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Junípero Serra, Priest, 1713-1784
No person had more influence on the settlement of California than Padre Junípero Serra. He was born Miguel José Serra to parents of humble means, living in Petra on the Mediterranean island of Majorca. His early education took place on the island at the Franciscan convent of San Bernardino. The church there had several small chapels on either side of the main altar dedicated to saints. Young Miguel developed a strong love for these saints while attending Mass, and their names, including San Diego, San Juan Capistrano, Nuestra Señora de Los Angeles, San Francisco, later became the names of the cities and missions which he established along the Camino Real in California.
Miguel was ordained in 1737, and took the name Junípero at that time. In the same year, he was named a professor of philosophy at the university in Palma, Spain. He continued with his studies and, in 1742, earned a doctorate in theology. A year later, he was selected to the Dun Scotus chair of theology at the university. He also became renowned as a preacher on the island and was chosen to preach on the highest holy days.
These honors could have been just the beginning for the young priest. His biographers note that he would probably have become the superior of the Franciscans and could very well have been named Bishop of Palma had he remained on Majorca. This was not his calling however. Since he was a boy, Junípero Serra had dreamed of becoming a missionary in the New World. When the opportunity came, he joined about thirty other Franciscan missionaries who sailed to Mexico, arriving on December 2, 1749. For most of the next twenty years, Padre Serra served as a missionary in the harsh environment of the Sierra Madres of northeastern Mexico and as a professor at the College of San Fernando in Mexico City.
Prior to 1768, the Jesuits had established many missions in Mexico and in Baja California. But a dispute with King Carlos III of Spain in that year led to the order being forcibly ejected from their missions and the priests sent back to Spain. To ensure that Spain would maintain a strong position in the New World, the king ordered the Franciscans to take over the Jesuit missions in Baja California and to establish new missions north along the coast in the Spanish claimed territory, which extended north to present-day British Columbia. Junípero Serra was selected to lead the Franciscan missionaries in this new assignment.
Serra believed that the colonization of California was secondary to the conversion of the Indians and his lifework reflected this. His biographers write of his love for his “dear children,” the more than 6,700 Indians whom he baptized and the more than 5,000 whom he confirmed. During the period in which Padre Serra worked among the Indians, he raised the health and living standards and introduced training in agriculture, letters, crafts, and music.
A man of vision, Junípero Serra’s concept was to build a “ladder” of missions one day’s journey apart between San Diego and San Francisco. Between 1769 and 1782, Padre Serra actually established nine missions along this route, most of which are still active today.
The process of sainthood for Junípero Serra was begun in 1934 and has continued with his beatification in 1988. He is honored by an optional memorial on July. 1.
Padre Serra's message today: Junípero Serra undertook a bold journey in coming to the New World. Our physical travels may not be as far-reaching as Serra’s, but we are all on a spiritual journey whose course can often be as dramatic. We, too, can hold steadfast to our goal of reaching God’s Kingdom.