Saint Junipero Serra, O.F.M., Priest and Missionary

September 18, 2015

The Pastor's Page

Blessed Junipero Serra is written in this icon by local iconographer Kati Ritchie of St. Bonaventure in Bloomington in celebration of the 18th-century Spanish priest’s Sept. 23 canonization. See related story at right. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Blessed Junipero Serra is written in this icon by local iconographer Kati Ritchie of St. Bonaventure in Bloomington in celebration of the 18th-century Spanish priest’s Sept. 23 canonization. See related story at right. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

One of the highlights of Pope Francis’ trip to the United States will be the canonization of Blessed Junipero Serra, O.F.M., as a saint, this coming Wednesday, September 23.  Father Serra (1713-1784) was declared venerable, the first step toward sainthood, by Pope John Paul II in 1985, and he was beatified, the second step toward sainthood, also by Pope John Paul II, on September 25, 1988.  His canonization is the third and final step to official recognition as a saint.

Father Junipero Serra has long been regarded as the apostle and founder of California, but this well-known and highly-respected portion of his ministry was the third major chapter of his life.  Two other very important chapters preceded it.

Saint Junipero Serra was born Miguel Jose Serra on November 24, 1713, on the Spanish Island of Mallorca off of the coast of mainland Spain.  His parents, Antonio Serra and Margarita Ferrer, were both devout Catholics who raised their son in the faith.  During his childhood he went to a nearby Franciscan friary where he went to daily Mass, was an altar server, sang in the monastery choir, and attended school.  By the time he was fifteen, Miguel felt called to a religious vocation, and he entered the Franciscan novitiate.  He made formal application to the community at sixteen, but was denied because he was too young, too frail, and too short of stature at only five feet, two inches.  Extremely insistent, he was admitted a year later and made his first profession of vows on September 15, 1731.  He took Junipero, the name of one of St. Francis of Assisi’s closest friends, a jovial friar known as the “Jester of the Lord,” as his name for religious life.

Serra studied philosophy from 1731 to 1734 and theology from 1734 to 1737, and was ordained to the priesthood in November, 1737.  He was brilliant academically, and spent the next twelve years as a philosophy and theology professor, first at the Convento San Francisco, and then at the Lullian University in Palma where he held the Duns Scotus chair of philosophy.  This abruptly changed in 1749 when he asked for permission to be a missionary to New Spain, Mexico.

Serra arrived in Vera Cruz, Mexico, on December 7, 1749, for the second major chapter of his life in Mexico from 1750 to 1767.  The first eight years were spent in Sierra Gorda in the north central region of the country where he preached the gospel to the Pames people and built five new mission churches.  In 1758 he was recalled to Mexico City where he served at San Fernando College and as an itinerant preacher throughout southern Mexico.

Then another abrupt change took place.  On June 23, 1767, the Spanish government issued a decree that expelled the Jesuits from all of the missions in Mexico.  The Franciscans were asked to replace them and Father Serra was appointed their leader.  He moved briefly to Baja California, but shortly thereafter was offered the opportunity to go to Alta California, the northern portion, which today is the southwestern part of the State of California.  Wishing to be a missionary in a place where the gospel had never been preached, Father Serra jumped at the chance, and he, accompanied by a band of fellow Franciscans, arrived in San Diego on July 1, 1767.

The third and last chapter of his life was in California from 1767 until 1784.  During this time he traveled thousands of miles by foot, preached far and wide, made converts, baptized new believers, and founded nine missions. He objected to the Spanish military’s harsh treatment of the native peoples, and in 1774 he went to Mexico City to advocate on their behalf, and obtained a Bill of Rights for them.  His personal motto was, “Always go forward, never turn back.”  He died of tuberculosis on August 28, 1784, and he is buried at the church of San Carlos Borromeo in Carmel, California, at the second mission that he founded.

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About Father Michael Van Sloun

Father Michael A. Van Sloun is the pastor of Saint Bartholomew of Wayzata, MN. Ministerial interests include weekly Bible study, articles on theological topics, religious photography, retreats on Cross spirituality, and pilgrimages to the Holy Land, Italy, Greece and Turkey.

View all posts by Father Michael Van Sloun