The founder of nine Spanish missions in California, Father Junipero Serra can truly be considered one of the early founders of the American West coast.Serra was born to a poor family in Petra, Majorca, Spain. /An unimposing figure of small stature, the leaders of the Franciscan order hesitated before finally accepting him in 1730.
Serra soon displayed his intellectual prowess, however. A great orator, he rose to become a professor of moral philosophy, and seemed to have unlimited potential to advance within the order in his native Spain.
However, Serra was possessed by one burning desire—to convert souls to Christianity. In 1749, he voluntarily gave up his teaching position and set out for the Spanish colonies in the New World. Serra arrived at Mexico City in 1750.
His first assignment as a missionary was among the natives of the Sierra Gorda region, northeast of Queretaro. He labored there for nine years, then returned to Mexico City, where he served as a preacher and confessor.
During the 1760s, under the rule of King Carlos III, Spain began to revitalize its overseas empire. When the Jesuits were expelled from Spain and its imperial possessions in 1767, the Franciscans stepped forward to take their place. In 1769, Serra was named “Father President” of the new Franciscan missions to be established in modern-day California.
In 1769, Serra and five of his fellow Franciscans went north with Gaspar de Portola as Spain attempted to civilize and Christianize Upper California. On July 16, 1769, Serra and his fellows founded—at San Diego— the first of their nine missions.
When Portola returned to Mexico, Serra remained in California. He went on to establish missions at San Carlos Borromeo, San Antonio, San Gabriel, San Luis Obispo, San Francisco de Assisi, San Juan Capistrano, Santa Clara, and San Buenaventura.
As impressive as this might have appeared, in reality these locations were struggling hamlets, created by a handful of friars who wanted to bring their faith to thousands of Native Americans.
The conversion process moved very slowly. However, by the end of 1783, there were more than 6,800 baptized Native Americans living in the missions. Serra continued his life’s work until the very end, even in failing health, traveling frequently to the different missions and working himself harder than he worked anyone else.
In his dedication and solemnity, Junipero Serra was a giant figure in Spain’s quest to bring Christianity to the New World.