By the 18th Century Spain’s glory days were in her past, and her time as a great power was rapidly coming to an end. It is therefore somewhat unusual that at this period in her history, Spain added to her vast colonial empire. It would never have occurred but for the drive of one Spanish governor and the burning desire of a saint to spread the Gospel of Christ.
Miquel Josep Serra i Ferrer was born on the island of Majorca, the largest of the Balearic islands, off the Mediterranean coast of Spain on November 24, 1713. From his youth he had a desire to join the Franciscans and on September 14, 1730 he entered the Order of Friars Minor, and took the name of Junipero after Saint Junipero, one of the closest companions of Saint Francis. He had a sharp mind, and before his ordination to the priesthood was appointed lector of philosophy. He would go on to earn a doctorate in philosophy from Lullian University and went on to occupy the Duns Scotus chair of philosophy there. A quiet life teaching philosophy was his for the asking. Instead, he went off to be a missionary in the New World in 1749.
His first assignment was to teach in Mexico City, but that was not why he had left the Old World. At his request he was assigned to the Sierra Gorda Indian missions in Central Mexico as a mission priest, a task which occupied him for the next nine years.
In 1768 he was appointed the head of 15 Franciscans in Baja California who were taking over Jesuit missions to the Indians there, following the suppression of the Jesuit Order. It was in Baja California that he met the Governor of that province, Gaspar de Portola.
A catalan like Father Serra, Governor Portola had been born in Catalonia in Spain in 1716. He had joined the Spanish army in 1734 as an ensign, and since 1767 had been governor of Baja California.
The coast of Alta California had been explored, but its interior was still largely a mystery. Fear of the English or the Russians seizing California led the Spanish government to sponsor expeditions to establish missions in Alta California and to build fortifications and settlements there. Portola volunteered to take charge of the expeditions to accomplish this.
In 1769, four expeditions, two by land and two by sea headed into Alta California. These were not large forces, only a few hundred men in all. Illness and the arduous nature of the journey killed off about half of the explorers. It was a fair sized miracle that the Spaniards did not all die. Immediately after arriving at what is now San Diego, after a grueling 400 mile trek with the land expedition personally led by Governor Portola, Father Serra established the first of the nine missions he would found in Alta California: San Diego de Alcala. Father Serra at this time was 56, suffered from asthma and had a chronic sore on his left leg, a wound from an insect bite that had never properly healed. His determination radiates from this entry in his diary: “For I trust that God will give me the strength to reach San Diego, as He has given me the strength to come so far. In case He does not, I will conform myself to His most holy will. Even though I should die on the way, I shall not turn back. They can bury me wherever they wish and I shall gladly be left among the pagans, if it be the will of God.”
He never let his physical ailments slow him down, and over the next 13 years would found eight more missions that stretched up the coast of California:
1) 1769 – San Diego de Alcalá
2) 1770 – San Carlos Borromeo
3) 1771 – San Antonio de Padua
4) 1771 – San Gabriel Arcángel
5) 1772 – San Luís Obispo de Tolosa
6) 1776 – San Francisco de Asís
7) 1776 – San Juan Capistrano
8) 1777 – Santa Clara de Asís
9) 1782 – San Buenaventura
Between 1769-1823, the Franciscan friars would build a total of 21 missions stretching for 700 miles between San Diego and Sonoma.
Father Serra brought Christ to the Indians of California and protection. He did not want the Indians he was ministering to to suffer exploitation from Spanish settlers, and he often fought with the Spanish governors and officials who tended to regard him as a fanatic on the subject of the well-being of the Indians.
Father Serra was tireless in his task, traveling from mission to mission endless to preach to the Indians, baptize them, give them the sacraments, and to aid them in any way he could spiritually and materially. He would travel a total of approximately 24,000 miles, most of it on foot. He was eventually given in 1778 the power of a bishop to confirm and would use it to confirm some 5,039 of his Indian converts.
Father Serra departed this vale of tears on August 23, 1784 at mission San Carlos Borromeo. On his deathbed he said that if God granted him eternal happiness, he would never cease praying for his converts and the many who remained unconverted. On September 25, 1988 he was beatified by John Paul II. On September 23, 2015 he was canonized by Pope Francis. His statue may be seen in Statutory Hall in the Capitol, one of two statues for the state of California.