Junípero Serra's Biography

Edited by Tim Healy


Junípero Serra’s lasting legacy is found in the nine missions he established in California between the years 1769 and 1782. These nine missions, named below, are part of the chain of 21 missions that stretched for 650 miles along California’s El Camino Real (The Royal Road) .

San Diego de Alcalá, July 16, 1769
San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo, June 3,1770
San Antonio de Padua, July 14, 1771
San Gsbriel Arcángel, September 8, 1771
San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, September 1, 1772
San Francisco de Asís, June 29, 1776
San Juan Capistrano, November 1, 1776
Santa Clara de Asís, January 12, 1777
San Buenaventura, March 31, 1782

All of these missions are still in use today.

Miguel José Serra was the third of five children born to farmers Antonio Nadal Serra and Margarita Rosa (Ferrer) Serra on the Island of Majorca, Spain. He attended Franciscan elementary school and excelled in Latin, and was noted for his strong singing voice. In September, 1729 he enrolled as a philosophy student at the Franciscan Convento de San Francisco, Palma.

On September 15, 1731, Serra made his solemn profession into the Franciscan order and assumed the religious name of Junípero.

Junípero Serra decided to become a missionary in 1749. This was a dramatic change of path considering his many accomplishments, which included a doctorate in Sacred Theology conferred by Llullian University in Majorca in 1742, and his career as professor of philosophy at Convento de San Francisco.

Father Sera sailed from Palma to Málaga and Cadiz, the first leg of his 5,000 mile sea journey to Mexico. During the voyage, the ship is blown off course by a violent storm that threatened shipwreck. His traveling companions (twenty Franciscan and seven Dominican priests) decided that they should make some promise to call down on them the Lord’s mercy. They decided that each should write on a piece of paper the name of his favorite saint. The names were put in a bowl and invoking the Holy Spirit, they recited the prayer of All Saints so as to know who would be their special patron and protector. Serra wrote down Saint Francis Solano, and Father Francisco Palóu (Serra's former student and biographer) wrote down Saint Michael. But they did not win. Saint Barbara did, and it turned out that on her feast day, December 4, at night, the ship sailed back toward port, and all felt happy and confident.

In Mexico during 1751 and 1755 he supervised the construction of five mission churches, which are still in use today. He learned the Pame Indian language, composed a native catechism, and used visual methods of teaching religion to attract and Christianize the Indians. He improved farming and agricultural methods by introducing new tools, communal planting and harvesting, and oxen, cows, mules, sheep, goats, and pigs.

Map of Father Serra's Mexican activities

Father Serra's voyage and activities in Mexico

Father Serra was fond of music, using songs and hymns to inspire the Indians. He reenacted the events of religious holidays and choreographed a Pastoral Nativity play at Christmas, performed by Indian children.

During Lent he carried a cross on his shoulder at outdoor Station of the Cross processions which, Father Palóu wrote “was so heavy that I, stronger and younger though I was, could not lift it”.

His sermons were dramatic. Some of his methods were to hold lighted candles to his chest to illustrate Hell, and to encourage confessions, he silently confessed to Palóu from the sanctuary of the church, in full view of the congregation.

From 1758 to 1767 Serra worked as a home missionary at San Fernando college, and traveled as an apostolic preacher and confessor throughout the archdiocese of Mexico.

In 1767 departed for Loreto in Lower California and is appointed to the presidency of fifteen peninsular missions just acquired from the Jesuits. Serra toured these Lower California missions and recruited volunteers and collected church and sacristy goods for the future upper missions of California.

In April of 1769, Father Serra left for California. Father Palóu believes they will never see each other again, and wishes Serra goodbye “until we meet in eternity”. Serra wishes Palóu goodbye “until we meet in Monterey”.

Serra founds his first mission, Mission San Diego, on July 16, 1769, and the other missions in the chain followed as soon as practical.

Early map of the California Missions

In 1778 he was authorized to administer the Sacrament of Confirmation, and he once more visited the missions from San Diego to San Francisco, in order to confirm all who had been baptized. He confirmed 5,309 persons, who were, with few exceptions, Indians converted in the fourteen years from 1770.

Junípero Serra died in the Mission of San Carlos on August 28, 1784 at the age of 70. He was buried exactly 35 years from the day he sailed for the New World.

The esteem in which all classes in California hold his memory may be gathered from the fact that a non-Catholic, (Mrs. Stanford) had a monument erected to him at Monterrey. A bronze statue of heroic size represents him as the apostolic preacher in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco. In 1884 the Legislature of California passed a concurrent resolution making August 29 of that year, the centennial of Father Serra’s burial, a legal holiday.

Father Serra's final resting place

Father Serra's final resting place
Basilica Mission San Carlos Borromeo del Rio Carmelo

The portrait of Father Serra at the beginning of the biography is a copy of the original. It bears the legend: Portrait of the Rev . Father Junípero Serra, Apostle of Upper California, copied from the original which is kept in his convent of Santa Cruz in Querétaro. Painted by Father José Mosqueda.

The portrait in the page banner is presumed to be a copy of an older, lost original. Historian Maynard Geiger concluded it is an entirely different conception of Serra, thinking that it could not be the same man...(however) it is admittedly a fine face.

Go to Vocation Prayers


Credits and Information Sources

Most of the factual information and images for this biography were obtained from the book, Junípero Serra's Legacy, by Morton J. Morgado. Unfortunately, this fine book is out of print, but is still available online as a used book from Amazon or Barnes & Noble.

Additional information on Father Serra was obtained from the Catholic Encyclopedia Web site.

Further information about the California Missions can be found at the California Missions Web site.

For books, items, and more information relating to Junípero Serra go to calmissions.org

Read about a visit to The Carmel Mission written by one of BASC's Serrans.

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