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Junípero Serra
Junípero Serra.jpg
A portrait of Serra
Apostle of California
Born Miquel Josep Serra i Ferrer
(1713-11-24)November 24, 1713
Petra, Majorca, Crown of Aragon
Died August 28, 1784(1784-08-28) (aged 70)
Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo, Las Californias, New Spain, Spanish Empire
Beatified September 25, 1988, Saint Peter's Square, Vatican City by Pope John Paul II
Canonized September 23, 2015, Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception by Pope Francis
Major shrine Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo, Carmel-by-the-Sea, California, United States
Feast August 28; July 1 in United States
Attributes Franciscan habit, wearing a large crucifix, or holding a crucifix accompanied by a young Native American boy

Saint Junípero Serra y Ferrer O.F.M. ( Catalan: [Juníper Serra i Ferrer] Error: {{Lang}}: text has italic markup (help); November 24, 1713 – August 28, 1784), popularly known simply as Junipero Serra, was a Spanish Catholic priest and missionary of the Franciscan Order. He is credited with establishing the Franciscan Missions in the Sierra Gorda, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. He founded a mission in Baja California and established eight of the 21 Spanish missions in California from San Diego to San Francisco, in what was then Spanish-occupied Alta California in the Province of Las Californias, New Spain.

Serra was beatified by Pope John Paul II on 25 September 1988 in Vatican City. Amid denunciations from Native American tribes who accused Serra of presiding over a brutal colonial subjugation, Pope Francis canonized Serra on 23 September 2015 at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., during his first visit to the United States. Serra's missionary efforts earned him the title of "Apostle of California".

Both before and after his canonization, Serra's reputation and missionary work during the Spanish occupation have been condemned by critics, who cite alleged mandatory conversions to Catholicism, followed by abuse of the Native American converts.

Early life

Casa natal de Fra Juníper Serra a Petra (4)
Serra's birthplace in Petra on the island of Mallorca, in the Balearic Islands.

Serra was born Miquel Josep Serra i Ferrer (this name is Catalan, in Castilian it is Miguel José Serra Ferrer) in the village of Petra on the island of Mallorca (Majorca) in the Balearic Islands off the Mediterranean coast of Spain. His father Antonio Nadal Serra and mother Margarita Rosa Ferrer were married in 1707.

By age seven, Miquel was working the fields with his parents, helping cultivate wheat and beans, and tending the cattle. But he showed a special interest in visiting the local Franciscan friary at the church of San Bernardino within a block of the Serra family house. Attending the friars' primary school at the church, Miquel learned reading, writing, mathematics, Latin, religion and liturgical song, especially Gregorian chant. Gifted with a good voice, he eagerly took to vocal music. The friars sometimes let him join the community choir and sing at special church feasts. Miquel and his father Antonio often visited the friary for friendly chats with the Franciscans.

At age 16, Miquel's parents enrolled him in a Franciscan school in the capital city, Palma de Majorca, where he studied philosophy. A year later, he became a novice in the Franciscan order.

Joins Franciscan order

Placa en record del bateig de Fra Juníper Serra
Memorial to Serra's baptism at the Church of Sant Pere de Petra.

On September 14, 1730, some two months before his 17th birthday, Serra entered the Franciscan Order at Palma, specifically, the Alcantarine branch of the Friars Minor, a reform movement in the order. The slight and frail Serra now embarked on his novitiate period, a rigorous year of preparation to become a full member of the Franciscan Order. He was given the religious name of Junípero in honor of Brother Juniper, who had been among the first Franciscans and a companion of Francis of Assisi. The young Junípero, along with his fellow novices, vowed to scorn property and comfort, and to remain celibate. He still had seven years to go to become an ordained Catholic priest. He immersed himself in rigorous studies of logic, metaphysics, cosmology, and theology.

The daily routine at the friary followed a rigid schedule: prayers, meditation, choir singing, physical chores, spiritual readings, and instruction. The friars would wake up every midnight for another round of chants. Serra's superiors discouraged letters and visitors. In his free time, he avidly read stories about Franciscan friars roaming the provinces of Spain and around the world to win new souls for the church, often suffering martyrdom in the process.

2007-08-15 Spain Mallorca Palma Junípero Serra 01
Monument to Serra in Palma de Mallorca.

In 1737, Serra became a priest, and three years later earned an ecclesiastical license to teach philosophy at the Convento de San Francisco. His philosophy course, including over 60 students, lasted three years. Among his students were fellow future missionaries Francisco Palóu and Juan Crespí. When the course ended in 1743, Serra told his students: "I desire nothing more from you than this, that when the news of my death shall have reached your ears, I ask you to say for the benefit of my soul: 'May he rest in peace.' Nor shall I omit to do the same for you so that all of us will attain the goal for which we have been created."

Serra was considered intellectually brilliant by his peers. He received a doctorate in theology from the Lullian College (founded in the 14th century by Ramon Lull for the training of Franciscan missionaries) in Palma de Majorca, where he also occupied the Duns Scotus chair of philosophy until he joined the missionary College of San Fernando de Mexico in 1749.

During Serra's last five years on the island of Majorca, drought and plague afflicted his home village of Petra. Serra sometimes went home from Palma for brief visits to his parents—now separated—and gave them some financial support. On one occasion he was called home to anoint his seriously ill father with the last rites. In one of his final visits to Petra, Serra found his younger sister Juana María near death.

In 1748, Serra and Palóu confided to each other their desire to become missionaries. Serra, now 35, was assured a prestigious career as priest and scholar if he stayed in Majorca; but he set his sights firmly on pagan lands. Applying to the colonial bureaucracy in Madrid, Serra requested that both he and Palóu embark on a foreign mission. After weathering some administrative obstacles, they received permission and set sail for Cádiz, the port of departure for Spain's colonies in the Americas.

While waiting to set sail, Serra wrote a long letter to a colleague back in Majorca, urging him to console Serra's parents—now in their 70s—over their only son's pending departure. "They [my parents] will learn to see how sweet is His yoke," Serra wrote, "and that He will change for them the sorrow they may now experience into great happiness. Now is not the time to muse or fret over the happenings of life but rather to be conformed entirely to the will of God, striving to prepare themselves for that happy death which of all the things of life is our principal concern." Serra asked his colleague to read this letter to his parents, who had never attended school.

Missionary work

Fray Junipero Serra en Tancoyol
Serra monument in Jalpan de Serra, a city named after Serra in Querétaro, Mexico.

In 1749, Serra and the Franciscan missionary team landed in Veracruz, on the Gulf coast of New Spain (now Mexico). To get from Veracruz to Mexico City, Serra and his Franciscan companions took the Camino Real (English: royal path), a rough road stretching from sea level through tropical forests, dry plains, high plateaus and volcanic sierra mountains to an altitude of 7,400 feet (2,300 meters). Royal officials provided horses for the 20 Franciscan friars to ride up the Camino Real. All accepted the offer, except for Serra and one companion, a friar from Andalusia. Strictly following the rule of his patron saint Francis of Assisi that friars "must not ride on horseback unless compelled by manifest necessity or infirmity," Serra insisted on walking to Mexico City. He and his fellow friar set out on the Camino Real with no money or guide, carrying only their breviaries. They trusted in Providence and the hospitality of local people along the way.

During the trek Serra's left foot swelled up, and a burning itch tormented him. Arriving at a farm at day's end, he could hardly stand. He attributed the swelling to a mosquito bite. His discomfort caused him to stay over at the farm another night, during which he scratched his foot and leg to excess, desperately trying to relieve the itch. The next morning his leg was raw and bleeding. This wound plagued Serra for the rest of his life.

Serra had a singular purpose to save, in his mind, Native American souls. He believed that the death of an unconverted heathen was tragic, while the death of a baptized convert was a cause for joy.

Petra - Mallorca - Missions de Sierra Gorda
Painted tiles to commemorate the founding of the Missions in Sierra Gorda, Mexico by Junípero Serra

The missions were primarily designed to bring the Catholic faith to the native peoples, other aims were to provide a framework for organizing the natives into a productive workforce in support of new extensions of Spanish power, and to train them to take over ownership and management of the land. As head of the order in California, Serra not only dealt with church officials, but also with Spanish officials in Mexico City and with the local military officers who commanded the nearby garrison.

Converted Indians were segregated from Indians who had not yet embraced Christianity, lest there be a relapse. Discipline was strict, and the converts were not allowed to come and go at will. Indians who were baptized were required to live at the mission and conscripted into forced labor as plowmen, shepherds, cattle herders, blacksmiths, and carpenters on the mission. Disease, starvation, and overwork decimated these tribes. The missions served economic and political purposes as well as religious ends. Economically, the missions produced all of the colony's cattle and grain, and by the 1780s were even producing surpluses sufficient to trade with Mexico for luxury goods.

In 1779, Franciscan missionaries under Serra's direction planted California's first sustained vineyard at Mission San Diego de Alcalá. Hence, he has been called the "Father of California Wine". The variety he planted, presumably descended from Spain, became known as the Mission grape and dominated California wine production until about 1880.


Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo (Carmel, CA) - basilica, interior, grave of Junipero Serra
Saint Junípero Serra's grave in Carmel-by-the-Sea.

During the remaining three years of his life, he once more visited the missions from San Diego to San Francisco, traveling more than 600 miles in the process, to confirm all who had been baptized. He suffered intensely from his disabled leg and from his chest, yet he would use no remedies. He confirmed 5,309 people, who, with but few exceptions, were California Indian neophytes converted during the fourteen years from 1770.

On August 28, 1784, at the age of 70, Junípero Serra died at Mission San Carlos Borromeo from tuberculosis. He is buried there under the sanctuary. Following Serra's death, leadership of the Franciscan missionary effort in Alta California passed to Fermín Lasuén.


The cause for Serra's beatification was formally opened on October 21, 1951, granting him the title of Servant of God. Serra was beatified by Pope John Paul II on September 25, 1988. The pope spoke before a crowd of 20,000 in a beatification ceremony for six; according to the pope's address in English, "He sowed the seeds of Christian faith amid the momentous changes wrought by the arrival of European settlers in the New World. It was a field of missionary endeavor that required patience, perseverance, and humility, as well as vision and courage."

During Serra's beatification, questions were raised about how Indians were treated while Serra was in charge. The question of Franciscan treatment of Indians first arose in 1783. The famous historian of missions Herbert Eugene Bolton gave evidence favorable to the case in 1948, and the testimony of five other historians was solicited in 1986.

Serra was canonized by Pope Francis on September 23, 2015, as a part of the pope's first visit to the United States, the first canonization to take place on American soil. During a speech at the Pontifical North American College in Rome on May 2, 2015, Pope Francis stated that "Friar Junípero ... was one of the founding fathers of the United States, a saintly example of the Church's universality and special patron of the Hispanic people of the country." Junípero Serra is the second native saint of the Balearic Islands after Catherine of Palma. He is also included among the Saints of the United States and México.

Serra's feast day is celebrated on July 1 in the United States and on August 28 everywhere. He is considered to be the patron saint of California, Hispanic Americans, and religious vocations.

The Mission in Carmel, California, containing Serra's remains has continued as a place of public veneration. The burial location of Serra is southeast of the altar and is marked with an inscription in the floor of the sanctuary. Other relics are remnants of the wood from Serra's coffin on display next to the sanctuary, and personal items belonging to Serra on display in the mission museums. A bronze and marble sarcophagus depicting Serra's life was completed in 1924 by the sculptor Jo Mora, but Serra's remains have never been transferred to that sarcophagus.


Balboa Park in San Diego, California
Architectural medallion venerating Serra at Balboa Park in San Diego.

Many of Serra's letters and other documentation are extant, the principal ones being his "Diario" of the journey from Loreto to San Diego, which was published in Out West (March to June 1902) along with Serra's Representación.

The Junípero Serra Collection (1713–1947) at the Santa Barbara Mission Archive-Library are their earliest archival materials. This library is part of the building complex of the Mission Santa Barbara, but is now a separate non-profit, independent educational and research institution. It continues to have ties to the Franciscans and the legacy of Serra.

The chapel at Mission San Juan Capistrano, built in 1782, is thought to be the oldest standing building in California. Commonly referred to as "Father Serra's Church," it is the only remaining church in which Serra is known to have celebrated the rites of the Catholic Church (he presided over the confirmations of 213 people on October 12 and 13, 1783).

Saint Serra Statue at Serra HS
Statue at Junípero Serra High School in San Mateo.

Many cities in California have streets, schools, and other features named after Serra. Examples include Junipero Serra Boulevard, a major boulevard in and south of San Francisco; Serramonte, a large 1960s residential neighborhood on the border of Daly City and Colma in the suburbs south of San Francisco; Serra Springs, a pair of springs in Los Angeles; Serra Mesa, a community in San Diego; Junipero Serra Peak, the highest mountain in the Santa Lucia Mountains; Junipero Serra Landfill, a solid waste disposal site in Colma; and Serra Fault, a fault in San Mateo County. Schools named after Serra include Junípero Serra High School, a public school in the San Diego community of Tierrasanta renamed to Canyon Hills High School in 2021, and four Catholic high schools: Junípero Serra High School in Gardena, Junipero Serra High School in San Mateo, JSerra Catholic High School in San Juan Capistrano, and Serra Catholic High School in McKeesport, Pennsylvania. There are public elementary schools in San Francisco and Ventura, as well as a K-8 Catholic school in Rancho Santa Margarita.

Both Spain and the United States have honored Serra with postage stamps.

In 1884, the Legislature of California passed a concurrent resolution making August 29 of that year, the centennial of Serra's burial, a legal holiday.

Serra International, a global lay organization that promotes religious vocations to the Catholic Church, was named in his honor. The group, founded in 1935, currently numbers a membership of about 20,000 worldwide. It also boasts over 1,000 chapters in 44 countries.

Serra's legacy towards Native Americans has been a topic of discussion in the Los Angeles area in recent years. The Mexica Movement, an indigenous separatist group that rejects European influence in the Americas, protested Serra's canonization at the Los Angeles Cathedral in February 2015. The Huntington Library announcement of its 2013 exhibition on Serra made it clear that Serra's treatment of Native Americans would be part of the comprehensive coverage of his legacy.

In 2019, Stanford University renamed two buildings that had formerly been named after Serra: Serra House, where the Clayman Institute for Gender Research is located was renamed the Carolyn Lewis Attneave House, and a student dormitory located in the Lucie Stern Hall complex was renamed the Sally Ride House. The university followed the recommendations of a committee headed by Paul Brest (former dean of Stanford Law School), which had concluded that

Because the mission system's violence against California Native Americans is part of the history and memory of current members of the community, we believe that features named for Junipero Serra, who was the architect and leader of the mission system, are in tension with (Stanford's) goal of full inclusion.

Statuary and monuments

Fray Junípero Serra, escultura de Alberto Pérez Soria (cropped)
Statue in Querétaro City.
San Junipero Serra (Moraga, California)
Plaque at St. Mary's College of California.
  • A statue of Junípero Serra is one of two statues that represent the state of California in the National Statuary Hall Collection in the United States Capitol. The work of Ettore Cadorin, it depicts Serra holding a cross and looking skyward. In February 2015, State Senator Ricardo Lara introduced a bill in the California legislature to remove the statue and replace it with one of astronaut Sally Ride. In May 2015, some California Catholics were organizing to keep Serra's statue in place. California Governor Jerry Brown supported retaining it when he visited the Vatican in July 2015. On July 2, Lara announced that as a gesture of respect towards Pope Francis and people of faith, the vote on the bill would be postponed until the following year. Pope Francis canonized Serra as part of his September 2015 papal visit to the US.
  • The statue of Serra in Ventura, California, standing 9 feet, 4 inches, was displayed in front of Ventura City Hall between 1936 and 2020. The original concrete statue was declared Ventura Historic Landmark No. 3 in 1974. A bronze cast replaced the concrete statue in 1989. A wooden replica, created by local carvers, was put on public display in the atrium of Ventura City Hall in 1988. In 2020, city, church, and tribal leaders agreed to move it off public land. Upon city council approval, the bronze cast was placed in storage. Council also voted to remove the wooden replica from public display.
  • The Douglas Tilden statue of Serra, representing him as the apostolic preacher in a heroic scale, was toppled on June 19, 2020 at Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. The tear-down was part of a Juneteenth protest.
  • In 1899, Jane Elizabeth Lathrop Stanford, wife of Leland Stanford, governor and U.S. Senator from California, and a non-Catholic herself, commissioned a granite monument to Serra which was erected in Monterey in 1891.
  • When Interstate 280 was built in stages from Daly City to San Jose in the 1960s, it was named the Junipero Serra Freeway. A statue of Serra on a hill on the northbound side of the freeway in Hillsborough, California, points a finger towards the Santa Cruz Mountains and the Pacific. After the freeway's Peninsula segment was finished in the mid-1970s, Caltrans erected small nonstandard wooden signs at each end of the segment (near the interchanges with State Route 1 in Daly City and Foothill Expressway in Cupertino) to proclaim: "The Junipero Serra Freeway [¶] The World's Most Beautiful Freeway." During the 1980s and 1990s, both signs were visible to travelers between San Francisco and San Jose, but were severely damaged by car accidents during the 2000s and were not replaced. The only indicator of the signs' existence is that one of two support posts remains standing at both former locations.
  • A bronze statue of Serra standing over an outline of the State of California previously stood in the California State Capitol's Capitol Park. It faced a statue of Thomas Starr King, previously located in the National Statuary Hall Collection. It was later toppled by protestors on July 4, 2020.
  • A statue of Serra is located in the courtyard of Mission Dolores, San Francisco's oldest remaining building.
  • A life-size bronze statue of Serra, which was removed in June 2020, overlooked the entrance to Mission Plaza in San Luis Obispo, near the façade of Old Mission San Luis Obispo.
  • Statues or other monuments to Father Serra are found on the grounds of several other mission churches, including those in San Diego and Santa Clara. A statue on Serra Avenue was removed by the city of Carmel on June 24, 2020 for safekeeping after some other statues in California were removed by protestors.
  • A statue of Junipero Serra near the San Fernando Mission in the Mission Hills district of Los Angeles, California, was vandalized on August 17, 2017, as part of a larger movement to tear down monuments deemed offensive by activists.

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See also

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