Junípero Serra

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This name uses Spanish naming customs: the first or paternal family name is Serra and the second or maternal family name is Ferrer.
Blessed Junípero Serra, O.F.M.
Blessed Junípero Serra at age 61, ten years before his death.
Priest and religious
Born (1713-11-24)November 24, 1713
Petra, Majorca, Spain
Died August 28, 1784(1784-08-28) (aged 70)
Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo, Las Californias, New Spain, Spanish Empire
Venerated in Roman Catholic Church
(Franciscan Order & the United States)
Beatified September 25, 1988, Saint Peter's Square, Vatican City by Pope John Paul II
Major shrine Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo, Carmel, California, United States
Feast July 1
Monument of Junípero Serra (with Juaneño Indian boy) on plaza de San Francisco de Asis in Havana

Junípero Serra Ferrer, O.F.M., (/nɨˈpɛr ˈsɛrə/; Spanish: [xuˈnipeɾo ˈsera]) (November 24, 1713 – August 28, 1784) was a Spanish Franciscan friar who founded a mission in Baja California and the first nine of 21 Spanish missions in California from San Diego to San Francisco, which at the time were in Alta California in the Province of Las Californias in New Spain. He began in San Diego on July 16, 1769, and established his headquarters near the Presidio of Monterey, but soon moved a few miles south to establish Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo in today's Carmel, California.[2]

The missions were primarily designed to bring the Catholic Christian faith to the native peoples. Other aims were to integrate the neophytes into Spanish society, and to train them to take over ownership and management of the land. As head of the order in California, Serra not only dealt with church officials, but also with Spanish officials in Mexico City and with the local military officers who commanded the nearby presidio (garrison).

Serra was beatified by Pope John Paul II on September 25, 1988, and Pope Francis expects to canonize him in September 2015 during his first visit to the United States.[3] This has been controversial with some of Native American extraction who criticize Serra's treatment of their ancestors and associate him with the suppression of their culture.[4]


Early life[edit]

Serra was born as Miquel Josep Serra i Ferrer[5] to a family of humble means, in Petra, Majorca, Spain. On November 14, 1730, he entered the Alcantarine Franciscans, a reform movement in the Order, and took the name "Junipero" in honor of Brother Juniper, who had also been a Franciscan and a companion of Saint Francis.[2]

For his proficiency in studies he was appointed lector of philosophy before his ordination to the Catholic priesthood. Father Serra was considered intellectually brilliant by his peers. Prior to his departure to the Americas at age 27, he was assigned by his superiors to teach philosophy in professorial status to students at the Convento de San Francisco. Among his students were fellow future missionaries Francisco Palóu and Juan Crespí.[6] He received a doctorate in theology from the Lullian University in Palma de Mallorca, where he also occupied the Duns Scotus chair of philosophy until he joined the missionary College of San Fernando de Mexico in 1749.[7]

New Spain[edit]

That same year he journeyed to Mexico City, where he taught. While traveling on foot from Vera Cruz to the capital, he injured his leg in such a way that he suffered from it throughout his life, though he continued to make his journeys on foot whenever possible.[7] He requested a transfer to the Sierra Gorda Indian Missions some 90 miles north of Santiago de Querétaro, where he spent about nine years. During this time, he served as the mission's superior. The claim by Francisco Palóu that he wrote a catechism in Pame language is questionable as he himself later recognised that he had great difficulties learning indigenous languages.[8] Recalled to Mexico City, he became famous as a most fervent and effective preacher of missions. His zeal frequently led him to employ extraordinary means in order to move the people to penance: he would pound his breast with a stone while in the pulpit, scourge himself, or apply a lit candle to his bare chest.

In 1768, Father Serra was appointed superior of a band of 15 Franciscans for the Indian Missions of Baja California. The Franciscans took over the administration of the missions on the Baja California Peninsula from the Jesuits after King Carlos III ordered them forcibly expelled from New Spain on February 3, 1768. Serra became the "Father Presidente." On March 12, 1768, Serra embarked from the Pacific port of San Blas on his way to the Californias.

Statue of Junípero Serra at the Mission San Diego de Alcalá in San Diego


The next year the Spanish governor decided to explore and found missions in Alta (upper) California. This was intended both to Christianize the extensive Indian populations and to serve Spain's strategic interest by preventing Russian explorations and possible claims to North America's Pacific coast.[9] Early in the year 1769, he accompanied Governor Gaspar de Portolà on his expedition to Alta California (see Timeline of the Portolà expedition). On the way, he established the Misión San Fernando Rey de España de Velicatá on May 14 (the only Franciscan mission in all of Baja California). When the party reached San Diego on July 1, Father Serra stayed behind to start the Mission San Diego de Alcalá, the first of the 21 California missions[7] (including the nearby Visita de la Presentación, also founded under Serra's leadership).

Junipero Serra moved to the area that is now Monterey in 1770, and founded Mission San Carlos Borroméo de Carmelo. He remained there as "Father Presidente" of the Alta California missions. In 1771, Fr. Serra relocated the mission to Carmel, which became known as "Mission Carmel" and served as his headquarters. Under his presidency were founded:

Fr. Serra was also present at the founding of the Presidio of Santa Barbara (Santa Barbara, California) on April 21, 1782, but was prevented from locating the mission there because of the animosity of Governor Felipe de Neve.

In 1773, difficulties with Pedro Fages, the military commander, compelled Father Serra to travel to Mexico City to argue before Viceroy Antonio María de Bucareli y Ursúa for the removal of Fages as the Governor of California Nueva. At the capital of Mexico, by order of Viceroy Bucareli, he printed up Representación in 32 articles. Bucareli ruled in Father Serra's favor on 30 of the 32 charges brought against Fages, and removed him from office in 1774, after which time Father Serra returned to California. In 1778, Fr. Serra, although not a bishop, was given dispensation to administer the sacrament of confirmation for the faithful in California. After he had exercised his privilege for a year, Governor Felipe de Neve directed him to suspend administering the sacrament until he could present the papal brief. For nearly two years Father Serra refrained, and then Viceroy Majorga gave instructions to the effect that Father Serra was within his rights.

Franciscans saw the Indians as children of God who deserved the opportunity for salvation, and would make good Christians. Converted Indians were segregated from Indians who had not yet embraced Christianity, lest there be a relapse. Discipline was strict, and the converts were not allowed to come and go at will. Serra successfully resisted the efforts of Governor Felipe de Neve to bring Enlightenment policies to missionary work, because those policies would have subverted the economic and religious goals of the Franciscans.[10]

Serra wielded this kind of influence because his missions served economic and political purposes as well as religious ends. The number of civilian colonists in Alta California never exceeded 3,200, and the missions with their Indian populations were critical to keeping the region within Spain's political orbit. Economically, the missions produced all of the colony's cattle and grain, and by the 1780s were even producing surpluses sufficient to trade with Mexico for luxury goods.[9]

During the American Revolutionary War (1775–83), Father Serra took up a collection from his mission parishes throughout California. The total money collected amounted to roughly $137, but the money was sent to General George Washington.[citation needed] Serra also received the title Founder of Spanish California.

Relationship with Native Californians[edit]

As summarized by The New York Times, "Indian historians and authors blame Father Serra for the suppression of their culture and the premature deaths at the missions of thousands of their ancestors."[4]

According to George Tinker, himself an Osage/Cherokee and professor at Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado,[11] Serra's legacy included forced labor of converted Indians in order to support the missions. Overwhelming evidence suggests that "native peoples resisted the Spanish intrusion from the beginning".[12] Tinker also states that Serra's intentions in evangelizing were honest and genuine.[13]

Serra's own views are documented. In 1780, Serra wrote: "that spiritual fathers should punish their sons, the Indians, with blows appears to be as old as the conquest of the Americas; so general in fact that the saints do not seem to be any exception to the rule."[9] Serra pushed for a system of laws to protect natives from some abuses by Spanish soldiers, whose practices were in conflict with his.[2]

Mark A. Noll, a professor at the religious Wheaton College in Illinois, has noted that this reflected an attitude, common at the time, that missionaries could, and should, treat their wards like children, including the use of corporal punishment.[14] On the other hand, Tinker argues that it is more appropriate to judge the beatings and whippings administered by Serra by 18th-century Native American standards (since they were the recipients of the violence) and notes, for instance, that Native Americans were unaccustomed to punishing their children.[15][dubious ]

Salvatore J. Cordileone, the current archbishop of San Francisco, acknowledges Native American concerns about Serra's whippings and coercive treatment, but argues that missionaries were also teaching school and farming.[4]

Iris Engstrand, professor and chair of the Department of History at the University of San Diego, a Roman Catholic university, described him as

much nicer to the Indians, really, than even to the governors. He didn't get along too well with some of the military people, you know. His attitude was, 'Stay away from the Indians'. I think you really come up with a benevolent, hard-working person who was strict in a lot of his doctrinal leanings and things like that, but not a person who was enslaving Indians, or beating them, ever....He was a very caring person and forgiving. Even after the burning of the mission in San Diego, he did not want those Indians punished. He wanted to be sure that they were treated fairly...[2]

Deborah A. Miranda, a professor of American literature at Washington and Lee University and Native American, stated that "Serra did not just bring us Christianity. He imposed it, giving us no choice in the matter. He did incalculable damage to a whole culture".[4]

The grave of Junípero Serra in Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo.

Death and burial[edit]

During the remaining three years of his life he once more visited the missions from San Diego to San Francisco, traveling more than 600 miles in the process, in order to confirm all who had been baptized. He suffered intensely from his crippled leg and from his chest, yet he would use no remedies. He confirmed 5,309 people, who, with but few exceptions, were Indian neophytes converted during the 14 years from 1770.

On August 28, 1784, at the age of 70, Father Junípero Serra died at Mission San Carlos Borromeo. He is buried there under the sanctuary floor.[2] Following Serra's death, leadership of the Franciscan missionary effort in Alta California passed to Fermín Lasuén.


Junípero Serra was beatified by Pope John Paul II on September 25, 1988, this being the next-to-last step towards canonization, or recognition of sainthood, in the Catholic Church.[16] The pope spoke before a crowd of 20,000 in a beatification ceremony for six; according to the pope's address in English, "He sowed the seeds of Christian faith amid the momentous changes wrought by the arrival of European settlers in the New World. It was a field of missionary endeavor that required patience, perseverance, and humility, as well as vision and courage."[17]

During Serra's beatification, questions were raised about how Indians were treated while Serra was in charge. The question of Franciscan treatment of Indians first arose in 1783. The famous historian of missions Herbert Eugene Bolton gave evidence favorable to the case in 1948, and the testimony of five other historians was solicited in 1986.[18][19][20]

On January 15, 2015, Pope Francis announced that in September, he hopes to canonize the 18th-century Spanish Franciscan as a part of his first visit to the United States.[21] He will be the first native saint of the Balearic Islands. He will be canonized on 23 September 2015 in Washington D.C. by Pope Francis.

Serra's feast day is celebrated on July 1 and he is considered to be the patron of vocations.

The Mission in Carmel, California containing Serra's remains has continued as a place of public veneration. The burial location of Serra is southeast of the altar and is marked with an inscription in the floor of the sanctuary. Other relics are remnants of the wood from Serra's coffin on display next to the sanctuary, and personal items belonging to Serra on display in the mission museums. A bronze and marble sarcophagus depicting Serra's life was completed in 1924 by Catalan sculptor Joseph A. Mora. Serra's remains have not been transferred to the sarcophagus.


Many of Serra's letters and other documentation are extant, the principal ones being his "Diario" of the journey from Loreto to San Diego, which was published in Out West (March to June 1902) along with Serra's "Representación."'

The Junípero Serra Collection (1713-1947) at the Santa Barbara Mission Archive-Library are their earliest archival materials. The Santa Barbara Mission-Archive Library is part of the building complex of the Mission Santa Barbara, but is now a separate non-profit, independent educational and research institution. The Santa Barbara Mission-Archive Library continues to have ties to the Franciscans and the legacy of Padre Serra.[22]

The chapel at Mission San Juan Capistrano, built in 1782, is thought to be the oldest standing building in California. Known as "Father Serra's Church," it is the only remaining church in which Father Serra is known to have celebrated the rites of the Roman Catholic Church (he presided over the confirmations of 213 people on October 12 and October 13, 1783).

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.[23]

Among the many schools named after Serra are Junípero Serra High School in the San Diego community of Tierrasanta, Junípero Serra Elementary School in Ventura, J Serra Catholic High School in San Juan Capistrano, Father Serra Catholic School (Grades JK-8) in Rancho Santa Margarita, Junípero Serra High School in Gardena, California, and Junipero Serra High School in San Mateo.

Both Spain and the United States have honored Fr. Serra with postage stamps.

Serra International, a global lay organization that promotes religious vocations to the Catholic Church, was named in his honor. The group, founded in 1935, currently numbers a membership of about 20,000 worldwide. It also boasts over 1,000 chapters in 44 countries.[24]

Serra's legacy towards Native Americans has been a topic of discussion in the Los Angeles area in recent years. An indigenous rights group called the Mexica Movement protested Serra's canonization at the Los Angeles Cathedral in February 2015. [25] The Huntington Library announcement of its 2013 exhibition on Serra made it clear that Serra's treatment of Native Americans would be part of the comprehensive coverage of his legacy.[26]

Statuary and monuments[edit]

Fray Junípero Serra. Sculpture in The National Statuary Hall
  • A statue of Friar Junípero Serra is one of two statues representing the state of California in the National Statuary Hall Collection in the United States Capitol. The statue, sculpted by Ettore Cadorin, depicts Serra holding a cross and looking skyward. In February 2015, State Senator Ricardo Lara introduced a bill in the California legislature to remove the Serra statue and replace it with one of astronaut Sally Ride. In May 2015, some California Catholics were organizing to keep Serra's statue in place. California Governor Jerry Brown joined in support of retaining the statue during a July 2015 visit to the Vatican.[27][28] On July 2, Lara announced that as a gesture of respect towards Pope Francis and people of faith, the vote on the proposal to replace the statue would be postponed until next year. Pope Francis is expected to canonize Serra as part of his September 2015 papal visit to the US.[29]
  • A gold statue of heroic size represents him as the apostolic preacher at Golden Gate Park in San Francisco.
  • Jane Elizabeth Lathrop Stanford, wife of Leland Stanford, governor and U.S. Senator from California, a non-Catholic herself, had a granite monument erected to honor Father Serra at Monterey.
  • When Interstate 280 was built in stages from Daly City to San Jose in the 1960s, it was named the Junipero Serra Freeway. Along the freeway in Hillsborough, California, is a statue of Serra. It stands on a hill on the northbound side and has a large pointing finger facing the Santa Cruz Mountains and the Pacific.
  • A statue of Serra is located in the courtyard of Mission Dolores, San Francisco's oldest remaining building.[4]
  • A full-size bronze statue of Serra overlooks the entrance to Mission Plaza in San Luis Obispo, near the façade of Old Mission San Luis Obispo.
  • A bronze statue of Father Junípero Serra standing over an outline of the State of California stands in the California State Capitol's Capitol Park. The statue of Serra faces that of Thomas Starr King, which was previously located in the National Statuary Hall Collection.

Points of interest[edit]

Many cities in California have streets, trails, and other features named after Serra. Examples include Santa Barbara, which contains Alameda Padre Serra (Father Serra's Street), running from Mission Santa Barbara along the base of the Riviera, the hill overlooking the city; Serra Cross Park in Ventura, site of the cross Serra erected at Mission San Buenaventura's founding; and San Diego, in which Father Junipero Serra Trail runs through the Mission Trails Regional Park to Santee.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Patron Saints and their feast days". Retrieved 15 June 2015. 
  2. ^ a b c d e "Blessed Junípero Serra 1713 - 1784". Serra Club of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Retrieved 24 May 2013. 
  3. ^ "Pope to Canonize ‘Evangelizer of the West’ During U.S. Trip". National Catholic Register. Retrieved 21 January 2015. 
  4. ^ a b c d e Pogash, Carol (January 21, 2015). "To Some in California, Founder of Church Missions Is Far From Saint". The New York Times. 
  5. ^ Baptism book
  6. ^ Geiger, Maynard, "The Life and Times of Padre Serra", Richmond: William Byrd Press, 1959, p. 26
  7. ^ a b c "CATHOLIC ENCYCLOPEDIA: Junipero Serra". newadvent.org. Retrieved 21 January 2015. 
  8. ^ Rose Marie Beebe, Robert M. Senkewicz, Junípero Serra: California, Indians, and the Transformation of a Missionary, University of Oklahoma Press, 2015, Google Books
  9. ^ a b c "PBS - THE WEST - Junipero Serra". pbs.org. Retrieved 21 January 2015. 
  10. ^ Francis P. Guest, "Junipero Serra and His Approach to the Indians," Southern California Quarterly, (1985) 67#3 pp 223-261.
  11. ^ Tinker, George E. [1], "Missionary Conquest," Chap. 3, Fortress Press, 1993, pages 42 and 61
  12. ^ Tinker, p. 59.
  13. ^ Tinker, p. 42.
  14. ^ Noll, Mark A., A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada, pp. 15–16, Wm. B. Erdmans Publishing, 1992
  15. ^ Tinker, p. 58.
  16. ^ Steve Chawkins (28 August 2009). "Junipero Serra advocates need just one more miracle". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 23 March 2013. 
  17. ^ Terry Leonard, "Pope beatifies founder of missions," Associated Press story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press, September 26, 1988, p. A4.
  18. ^ James A. Sandos, "Junipero Serra, Canonization, and the California Indian Controversy," Journal of Religious History (1989) 15#3 pp 311-329
  19. ^ James A. Sandos, "Junipero Serra's Canonization and the Historical Record," American Historical Review (1988) 93#5 pp 1253-69 in JSTOR
  20. ^ Guest, Francis P., "Junipero Serra and His Approach to the Indians," Southern California Quarterly, (1985) 67#3 pp 223-261.
  21. ^ "Pope's canonization announcement surprises even Serra's promoters". Catholic News Service. 15 January 2015. Retrieved 15 January 2015. 
  22. ^ "Santa Bárbara Mission Archive-Library". Santa Bárbara Mission Archive-Library. Retrieved 21 January 2015. 
  23. ^ Catholic Encyclopedia, 1912
  24. ^ http://www.scanzspac.org/about/index.cfm?loadref=39
  25. ^ http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-serra-canonization-20150201-story.html
  26. ^ [2]
  27. ^ Brittany Woolsey, "Catholics coalescing to save statue of Serra," Los Angeles Times, Monday, May 11, 2015, p. B4.
  28. ^ Siders, David. Jerry Brown says Junípero Serra statue will stay. Sacramento Bee, July 21, 2015.
  29. ^ White, Jeremy B. Pope’s visit delays vote to ditch Junipero Serra statue. Sacramento Bee. July 2, 2015.

Further reading[edit]

  • Castillo, Elias (2015). A Cross of Thorns: The Enslavement of California's Indians by the Spanish Missions. Quill Driver Books. ISBN 978-1-61035-242-0. 
  • Clifford, Christian (2015). Saint Junípero Serra: Making Sense of the History and Legacy. CreateSpace. ISBN 978-1511862295. 
  • Cook, Sherburne Friend (1976-10-28). The conflict between the California Indian and white civilization. University of California Press. ISBN 978-0-520-03142-5. ; Cook did not discuss Serra but looked at the missions as a system
  • Deverell, William Francis; William Deverell; David Igler (2008-10-31). A Companion to California History. John Wiley and Sons. ISBN 978-1-4051-6183-1. 
  • Fitch, Abigail Hetzel (1914). Junipero Serra: The Man and His Work. 
  • Fogel, Daniel (1988-02-01). Junipero Serra, the Vatican, and Enslavement Theology. ISM Press. ISBN 978-0-910383-25-7. 
  • Geiger, Maynard J. The Life and Times of Fray Junipero Serra, OFM (2 vol 1959) 8 leading scholarly biography
  • Geiger, Maynard. "Fray Junípero Serra: Organizer and Administrator of the Upper California Missions, 1769-1784," California Historical Society Quarterly (1963) 42#3 pp 195-220.
  • Gleiter, Jan (1991). Junipero Serra. 
  • Guest, Francis P. "Junipero Serra and His Approach to the Indians," Southern California Quarterly, (1985) 67#3 pp 223-261; favorable to Serra
  • Hackel, Steven W. "The Competing Legacies of Junípero Serra: Pioneer, saint, villain," Common-Place (2005) 5#2
  • Hackel, Steven W. Junípero Serra: California's Founding Father (2013)
  • Hackel, Steven W. Children of Coyote, Missionaries of St. Francis: Indian-Spanish Relations in Colonial California, 1769-1850 (2005)
  • Sandos, James A. (2004). Converting California: Indians and Franciscans in the Missions. Yale University Press. ISBN 978-0-300-10100-3. 
  • Luzbetak, Lewis J. "If Junipero Serra Were Alive: Missiological-Anthropological Theory Today," Americas, (1985) 42: 512-19, argues that Serra's intense commitment to saving the souls of the Indians would qualify him as an outstanding missionary by 20th century standards.
  • Orfalea, Gregory (2014). Journey to the Sun: Junipero Serra's Dream and the Founding of California. Scribner. ISBN 978-1-4516-4272-8. 

Primary sources[edit]

  • Serra, Junipero. Writings of Junípero Serra, ed. and trans. by Antonine Tibesar, 4 vols. (Washington, D.C,. 1955-66).

External links[edit]