Saint of the Month: St. Junipero Serra

St. Junípero Serra was a Franciscan priest, professor, and an intrepid missionary known as “The Apostle of California”. He was born to farmers Antonio and Margarita Serra, who named him Miguel in 1713. The family farm was on the island of Majorca off the coast of Spain. As a child, he was trained to work with the crops and livestock and he attended the Franciscan school near his home. He showed a special interest in visiting the adjacent friary with his father and befriended the friars. At sixteen, Miguel entered the Franciscan Order at nearby Palma, where he was placed under the guidance of a cathedral canon. As a novice, he took the name Junípero after one of St. Francis of Assisi’s first companions. He studied philosophy, logic, theology, and more and was asked to assist the professors. He was ordained, and, by age twenty-nine, he had earned his doctorate in philosophy. He was then assigned to chair the theology department at the Lullian University at Palma. Small of stature at 5’2”, yet immensely gifted, he used much of his spare time to read about the adventures of the many Franciscan missionaries – many of whom were martyred – taking the Gospel to places where it was unknown.  He could have had a comfortable prestigious career by remaining in Majorca, but Junipero had a passionate interest to be a missionary for the salvation of souls.


In 1749, Father Serra set sail with a group of missionaries for the Apostolic College of San Fernando in Mexico City. They landed at the coastal city of Vera Cruz, where a team of horses awaited them for the two hundred fifty-mile trek. Serra alone chose to walk the entire distance, which included forests, mountains, and dry plateaus. They did not have a guide nor any money and carried nothing but their breviaries. On the journey, he sustained some kind of bite or allergic itchy rash which tormented him and became an open ulcerous wound on his leg that vexed him for the rest of his life. Within months of arriving at the College, the missionaries received a plea for help at the five missions of Sierra Gorda, home of the Pame Indians. It was a mountainous region, with less than one thousand Christians, and those few were not practicing the Faith.  Serra was appointed to lead this group of missions and he and the other volunteers set about to learn the Otomi language. He labored there for eight years and directed the construction of churches for each of the five missions, working himself at the construction sites. The Pame people had hunted and gathered, but the missionaries brought in livestock and farming tools to teach the men to farm. They taught the women how to weave, sew, and knit so their products could help sustain the people. Serra used an effective method of teaching the Faith to the people, and he strove to legally protect their lands from the encroachment of Spanish colonists and soldiers. He also worked alongside the Indians in their fields. Unfortunately, he was subject to the Spanish military presence until the soldiers were forcibly removed by the Spanish authorities in Mexico City.


In 1758, Father Serra was called back to Mexico City, where he served as novice master, counselor, and mission preacher. In 1767, he was appointed as president of the missions of Baja California, where he supervised a region with fifteen missions. The following year, he set out for Upper California, by now so infirm with his leg ailment that he had to often travel on a mule. His team arrived at San Diego on July 1. For the remainder of his life, he dedicated himself to saving the souls of the native people, establishing missions at San Diego, San Carlos, Monterey-Carmel, San Antonio, San Gabriel, San Luis Obispo, San Francisco, San Juan Capistrano, Santa Clara, and San Buenaventura, all located in what is now the state of California. He kept his office at Mission San Carlos and died there from tuberculosis August 28, 1784, at age seventy. His remains are interred under the sanctuary of the church there that he helped to build in 1782. It is the oldest building in the state of California.


Suffering for decades with serious ailments, St. Junipero Serra devoted himself completely to the spiritual and physical care of the native Californians he crossed an ocean and a continent to evangelize. He zealously fought to protect his native converts, once walking more than two thousand miles to Mexico City to complain about the cruelties of the Spanish governor of the California territory. This led to a sort of bill of rights for the natives, a protection never provided for the native people to the east where mostly British colonization was spreading. He had to deal with scarcity of supplies, hostile Indian arrows, greedy royalty, and corrupt Spanish soldiers. By the time of his death, he had baptized nearly seven thousand native people in the nine upper California missions. Father Serra probably walked more than twenty thousand miles during his years as a missionary, visiting the missions to affirm and guide the faithful. In addition to being the patron saint of California, he is also the patron of religious vocations. Serra International, the lay organization to promote and assist religious vocations is named in his honor. In the National Statuary Hall in Washington D.C., a statue of St. Serra represents the state of California along with one of Ronald Reagan. His 2015 canonization Mass was the first ever to take place in the United States. His feast day is July 1 in the United States (August 28 elsewhere), the day of his arrival at Mission San Diego de Alcalá.