Blessed Junipero Serra

Blessed Fray Junipero Serra
1713 - 1784

Born at Petra, Majorca, Spain, November 24, 1713, a son of Antonio Nadal Serra and Margarita Rosa Ferrer who spent their lives as farmers. Junípero Serra was baptized on the same day at St. Peter’s Church by the Rev. Bartolomé Lladó and was given the names Miguel José. His paternal grandparents were Miguel Serra and Juana Abraham, his maternal grandparents, Bartolomé Ferrer and Martina Fornés. At the age of two he was confirmed by the Most Rev. Atanasio Esterripa y Tranajauregui, bishop of Palma. In Petra, Serra attended the primary school of the Franciscans conducted at the friary of San Bernardino. At the age of fifteen he was taken by his parents to Palma to be placed in the charge of a cathedral canon, and he began to assist at classes in philosophy held in the Franciscan monastery of San Francisco.

At the age of sixteen Serra was admitted as a novice at the Convento de Jesús outside the walls of Palma, September 14, 1730, and made his profession on September 15, the following year, into the hands of the Very Rev. Antonio Perelló. On this occasion he chose the name, Junípero, in memory of the brother companion of St. Francis. From 1831 to 1734 Serra studied philosophy and from 1734 to 1737 theology at the Convento de San Francisco. The date of his ordination to the priesthood is not known, though it probably occurred during the Ember Days of December 1738. Sometime before, he entered competitive examinations for the lectorate of philosophy in his province. This title he received with unanimous consent of his examiners.

Serra’s first appointment was that of librarian of his friary, a position he held for a little over a year from 1739 until the fall of 1740. For the next three years he conducted the course of philosophy at San Francisco, which was offered to students for the priesthood, Franciscan and secular, and to laymen in his province.

Among his students were Francisco Palóu and Juan Crespí. In the meantime, Serra obtained his doctorate in theology in 1742 from the Lullian University, Palma. He was called to the Scotistic chair of theology at the same university as primary professor in January 1749 to become an Indian missionary in America.

During his teaching career Serra was frequently called upon to preach in Palma and in various parts of the island, both to religious and to the laity. He was considered an able teacher and a forceful and zealous preacher.

On April 13, 1749, in company with his former pupil, Francisco Palóu, Serra sailed from Palma for America by way of Málaga and Cádiz. He departed from the latter at the end of August and after a sea voyage of ninety-nine days landed in Vera Cruz, Mexico on December 7, 1749, having preached a mission en route at San Juan, Puerto Rico. He nearly lost his life in a storm off the coast of Vera Cruz.

Despite the fact that horses were supplied for the friars at the port, Serra and an unnamed companion elected to walk the distance of 250 miles between Vera Cruz and Mexico City. They reached San Fernando College, January 1, 1750, spending the previous night at the shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

Within six months after his arrival at the college, an urgent call came for volunteers for the Sierra Gorda missions. Serra and Palóu were among the group that volunteered, and both walked the distance to Jalpan, the central mission, about 175 miles distant. These missions had been placed under the college in 1744 and were located among the Pame Indians. They were new Christians, many with just a veneer of Christianity, while still others were not Christian. At Jalpan, Serra had 1,000 parishioners who worshipped in an adobe church.

During his apostolate in Sierra Gorda between 1750 and 1758, Serra not only built a beautiful church, which is still in use, but developed his mission in both religious and economic directions. Under his presidency of the missions (1751-1754), the missionaries of the other four towns, Concá, Landa, Tilaco, and Tancoyol, also built mission churches similar to the one at Jalpan, all of stone and richly ornamented. They remain in service today. In 1752 Serra was appointed a commissioner of the Holy Office of the Inquisition for the Sierra Gorda district and for all parts of New Spain where he happened to be preaching and where there was no other resident commissioner.

Serra learned the Otomí language of the natives and put into force the traditional mission methods successfully used by the Franciscans in Texas. Zealous in preaching and in promoting both liturgical and popular devotions, he succeeded in bringing the Pame people to practice the faith in an exemplary way. Serra used a visual method of teaching religion. Economically his mission prospered through the introduction of domestic animals, the fostering of agriculture, and the development of commerce. He also defended Indian rights against non-Native settlers in a protracted contest over the valley of Tancama. During building operations on his church, he worked as an ordinary day laborer.

While successfully guiding Jalpan, Serra was hurriedly called to the college of San Fernando, where he arrived September 26, 1758. The Apaches had destroyed the mission of San Sabá in Texas killing two missionaries and wounding a third. Serra and Palóu were to be sent as replacements. However, the plan never matured, owing to unsettled conditions and government delay. Thus Serra remained at the college as a home missionary until 1767. There he was made choir director, master of novices from 1761 to 1764, college counselor (discreet) from 1758 to 1761, and a confessor within and outside the college. He likewise continued to function as commissioner of the Holy Office.

As a home missionary Serra preached missions twice in Mexico City as well as in the districts of Mezquital and Zimapan. In an unknown year he preached missions in the Río Verde area belonging to the diocese of Morelia. With five companions he conducted missions for six months in the dioceses of Puebla and Oaxaca from 1762 to 1763, proceeding first to Puebla itself. He continued his way to the coastal plains about Tuxpam, thence south to the area of Acayucan, inland by canoe, and by mountain trial to the Mijes country in central Oaxaca, preaching at Villalta and finally in Oaxaca itself, then called Antequera.

Another large area missionized by Serra and his companions was the Huasteca in the eastern mountain area of Mexico as far north as Valles. This mission tour took place in the year 1766-1767. While engaged in giving a mission in the Mesquital in 1767, Serra was summoned to the college and there learned that he was to assume the presidency of the ex-Jesuit missions of Baja California.

He set out in mid-July and reached Tepic, in the area of which he gave missions, eventually setting sail from San Blas, March 14, 1768, and reaching Loreto on April 1. Serra resided at the former Jesuit headquarters and assigned missionaries to the fifteen missions between San José del Cabo in the south and Santa María in the north. At first the missionaries were in charge of spiritual affairs only, but in August they were also entrusted with the temporalities.

When José de Gálvez, visitor-general of New Spain, arrived in the peninsula in midsummer of 1768 and announced the forthcoming expeditions to Upper California. Serra enthusiastically volunteered at once to join him, and to enlist other volunteers, he visited the northern missions as far as Guadalupe. Later, he traveled south to the mining town of Santa Ana to confer with Gálvez, where the two worked out the details for the journey north.

Before returning to Loreto, Serra visited the southern missions. At La Paz, on January 6, 1769, Serra blessed the flagship, San Carlos, and sped it on its way for the occupation of San Diego. Finally, on March 28, 1769, Serra left the mission at Loreto on mule-back, rode north to join the Portolá expedition, and in company with it arrived at San Diego, July 1.

En route, he founded his first mission at San Fernando de Velicatá, May 14. Serra kept a diary of his journey during which, especially in its upper reaches, he suffered greatly from an infirmity in his legs and feet and had to be carried on a stretcher. Only when a muleteer prepared an ointment for his relief was the pain finally alleviated. Gaspar de Portolá suggested that Serra return to Loreto and abandon the attempt to reach San Diego and Monterey.

But he refused, declaring that he preferred to die on the road rather than give up his objective to reach those harbors. Serra devoted the next fifteen years of his life to evangelical work in Upper California. During that period he founded the following nine missions: San Diego, July 16, 1769; San Carlos, Monterey-Carmel, June 3, 1770; San Antonio, July 14, 1771; San Gabriel, September 8, 1771; San Luis Obispo, September 1, 1772, San Francisco, October 9, 1776; San Juan Capistrano, November 1, 1776; Santa Clara, January 12, 1777; and San Buenaventura, March 31, 1782. He was present at the founding of Presidio Santa Barbara, April 12, 1782. During his presidency the civilian pueblos of San Jose (November 29, 1777) and Los Angeles (September 4, 1781) were founded by Governor Felipe de Neve, but their spiritual administration was subject, as was that of the four presidios of San Diego, Monterey, San Francisco, and Santa Barbara, to Serra and his missionaries.

Serra remained at San Diego until April 14, 1770, when he embarked for Monterey. From June 3, 1770, until his death on August 28, 1784, he maintained his headquarters at Mission San Carlos. During his California career Serra made four round trips between Carmel and San Francisco, always through Santa Clara. The distance between Carmel and San Diego was traversed overland five times, with a number of side trips also to the intervening missions.

In 1772 Serra went to Mexico to deal with Viceroy Antonio María Bucareli y Ursúa concerning mission development. He returned to California early in 1774. Four times he traveled by ship between Monterey and San Diego. From 1778 until 1784, Serra administered confirmation when visiting the missions.

The close union of Church and State in the Spanish colonial regime, the role of evangelization in the imperial process, the distance of California from the homes bases in Mexico, and the complexities of intercultural relations caused many problems for Serra throughout his administration. His many letters and reports are replete with the difficulties encountered in these early years.

Serra insisted that the missions be founded in the traditional system used in Texas and the Sierra Gorda. He and his missionaries were in charge of spiritualities and temporalities. Domestic animals were introduced into the land; agriculture was started; trades were taught. Six totally different languages prevailed in the mission territory.

By the time of Serra’s death, ex-governor Neve declared that the California missions were the best in the entire Provincias Internas, and a few years after Serra’s death, Governor Pedro Fages declared that the perfection of the California missions was due to the indefatigable zeal of those who founded them. By the end of 1784, Indian baptisms at the first nine missions reached the number 6,736, while 4,646 Christianized Indians were living in them.

Serra died at Mission San Carlos, August 28, 1784, at the age of seventy, attended by his one-time pupil and collaborator, Francisco Palóu. The next he was buried in the floor of the sanctuary of the church he had built, on the Gospel side.

Serra was small of stature, five feet two inches in height. He had a sonorous voice, had swarthy skin, dark hair and eyes. Though it appears that he had a fundamentally robust constitution, he suffered a great deal during the latter part of his life from 1750 on and doubly so after 1758. His first affliction was the swelling and painful itching of his feet and legs from mosquito bites sustained on his trek from Vera Cruz to Mexico City. Scratching caused varicose ulcers. At times he could neither stand nor walk.

After 1758 he began to suffer from asthma, and the ailment remained with him to his dying hours. Serra’s zeal and dynamism prevented these physical ailments from substantially arresting the progress of his apostolate.

In character Serra was eager, optimistic, zealous, dynamic, even adamantine. Strength of character and undeviating purposefulness marked his entire life. Primarily a man of action, he preferred the active apostolate to the classroom or to writing. He remained a model religious despite his distractions and activity — a man of prayer and mortification. He had a consuming love for the Indian and ever defended him.

In the nature of his work and in the milieu of his times he was called upon to exercise the so-called militant virtues. In the politico-ecclesiastical regime in which he had to labor there were many occasions for disagreement and controversy, and Serra had his differences with three successive governors, Pedro Fages, Fernando Rivera y Moncada, and Felipe de Neve.

By some Serra was considered too aggressive, zealous, and demanding. Serra fought for the freedom of the Church in the confirmation controversy against royal infringement. Though he fought for the Indians, he had a paternalistic view and believed in and practiced corporal punishment. He had the qualities of a fine administrator.

The cause for Serra’s beatification was commenced in the diocese of Monterey-Fresno in 1934, and the diocesan process was finished in 1949. On September 25, 1988 he was beatified under the direction of Pope John Paul II.

Serra monuments and memorials dot his Camino Real from Majorca to California. He is the subject of several dozen biographies in various languages. His writings with translation have been published in four volumes by Rev. Antonine Tibesar, OFM. He is known as the Apostle of California. Serra International was established in his honor. His life and his mission system are studied in California schools.

Fray Pablo Font, OFM, a brother of Fray Pedro Font, OFM, a member of San Fernando College while Serra was there between February and September 1773, wrote to a confrere in Spain in August 1773 the following appraisal of Serra:

The Father-President Junípero Serra is a religious of the Observant order, a man of very venerable age, formerly professor at University at Palma, who during twenty-four years, since he has been a missionary of this college, has never spared himself in toiling for the conversion of the faithful and the unfaithful.

Notwithstanding his many and laborious years, he has the qualities of a lion, which surrenders only to fever. Neither the habitual indispositions from which he suffers, especially in the chest and in difficulty in breathing; nor the wounds on his feet and legs have been able to detain him for a moment from his apostolic tasks. He has astonished us during his recent sojourn, for, although very sick, he never failed, day or night, to take part in the choir, much less when he had a fever. We have seen him apparently dead, only to be almost immediately revived. If now and then he attended to the needs of bodily health at the infirmary, it was only because he was ordered to do there…. In very truth, on account of these things, and because of the austerity of this life, his humanity, charity, and other virtues, he is worthy to be counted among the imitators of the apostles. And now he is returning, as if it were nothing, to Monterey, a distance of a thousand leagues by sea and land, to visit those missions and rejoice them by his presence and by the measures which he has procured, and to preside over them and found other missions until he shall die… Much more could I say of this holy man.