Today marks the feast day of St. Junípero Serra, a Spanish Franciscan friar who is best known for founding many of the Spanish missions in the region of New Spain that would later become California.

Born in 1713 in Mallorca, Spain, he entered the Franciscan Order in 1730, at the age of 27, taking the name “Junipero” in honor of Saint Juniper, who had also been a Franciscan and a companion of Saint Francis. Renowned for his intellect, he he was ordered by his superiors to teach philosophy in professorial status to students, and later he received a doctorate in theology from the Lullian University in Palma de Mallorca.

In 1749, he left for mission work among the natives of what is now Mexico City. During this time, he served as the mission’s superior, learned the language of the Pame Indians, and translated the catechism into their language. In 1768, he was transferred to “Alta California,” where he was appointed superior of a group of 15 Franciscans. In total, he established nine missions, including Mission San Francisco, Mission Santa Clara, and Mission San Juan Capistrano, many of which have grown into major urban centers while still bearing the Franciscan names bestowed upon them by St. Junipero.

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

His time as “Father Presidente” was marked by continual difficulties with the military and political leaders of New Spain. Serra saw the native peoples as children of God who deserved the opportunity for salvation, and would make good Christians. Serra successfully resisted the efforts of Governor Felipe de Neve to bring Enlightenment policies to missionary work, seeing them as driven more by the Spanish government’s economic goals and not the religious goals of the Franciscans. Serra pushed for a system of laws to protect natives from some abuses by Spanish soldiers.

In the last 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 persons, who, with but few exceptions, were native peoples converted during the 14 years from 1770.

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

He died at age 70 at Mission San Carlos Borromeo, California, where he is buried under the sanctuary floor. He was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1988.

Remembered today mainly for his role as “Founder of Spanish California,” Bl. Junipero Serra is also a model of the Franciscan values of caring for the most marginalized, denying oneself, and having absolute confidence in God to provide. Bl. Junipero, patron of vocations, pray for us!

(Sources: Text adapted from Catholic Encyclopedia, pictures from Wikipedia)