Junípero Serra (1713–1784) was a Spanish missionary in America. Miguel José Serra was born in Petra on the island of Mallorca on Nov. 24, 1713. He entered the Franciscan order, taking the name Junípero, in September 1730 and was ordained in 1738. He quickly won recognition as a professor of philosophy and as a pulpit orator.
After receiving a doctorate in theology from Lullian University in Palma, Majorca, he was appointed to a chair of philosophy there. Serra obtained permission to become a missionary, and he arrived in Mexico City in 1750, entering the Apostolic College of San Fernando. He first served for nine years among the Pamé Indians of the Sierra Gorda in eastern Mexico, building the mission of Santiago de Jalpan and learning the Otomí language. In 1758 he returned to the Apostolic College to take up administrative work, although he continued missionary work.
After the expulsion of the Jesuits from Spain’s colonies in 1767, the Franciscans were asked to administer the Jesuit missions in Baja California. Serra led this effort, and in 1769, though in frail health, he accompanied the Spanish military party led by Gaspar de Portolá to Alta California. In July Serra founded his first Alta California mission at the present site of San Diego. In June 1770 he founded the San Carlos Borromeo mission in Monterey, which he made his headquarters. During the next 15 years, under his leadership, the Franciscan order established 9 (of an eventual total of 21) missions, the first Euramerican settlements in California. Other mission sites included San Luís Obispo (1772) and San Juan Capistrano (1776). The first buildings were crude; the more familiar adobe-brick or cut-stone buildings were erected later.
Serra was by all accounts tireless in defense of his missions and frequently clashed with civil and military authorities over jurisdictional issues, especially regarding Spanish relations with baptized Native Americans. He formulated a developmental plan for the region encompassing military, civilian, and religious institutions, and the regulatory code he devised became the basic law of the area and is still observed in part by the state of California. Serra died at San Carlos Borromeo on Aug. 28, 1784.
At the time of his death, Serra’s nine missions claimed some 6,000 converts. He had introduced agriculture and the keeping of domestic animals and brought artisans to the missions to teach the Native American “neophytes” European crafts. In some areas of Spanish America, missions had been forced on Native Americans, but in Alta California Serra obtained their consent before establishing his foundations. Nevertheless, rigorous demands were made of the Native American converts, and once they were baptized, they were completely under the authority of the Franciscans. Serra did not shy away from physical punishment for disobedience or other infractions; indeed, he subjected himself to mortifications of the flesh. Although he demanded that the Native Americans of the missions be separated from the military in order to protect them from military abuses, the missions were an integral part of the Spanish colonization effort, which had the end result of destroying the native cultures of the area.
After Serra died, Fray Francisco Palóu, a Mallorcan monk who was his closest friend and successor in administering the Alta California missions, wrote his biography, a work that became the chief source of information about Serra’s life and character. The cause for Serra’s canonization was opened in 1934, and he was beatified in 1987.