St. Junipero Serra, the “Apostle of California”

The San Fernando mission in the Mission Hills community of Los Angeles, CA, was founded Sept. 8, 1787. The International Pilgrim Virgin Statue of Fatima visited the site on Sept. 9, 2019, as part of a tour of the 21 missions established by St. Junipero Serra.

by Rev. Matthew R. Mauriello

Miguel José Serra was born at Petra, Mallorca, Spain on Nov. 24, 1713, the son of humble farmers, Antonio Nadal Serra and Margarita Rosa Ferrer. According to local custom, he was baptized on the same day at St. Peter’s Church. He attended the primary school of the Franciscans and at the age of 15, was taken by his parents to Palma and began studies in philosophy at Franciscan Monastery there.

On Sept. 14, 1730, he entered the novitiate in Palma and made his profession on Sept. 15 of the following year. He chose the name Junipero in honor of one of the original followers of St. Francis of Assisi (1182-1226) and was ordained to the Holy Priesthood in Dec. 1738. He earned his doctorate in theology in 1742 from the Lullian University and became a professor there until Jan. 1749, when he was invited to become a missionary in America.

A Great Love for His Converts

Along with another Franciscan missionary, Fr. Francisco Palóu (1723-1789) they sailed on April 13, 1749 and landed in Vera Cruz, Mexico on Dec. 7, thereafter reaching Mexico City on Jan. 1, 1750. St. Junipero was among the volunteers when an urgent call came to serve in the Sierra Gorda missions. During his apostolate there among Pame Indians, between 1750 and 1758, he oversaw construction of a church, still in use, and developed the mission in both religious and economic directions. He served as president of the missions from 1751 to 1754 and had a great love for his converts.

St. Junipero learned the Otomí language and used a visual method of teaching religion. His biographers tell us that he was small of stature, only five feet two inches in height and had a deep voice as well as dark skin, hair and eyes. He was optimistic, zealous and dynamic and known to be a man of action and preferred the apostolate to the classroom. As well, he was a model religious and was a man of prayer and mortification, despite the many the distractions and activities of the mission.  

He succeeded in bringing the Pame people to practice the faith in an exemplary way. The mission prospered through the introduction of domestic animals, the fostering of agriculture and the development of commerce. During the construction of his church, he worked tirelessly among the ordinary day laborers.

Joined Expeditions to Upper California

St. Junipero was assigned to the College of San Fernando in Mexico City and arrived there on Sept. 26, 1758. He served as the choir director, master of novices and confessor. In 1767, he was appointed president of the missions of Baja California and set out in mid-July, reaching Loreto the following April. He assigned missionaries to the 15 missions between San José del Cabo in the south and Santa María in the north. The following year, he asked to join the expeditions to Upper California and on March 28, 1769, he left the mission at Loreto on mule-back, arriving at San Diego on July 1. On the way, he founded his first mission at San Fernando de Velicatá on May 14.

The next 15 years were devoted to the work of evangelization in Upper California. During that period, he founded nine missions: San Diego de Alcalá on July 16, 1769; San Carlos, Monterey-Carmel on June 3, 1770; San Antonio on July 14, 1771; San Gabriel on Sept. 8, 1771; San Luis Obispo on Sept. 1, 1772, San Francisco on Oct. 9, 1776; San Juan Capistrano on Nov. 1, 1776; Santa Clara on Jan. 12, 1777: San Buenaventura on March 31, 1782 and was present at the founding of the Presidio Santa Barbara on April 12, 1782.

Suffered a Great Deal

St. Junipero remained at San Diego until April 14, 1770 and moved to Mission San Carlos June 3. Although he enjoyed good health in his early years, he suffered a great deal during the latter part of his life. His first affliction was the swelling and painful itching of his feet and legs from mosquito bites which caused varicose ulcers. At times he could neither stand nor walk and had to be carried on a stretcher. As well, he began to suffer from asthma beginning in 1758. He died at Mission San Carlos on August 28, 1784 at the age of 70 and is buried in the church he had built. By the end of that year, Indian baptisms at the first nine missions reached 6,736, while 4,646 Christianized Indians were living in them.

The cause for his beatification began in the Diocese of Monterey in 1934 and finished in 1949. St. John Paul II beatified him on Sept. 25, 1988 and Pope Francis canonized him on Sept. 23, 2015, during a Mass in Washington, DC. Monuments to him are located in Mallorca as well as in California, where he is known as the “Apostle of California.” Serra International was established in his honor.

Rev. Matthew Mauriello was ordained in 1988 and has been serving the Diocese of Bridgeport since 1991. He is an author and regular contributor to Soul Magazine, as well as a frequent speaker at the National Blue Army Shrine of Our Lady of Fatima. Currently he serves as the chaplain at St. Camillus Nursing Home in Stamford, Conn. This article first appeared in the 2015 Summer issue of Soul.

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