Miguel José Serra was born November 24, 1713 on the Spanish island of Majorca. At 17, he joined the Franciscans and took the name Junípero after St. Francis’ much-loved friend. He was ordained a priest in 1737 and became a well-known theologian and professor of philosophy when, at the age of 36, he decided to join the Franciscan mission to the New World in 1749. At this time, Spanish cultural and religious influence was widespread throughout the urban areas of Mexico (called “New Spain”), but the outlying areas were still uncharted and wild and considered missionary territory.
On his arrival in the New World, Fray Serra’s first assignment was to the rugged, mountainous region of Sierra Gorda. Here he remained for nine years, preaching to the Indians and strengthening the two missions already established in the area. His second assignment was to journey out from Mexico City into coastal villages and mining camps. In those eight years, despite severe asthma and 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. Junípero Serra, now 54, was appointed the new Superior of Baja California, and within several years he was requested to move into Alta California (the current State of California). Serra joined the expedition of Don Gaspar de Portola who had been ordered by the Spanish king to explore and occupy new territory. Fray Serra reached San Diego on June 27, 1769 and founded there the first mission, today known as Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcalá. In the next fifteen years, Junípero Serra established nine of the 21 missions of California, each a one-day walk apart (about 30 miles), and linked by a dirt road called El Camino Real (The King’s Road).
Junípero Serra personally oversaw the planning, construction, and staffing of each mission from his headquarters at Mission San Carlos Borromeo in Carmel. From Carmel he traveled 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 his infected leg, 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 motto, “Always to go forward and never to turn back.”
Fray Serra’s first concern was always for his missionary flock, California’s native Americans. He introduced them to efficient agricultural and irrigation systems as well as to a system of trade between the various missions; he pressed the Spanish government for a system of law to protect them against the abuses of Spanish soldiers; and he created a network of roads, making trade and transportation easier for them.
Junípero Serra’s devotion to his mission did not end with his death at Carmel, August 28, 1784. A few hours before he died, he said, “I promise that if the Lord in His Infinite mercy grants me eternal happiness — which I do not deserve because of my faults — that I shall pray for all and for the conversion of so many pagans whom I leave unconverted.”
Junípero Serra, who is known as the “Apostle of California” was beatified by Pope John Paul II in September 1988. Pope Francis canonized him on September 23, 2015. A statue of his likeness stands in the Capitol Building in Washington D.C., and his body lies beneath the sanctuary at Mission San Carlos Borromeo, Carmel. Many of his letters and other writings have survived, and the diary of his travels was published in the early 20th century. He is also the namesake of the Serra Club, an international Catholic organization dedicated to the promotion of vocations.
1. Despite the intense suffering he endured from his asthma and infected leg, Blessed Junípero still practiced mortifications and various forms of self-denial. In this day when we run from any kind of suffering, let us ask the Holy Spirit for an understanding of the great value of suffering both for our own souls and for the entire Body of Christ.
2. We live in an age of indifference in which Blessed Junípero’s missionary zeal must seem not only incomprehensible, but completely uncalled for. But it is this very lack of comprehension, this indifference, that makes it so necessary for every one of us to become missionaries, to spread the Word of God throughout this world that seems to have forgotten Him.
Other Saints We Remember Today
St. Oliver Plunket, Bishop and Martyr (1681)