St. Junípero Serra – A Missionary Who Made History

A man of indomitable tenacity, he patiently awaited God’s hour at each stage in his life, writing, in golden letters, admirable lines on the pages of American and world history.

My son, if you come forward to serve the Lord, prepare yourself for temptation. Set your heart right and be steadfast, and do not be hasty in time of calamity. Cleave to Him and do not depart, that you may be honored at the end of your life. Accept whatever is brought upon you, and in changes that humble you be patient” (Sir 2:1-4).

What wisdom is contained in these words of Sirach!

Commenting on this passage, Prof. Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira says: “Victory is given to those who suffer patiently. Patience in this case is not indolence, but that strong virtue by which one endures the pain of the wait.”1

This could be affirmed of St. Junipero Serra, a Mallorcan Franciscan whose life was crowned with victory and heavenly treasures, for always having said fiat to the divine will, enduring the delays of God at each stage of his life patiently and with complete docility, thus becoming “worthy to be counted among the imitators of the Apostles.”2

Under the aegis of the Franciscan charism

On November 24, 1713, he was born in Petra, a town of Mallorca, the largest of the Balearic Islands, and received the name Miguel José that same day at the baptismal font.

His parents, Antonio Serra and Margarida Ferrer, were respected farmers and Franciscan tertiaries of the Convent of St. Bernardine. His childhood and youth unfolded under the aegis of the Franciscan charism: from his early childhood he attended the church of the Order and undertook his first studies, including music and Gregorian chant, with the Friars. He stood out for his beautiful voice in the community children’s choir.

At fifteen, he decided to be a son of St. Francis as a religious, and moved to the capital, Palma de Mallorca, to study Philosophy. He was given lodging by a canon, with whom he learned a great deal. After one year of studies, he requested entrance into the Order.

Thus began the trials of the delays of God in his long life… Due to his somewhat sickly constitution and small stature, he was not admitted immediately. He had to wait for some priest acquaintances to attest to his human and spiritual qualities to the Provincial Superior before being accepted into the Monastery of Jesus.

During his novitiate, he read the lives of the Saints, especially those of his brothers of the Fransiscan habit, and immediately became enthused with the idea of being a missionary. However, on his path of waiting, this desire would only be fulfilled almost two decades later!

Preacher and professor

After the year of novitiate, he joyfully made solemn profession on September 15, 1731, taking the religious name Friar Junipero, in honor of the humble disciple who earned this laudatory exclamation from his Seraphic Father: “Would to God, that I had a whole forest of such Junipers!”3

Flexible to the voice of obedience, a characteristic that would mark his entire life, he was sent to the main monastery of Palma to prepare for the priesthood. He quickly obtained the title of Master in Philosophy and began a long teaching phase.

In March of 1736 he was ordained deacon with twenty-seven other religious and ascended to the priesthood the following year, albeit some months later than his companions, while he waited to reach the required age. In 1738, he received the “ministerial permission to preach”4 and began to do so throughout the island’s villages and cities.

He received his doctorate in Theology at the University Luliana of Palma and was appointed a professor in this institution. Two of his students later distinguished themselves as missionaries together with him in California: Friar Juan Crespi and Friar Francisco Palou, his first biographer and companion for forty years.

The “Christian adventures” begin

While he excelled as a professor and preacher, he felt in his soul the need to heed the call of Providence, until that time undisclosed, and he asked to work in the Lord’s harvest in distant lands.

He prayed and recommended himself to Our Lady and St. Francis Solano, the Apostle of South America, imploring that they send a companion as a sign that this was the path he should follow. And he could not contain his tears when Friar Palou confided to him his missionary aspirations, saying: “At the moment I asked God to touch the heart of someone, I felt my total inclination toward your Reverence; without doubt, this must be the will of God.”5

However, there were no more openings for missionaries that year of 1746… Docile to the delays of God, he continued his classes and preaching for another three years. In Lent of 1749 he was preaching in his native city, when Friar Palou received a message from the head of the Franciscan missionaries, ordering him to go to Cádiz with Friar Junipero, for some friars had withdrawn from the expedition that was destined for America, leaving two openings.

With joy, but utter discretion, they prepared for the trip in two weeks, knowing that they would never return to their homeland. On Sunday of the Octave of Easter they bid farewell to the community gathered in the refectory, accusing themselves of their faults and requesting pardon of all. Friar Junipero “kissed the feet of all the religious, even the youngest novice.”6 Having received the superior’s blessing, they embarked on a small English ship bound for Malaga, and from there to Cádiz, so as to begin their “Christian adventures.”7 The main goal of Friar Junipero was California, and it would be more than a decade before he would finally reach it…

Trip to New Spain

The ship set sail on August 30 of 1749, carrying twenty Franciscans and seven Dominicans. According to Friar Palou, the trip to the Mexican port of Veracruz lasted ninety nine days, and was fraught with many “discomforts and frights.”8

St. Junipero never became discouraged, finding strength in the Cross of Christ, which he carried on his chest. Except when hindered by storms, he celebrated Mass daily and heard the Confessions of the crew. Early on, “everyone venerated him as perfect and holy, due to his constant example of humility and patience.”9 They had to disembark in San Juan, Puerto Rico, where they remained for eighteen days, an opportunity which the religious took to preach a fruitful mission.

Docking at Veracruz, the Franciscans set off for the Apostolic College of San Fernando, in Mexico City, some five hundred kilometers away. While the others travelled on mule or horseback, our Saint, followed by Friar Palou, received permission to make the entire journey on foot, “with neither a guide nor any supplies other than the breviary and their steadfast confidence in Divine Providence.”10 They left on December 15 and were favored along the way with supernatural prodigies and aid, especially from St. Joseph, to whom they had entrusted themselves.

Nevertheless, an insect bite caused a wound on Friar Junipero’s leg that never healed, causing frequent swelling and bleeding. This wound and asthma were crosses that he carried until his death, though they never diminished his enthusiasm or halted his work of evangelization.

First mission: Sierra Gorda

Arriving at the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe on the last day of the year, they spent the night there in order to celebrate Holy Mass before Her on New Year’s Day of 1750, consecrating their apostolate to her.

On that same morning they proceeded to the College of San Fernando. The Franciscan apostolic colleges were “founded for the formation of a select body of men of lofty spiritual ideals, prepared to spread Christianity among the American aboriginals.”11 They lived in conventual community, the superior, called the father guardian, had independent jurisdiction, like a provincial. In the first year the religious learned the local languages, how to run a mission – in short, they were equipped for missionary duties before going out into the field.

After only five months, in a conversation with a group of newly arrived missionaries, the father guardian commented to them that the harvest was great there and the labourers few, and explained the needs of the missions in Sierra Gorda de Querétaro, to encourage the emergence of volunteers. Without hesitation, Friar Junipero came forward, repeating the words of the prophet: “‘Here am I! Send me’” (Is 6:8). Several others followed suit and the superior distributed them among the five missions in Sierra Gorda, which cared for the Jonace and Pame Indians. California was relegated to the delays of God for Friar Junipero, who remained on that mission for eight years.

His method of action and apostolic zeal were primarily based on benevolence, to vanquish the suspicion of the natives. Some had already been baptized, but they lived in the nomadism and torpor of savage conditions. It was necessary to teach them everything: to read, write, count, sing and, above all, to work! Trained for different trades – as farmers, ranchers, masons, carpenters, blacksmiths, painters – they could support themselves and collaborate in building up the mission, especially the church, together with the missionaries, who worked with them. The women were not forgotten and also had their arts: weaving, spinning, sewing and cooking.

A set of rules governed the missionary community and, thanks to them, the Indians were instructed in Christian doctrine, assisted in their needs and encouraged to frequent the Sacraments. Furthermore, the missionaries taught them to live “in Christian peace and charity, without tolerating scandals or bad examples.”12

Missionary among Christians

In September of 1758, while those missions were flourishing, the voice of obedience called Friar Junipero to evangelize the warlike Apache and Comanche Indians, at Mission Santa Cruz de San Sabá, in present day Texas.

A few months previously, it had been destroyed by the Comanches, who massacred the missionaries and razed the buildings. Far from being discouraged, the superior of San Fernando College convoked other religious to recommence the evangelizing work. Nevertheless, much to Friar Junipero’s regret, the lack of security and the unexpected death of the viceroy suspended the enterprise.

Thus, our Saint spent another nine years of waiting in Mexico City, as a missionary among Christians… He also visited the Dioceses of Puebla, Valladolid, today Morelia, and Oaxaca, always travelling on foot. Despite the limp occasioned by his leg swelling, he walked approximately ten thousand kilometers during this period.

Kind toward all, but rigorous with himself, he confronted great dangers, such as wild animals, venomous snakes and epidemics, to visit convents of nuns, villages and farms, in far-flung locations, some of which had not seen a priest for eighteen years…

Finally the great adventure: California!

Friar Junipero was almost fifty four years of age when he at last began to work in California. This opportunity arose in 1767, upon the expulsion of the Jesuits from Spanish domains, by order of King Carlos III. The then visitor general from Spain in Mexico, José Gálvez, ordered the Franciscans to replace them in Lower California. Friar Junipero was chosen as superior of the mission of Loreto, the region’s military, maritime and religious center.

However, owing to unexpected political injunctions, he remained there only briefly. Russia had made incursions into America, through the North Pacific, and was expanding toward the south. Informed of this threat, the Spanish government decided to take urgent measures to impede Russian expansion. This was the factor that set off the great missionary undertaking of Friar Junipero, marking American and world history. “Perhaps Spain had never been interested in founding missions and evangelizing the Indians of Upper California; but God used politics to bring the Gospel message to those people.”13

Having patiently endured the delays of God, when Friar Junipero Serra found the field open to act, his indomitable tenacity shone: he gave the best of himself in the last sixteen years of his life spent there, which merited for him the title of Apostle of California.

Although there was no organ for the inaugural Mass of a mission, a cannon salute would compensate for the lack of musical instruments, and the gunpowder smoke would replace the incense, which was also missing. His determination led him to plant Crosses and erect bell towers in the missions, to attract and win over souls for Christ, being ready to lay down his life for them.

He founded nine missions and headed a reconnaissance and exploratory mission in the North Pacific, which marked the destiny of America. Neither material shortages nor the inevitable problems with various authorities held him back, not even the betrayal of the Indians, who at times destroyed the village that they themselves had helped to build.

A name that lives on

It would be impossible to narrate in these few lines the portentous labour carried out by Friar Junipero over the course of more than thirty-five years of missionary life, during which he administered close to eight thousand Baptisms, and five thousand Confirmations as an extraordinary minister appointed by the Pope.14

His piety in the celebration of the Holy Mass, his devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, whom he called “Most Pure Prelate,”15 and to the Saints, “his friends and brothers from Heaven,”16 were the pillar of such a fruitful apostolate.

After his holy death, on August 28, 1784, his successors founded twenty-one more missions, which gave rise to an equal number of cities; in addition to this, they rendered spiritual assistance to various villages which they had not founded, including Los Angeles. Shortly before he departed for eternity, he promised to intercede for the missions and for the conversion of all pagans. “We see that this is being fulfilled, for in all the missions the number of Christians is growing since the death of their fervent founder,”17 Friar Palou would attest.

The name of Friar Junipero shines in Franciscan missionary annals for his total docility in awaiting God’s hour. The Holy Church raised him to the honour of the altars and the temporal power recognized the magnitude of his work, placing his statue in the Capitol in Washington, together with other great figures who forged the American nation.

Thus Friar Palou’s prediction is fulfilled: “His memory will not be extinguished, for the works of his life will remain forever stamped on the inhabitants of this New California; conserved and kept alive, despite the ravages of time.”18

1 CORRÊA DE OLIVEIRA, Plinio. Ai do homem a quem a espera não dói; ai do homem que não aguenta a dor da espera! In: Dr. Plinio. São Paulo. Año XV. N.º 172 (Julio, 2012); p. 32.

2 FONT, OFM, Pablo. Carta a Fray Jaime Alaxó, apud PEÑA, OAR, Ángel. Beato Junípero Serra. Apóstol de California. Lima: Libros Católicos, 2012, p. 91.

3 MORAIS, Durval de. I Fioretti de São Francisco de Assis. 7.ª ed. Petrópolis: Vozes, 1985, p. 187.

4 GALMÉS MÁS, OP, Lorenzo. Fray Junípero Serra. Apóstol de California. Madrid: BAC, 1988, p. 39.

5 PALOU, OFM, Francisco. Relación histórica de la vida y apostólicas tareas del venerable padre fray Junípero Serra. Ciudad de México: Felipe de Zúñiga y Ontiveros, 1787, p. 8.

6 Ídem, p. 11.

7 CAMÕES, Luis Vaz de. Os Lusíadas. C. VII, n.º 14. 2.ª ed. Porto: Companhia Portugueza, 1916, p. 60.

8 PALOU, op. cit., p. 14.

9 Ídem, ibídem.

10 Ídem, p. 17.

11 PEÑA, op. cit., p. 25.

12 MIGLIORANZA, OFM, Contardo de, apud PEÑA, op. cit., p. 29.

13 PEÑA, op. cit., p. 37.

14 Cf. MOLINA PIÑEDO, OSB, Ramón. Beato Junípero (Miguel) Serra. In: ECHEVERRÍA, Lamberto de; LLORCA, SJ, Bernardino; REPETTO BETES, José Luis (Org.). Año Cristiano. Madrid: BAC, 2005, v. VIII, p. 1039.

15 PEÑA, op. cit., p. 93.

16 Ídem, ibídem.

17 PALOU, op. cit., p. 285.

18 Ídem, pp. 284‑285.