Today is the feast day of Saint Junipero Serra. Ora pro nobis.
Junípero Serra was born Miguel Serra y Abram on November 24, 1713 in Petra, a farming village in Mallorca’s central plain. At the age of sixteen, Miguel entered the Franciscan friary and took the name Junípero, after St. Francis’ close friend.
Years of formation and study followed, and in 1744 he was named Professor of Philosophy at the monastery of San Francisco and at Lullian University. Serra was known as a bright, articulate scholar and a moving speaker as well as a clear, precise writer. In 1749 he responded to the call for Franciscan missionaries to the New World.
Father Serra’s first assignment was to the rugged, mountainous region of Sierra Gorda in Mexico. Here he remained for nine years, preaching to the Indians and strengthening the two missions already established in the area. Father Serra’s second assignment was to journey out from Mexico City into coastal villages and mining camps. In those eight years, despite a leg chronically infected and ulcerated after an insect bite, he walked over 6,000 miles on foot, preaching retreats and administering the sacraments.
In 1767 when the King of Spain banished the Jesuit Society from his dominions, the thirteen Jesuit missions in Baja California were suddenly left unstaffed. Father Junipero Serra was assigned the new Superior of Baja California. Within several years he was given orders to move into Alta California, or what today is known as the state of California. In 1769 Father Serra was appointed padre president of California.
Father Serra joined the expedition of Don Gaspar de Pórtola, ordered by the Spanish king to explore and occupy new territory. He reached San Diego on June 27, 1769 and founded there the first mission. From San Diego the party journeyed northward and in April, 1770 Father Serra founded San Carlos Borromeo at Carmel, the second mission. In his fifteen years as padre president, he established nine of his 21 missions, (among them Santa Barbara, San Luis Rey and San Francisco de Asis, popularly known as Dolores) each a one-day walk apart (about 30 miles), and linked by a dirt road called “El Camino Real.”
Father Junípero Serra personally oversaw the planning, construction, and staffing of each mission from his headquarters at Carmel. From Carmel he travelled on foot to the other missions along the California coast, to supervise mission work and to confer the sacrament of Confirmation. Biographers estimate that, still bothered by the infected leg, Father Serra walked more than 24,000 miles in California alone—–more than the journeys of Marco Polo and Lewis and Clark combined. He kept with determination to his watchword, “Always to go forward and never to turn back.”
The missions Father Serra founded had two purposes: to convert Indians to Catholicism, and to civilize these Indians by teaching them to farm and build. It was this two-fold purpose which caused Father Serra’s impact to be felt both religiously and historically. And it was his unusual ability to accomplish these purposes peacefully, that set him apart from others.
Saint Junipero Serra died 28 August 1784 of tuberculosis at Mission San Carlos, California of natural causes. Saint Serra was buried at Carmel, Monterey, California. He was beautified on 25 September 1988 by Pope John Paul II. He was canonized on 23 September 2015 by Pope Francis at the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, Washington, DC.
Junipero Serra is the namesake of the Serra Club, an international Catholic organization dedicated to the promotion of vocations, and the support of seminarians and religious novices. Many of his letters and other writings have survived, and the diary of his travels to the west was published in the early 20th century.
Image: Crop of Oil painting of Father Junípero Serra. He was painted about 1700’s. (3)