Father Junipero Serra

Father Junipero Serra is the Father of the Missions

Statue of Father Serra at Mission San Antonio
••• Statue of Father Serra at Mission San Antonio. ©2007 Betsy Malloy Photography. Used by Permission.

Father Junipero Serra is known as the Father of California's Spanish missions. 

Father Serra's Early Life

He 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 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 a professor of theology.

He seemed destined for a lifetime of academic pursuits.

Father Serra Goes to the New World

In 1750, Father Serra was old (by the standards of his day) and in poor health. In spite of that, Serra volunteered to become a Franciscan missionary in the New World.

He was sick when he arrived in Vera Cruz, Mexico, but 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.

Father Serra Goes to California

At the age of 56, he went to California for the first time with explorer Gaspar de Portola. Their motives were political and religious. Spain wanted to get control of California 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 hardly 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 Becomes 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 his headquarters at Mission San Carlos de Borromeo in Carmel.

Among other accomplishments, he introduced agriculture and irrigation systems and converted the Indians to Christianity. Unfortunately, not all the results of Spanish settlement were positive. The Spanish carried diseases that the natives had no immunity to, and because of the resulting deaths, the 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 which included asthma and a chronic sore on his leg. His superhuman efforts led him to near starvation, bouts of scurvy and hundreds of miles of walking and riding through rough and dangerous terrain.

As if this weren't enough, he was known for actions intended to deny his bodily passions and appetites, sometimes by causing himself pain. He wore heavy shirts with sharp wires pointed inward, whipped himself until he bled and used a 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. In 1987, Pope John Paul II beatified Father Serra, a step on the way to sainthood. In 2015, Pope Francis made Serra a saint during his visit to the United States.

Serra Becomes a Saint

In 2015, Pope Francis canonized Serra, making him an official saint. It was an act that some people applauded and some condemned. If you want to get some perspective on both sides, read this article from CNN, which includes insights from a descendant of Native Americans who 

Missions Founded by Father Serra