spite of that, he volunteered to become a Franciscan missionary in the New World.
Serra was sick when he arrived in Vera Cruz, Mexico, but he insisted on walking from there all the way to Mexico City, 200 miles away. Along the way, a mosquito bit him, and the bite became infected. This injury bothered him for the rest of his life.
Father Serra worked in the Sierra Gorda area of north-central Mexico for the next 17 years. In 1787, the Franciscans took over the California missions from the Jesuits, and Father Serra was put in charge.
At the age of 56, Serra went to California for the first time with explorer Gaspar de Portola. They went for political and religious reasons. The Catholic Church wanted to convert the Native Americans into devoted Christians. The country of Spain wanted to get control of California — and the ocean trade routes off its shores — before the Russians pushed into it from the north.
Serra traveled with the soldiers and established missions in the new territory. On the way to California, Serra's leg was so sore that he could barely walk, but he refused to go back to Mexico. He is quoted as saying "Even though I should die on the way, I shall not turn back."
Serra and Portola arrived in what is now San Diego on July 1, 1769. They started out with 300 people, but only about half of them remained.
Father of the California Missions
Serra spent the rest of his life as head of the missions in California, founding nine missions in all, including Mission San Carlos de Borromeo in Carmel where he had his headquarters.
Among other accomplishments, Serra introduced agriculture and irrigation systems and converted the Indians to Christianity. Unfortunately, not all the results of Spanish settlement were good. The Spanish priests and soldiers carried European diseases that the natives had no immunity to. When the Indians caught those diseases, they often died. Because of that, California's Indian population declined from about 300,000 in 1769 to about 200,000 in 1821.
Father Serra was a small man who worked hard despite physical ailments that included asthma and a sore on his leg that never healed. He suffered bouts of scurvy (a disease caused by lack of Vitamin C), and yet he walked and rode a horse for hundreds of miles through the rough and dangerous terrain.
As if this weren't enough, Serra was known for actions intended to deny his bodily passions and appetites, sometimes causing himself pain. He wore heavy shirts with sharp wires pointed inward, whipped himself until he bled, and used a burning candle to scar his chest. In spite of all this, he traveled more than 24,000 miles in his lifetime.
Father Serra died in 1784 at the age of 70 at Mission San Carlos de Borromeo. He was buried under the sanctuary floor.
Serra Becomes a Saint
In 1987, Pope John Paul II beatified Father Serra, a step on the way to sainthood. In 2015, during his visit to the United States, Pope Francis canonized Serra, making him an official saint. It was an act that some people applauded and some condemned. Perhaps ironically, one of those who worked to get sainthood for Serra included a descendant of Native Americans.