St. Junípero Serra, Priest

Missionary to California

Sculpture of Fr. Junipero Serra, Mission Santa Ines
A bronze sculpture of Fr. Junipero Serra at the entrance to Mission Santa Ines, Solvang, California. George Rose/Getty Images

St. Junípero Serra (1713-1784), a Spanish Franciscan missionary, founded the nine Catholic missions in California known as the Mission Chain. Father Serra's beatification and canonization (the declaration of his sainthood) were the subject of controversy because of his conversion of thousands of Native Americans to Christianity.

Quick Facts

  • Feast Day: July 1
  • Type of Feast: Optional Memorial
  • Dates: November 24, 1713 (Petra, Majorca, Spain)-August 28, 1784 (Mission of San Carlos, Carmel, California)
  • Patron of: vocations, California
  • Beatification: September 25, 1998, by Pope John Paul II
  • Canonization: September 23, 2015, by Pope Francis

The Life of St. Junipero Serra

Miguel José Serra Ferrer was born November 24, 1713, on the island of Majorca, off the east coast of Spain in the Mediterranean Sea.  Very small and weak, Miguel was baptized within hours of his birth and dedicated later that day to Mary, the Mother of God.

From a young age, Miguel wanted to become a priest. He was educated by the Franciscans at the local church school of San Bernardino, where he studied Latin, religion, music, math, law, and medicine. At 15, he enrolled in the university at Palma, the capital of Majorca; the next year, he entered the Franciscans and took the name Junípero, after Saint Juniper, one of the original followers of Saint Francis of Assisi.

While preparing for the priesthood, Junípero studied philosophy.

He was ordained shortly before Christmas 1737 and taught philosophy and theology at the university in Palma. He became well known for his forceful preaching; a professor once said that one of his sermons was “worthy of being printed in letters of gold.”

The Early Missionary Years

For almost as long as he had wanted to become a priest, Junípero had longed to be a missionary.

He had heard tales of St. Francis Solano, who had traveled to the New World and converted hundreds of thousands of natives to Christianity, and he dreamed of doing the same.

His opportunity came in 1749, when the Franciscans allowed Father Serra and his friend and former student Father Francisco Palóu to be transferred to the College of San Fernando de México, where missionaries were trained. They departed Cádiz, Spain, on August 28 and arrived in Vera Cruz, Mexico, 99 days later, on December 6. The college was still over 250 miles away in Mexico City, and Father Serra and another priest set out on foot on December 15. (Father Palóu, who was sick, remained behind in Vera Cruz.) Walking over 15 miles per day, the two priests arrived on January 1, 1750, after spending New Year’s Eve at the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

During this trip, Father Serra was bitten by an insect, and his left foot became swollen and painful.  The injury would bother him the rest of his life, as he walked over 10,000 miles during his missionary work.

After six months of training, Father Serra was sent to the Sierra Gorda Mountains, northwest of Mexico City. He was soon appointed president of the Sierra Gorda missions and instructed the native tribes, who were primarily hunters and gatherers, not only in Christianity but in agriculture and animal husbandry.

Under his guidance, the tribes became self-sufficient for the first time. In disputes between the Spanish colonizers and the native tribes over land, he sided with the natives.

In 1758, he returned to San Fernando College and spent the next nine years there teaching philosophy.

California, Here I Come

In 1767, Father Serra returned to missionary work after the Spanish king expelled the Jesuits from Baja California, the Mexican peninsula that extends off the southern end of modern-day California. Serra was named president of the Baja missions, but the Franciscans had bigger plans: the evangelization of Alta California, the modern-day state.

Under the leadership of Gaspar de Portolá, who would later become the first governor of Spanish California, Father Serra and an expedition crossed into Alta California on July 1, 1769.

Two weeks later, he founded the mission of San Diego de Alcala, and, over the next 13 years, he would found eight other missions throughout California: San Carlos de Carmel (June 1770), San Antonio de Padua (July 1771), San Gabriel (September 1771), San Luis Obispo (September 1772), San Francisco (June 1776), San Juan Capistrano (November 1776), Santa Clara (January 1777), and San Buenaventura (March 1782). He performed his first baptism in Alta California at San Carlos, near Monterey, on December 26, 1770, and, over the next 14 years, thousands of Native Americans were converted to Christianity through his efforts.

Evangelizing the Native Americans

As in Mexico, the native tribes that Father Serra evangelized were hunters and gatherers, and they lived in houses made of brush. Father Serra and his missionaries helped them construct permanent housing on the grounds of each mission, and they began to raise livestock and grow their own food.

The mission towns also formed the backbone of the Spanish territorial government, but the Spanish military and governmental leaders did not treat the converted natives as well as the missionaries did, and they often resented the work of Father Serra. By 1773, tensions had risen so high that Father Serra traveled 2,000 miles to Mexico City to appeal to the Spanish viceroy, Antonio Bucareli.

Bucareli was very sympathetic to Father Serra’s concerns, and he removed the territorial governor, set down rules to punish soldiers who abused Native Americans, and placed the education and government of the converted tribesmen under the control of the missionaries rather than the military.

Even so, the mission of San Diego was burned to the ground on November 4, 1775, and one missionary, Father Luís Jayme, was murdered by a group of unconverted natives. They had been stirred up by two converts who had stolen some fish and were afraid of punishment. The converts spread tales, some of which may have been true, of other converts being flogged by missionaries for engaging in native religious rituals.  Father Serra was particularly shaken by the murder, because Father Jayme had devoted himself not only to the conversion of the natives but to their education, learning their language and translating books for them to read.

Death, Beatification, and Canonization

On August 28, 1784, at the mission of San Carlos, Father Serra died of a lung ailment, probably tuberculosis or cancer. On his deathbed, he vowed to continue to pray for the conversion of Native Americans after his death. He was buried at the mission, and, in 1987, Pope John Paul II came to pray at his grave.

The next year, on September 25, 1998, the pope, over the objections of some Native American organizations that were concerned about stories of possible abuses by the missionaries (such as the floggings), beatified Father Serra. The controversy was reignited on January 15, 2015, when Pope Francis announced that he would canonize Father Serra during his apostolic visit to the United States in September. Despite the objections, the canonization took place on September 23, 2015, in Washington, D.C.