The Father of California: Saint Junípero Serra

(The title of this artcile was changed from “…Blessed…” to “…Saint…” after the September 23, 2015 canonization of our subject by Pope Francis. The body text of the article has not been edited.)

“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.”

So wrote Blessed Junípero Serra in 1769, as he was on the journey which was to begin his most famous life’s work. Father Serra was at last entering new missionary territory. Now he would not only be maintaining missions, he would be founding them. It would seem to men that the previous fifty-four years of the life of this humble, zealous friar had been merely a preparation for the work he was about to begin.

Known to the world, at least to those in the world who know him,1 as the “Father of California,” Blessed Junípero Serra was born in Majorca,2 the largest of the Balearic Islands, which are found off the eastern coast of Spain in the western Mediterranean. Under Moorish rule from the seventh till the thirteenth centuries, they were liberated from the Moslem yoke by James I and became part of the Kingdom of Aragon in 1349. Later, they merged with the kingdom of Castile under the “Catholic Kings,” Ferdinand and Isabella, and have been under Spanish rule ever since. With a climate more temperate than Hawaii, its own Catalan dialect, and a long tradition of Catholicity, this little farming and fishing island has been hailed by travelers as “the Enchanted Isle.”

On November 24, 1713, there was born to Antonio and Margarita Serra their third child, the first to live past infancy. (A daughter, Juana Maria, would also survive.) Within a few hours, at the parish Church of San Pedro, the boy was baptized Miguel José. Later, husband and wife would make the short pilgrimage to the shrine of Nuestra Señora de Bon Any (Our Lady of the Good Year) and consecrate Miguel to her. Fifty-nine years later, this same little boy would write the following entry in the baptismal register of Mission San Carlos Borromeo, September 3, 1782: “I solemnly baptized a girl about thirteen years old, the daughter of pagans, and gave her the name ‘Maria de Buen Ano.’ This is the title by which Most Holy Mary is known in my beloved homeland.” (Buen Ano is the Spanish equivalent to the Majorcan Bon Any.)

Vocation in the Making

Little is known about Miguel’s childhood. Raised by devout parents, both Third Order Franciscans, he shared in the family chores, participated in the Church year (Holy Mass, feast days, processions, etc.), and, though sickly, he was not pampered or lazy, but self-sacrificing, used to hard work, and determined to do God’s will. All these factors combined to make the frail child, still of extremely diminutive height, good material to be an alter Christus (“another Christ”).


At the age of fifteen, Miguel went to the Majorcan capital, Palma, to be tutored for three months by the canon of the cathedral in studies supplementary to those supplied by the friars’ school in Petra, where he had learned Latin and acquired skill at Gregorian Chant. His schooling and the pious nurturing of his parents led the boy to conceive a strong desire to enter into the Franciscan Order, but, at fifteen, he was still too young. The tutoring was to pass time, test his vocation, and prepare Miguel to enroll as a student of philosophy at the Convent of San Francisco, where there was a school to prepare students for the priesthood, as well as for secular professions.

Novitiate and Profession

At the age of sixteen, Miguel José Serra officially applied to Fray Antonio Perello Morgues, the local provincial, for admission to the novitiate. Less than five feet tall and having a delicate frame, the boy was taken by the provincial for a twelve- or thirteen-year-old, and told to wait. When both the canon who had been Miguel’s tutor and some Franciscans pleaded his cause, Fray Antonio reconsidered and permitted the young man to enter the Convento de Jesus de Nuestra Señora de los Angeles, just outside the walls of Palma. On September 14, 1730, he received the pale blue (almost gray) Alcantarian habit of the Observant branch of the Friars Minor. This habit was a woolen, ankle-length habit with a cowl, a cord with three knots (for the three vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience), a woolen cape for cold weather, and simple leather or hempen sandals. Fray Serra himself writes about his novitiate:

“In the novitiate, I was almost always ill and so small of stature that I was unable to reach the lectern, nor could I help my fellow novices in the necessary chores of the novitiate. Therefore, the Father Master of Novices employed me solely in serving Mass daily. However, with my profession, I gained health and strength and grew to medium size [about 5’2″]. I attribute all this to my profession, for which I gave infinite thanks to God.”


At their profession, the brothers could choose to replace their baptismal name with that of a special patron saint. Miguel chose Blessed Brother Juniper, the “holy fool” who was one of Saint Francis of Assisi’s early followers, known for “his guileless simplicity and celestial mirth.” It is probable that he grew to love Blessed Juniper by reading about him in The Little Flowers of Saint Francis, which was part of the required novitiate reading. Fray Serra also acquired special devotion to two other Franciscans: Saint Francis Solano (“the Apostle of South America”) and Saint Bernardine of Siena (“the Apostle of Italy”). Miguel’s devotion to these three fellow Franciscans was crowned by a special devotion to Our Lady, especially under the title La Purissima Concepcion (the Immaculate Conception), a title that was to owe its dogmatic definition of 1854 largely to the thirteenth-century efforts of another Franciscan, Blessed Duns Scotus.

On September 15, 1731, one year after his entrance, Miguel made his profession and took his new name:

“I, Fray Junípero Serra, vow and promise to Almighty God, to the ever blessed Virgin Mary, to Blessed Father Francis, to all the saints, and to you, Father, to observe for the whole span of my life the rule of the Friars Minor confirmed by His Holiness, Pope Honorius III, by living in obedience, without property, and in chastity.”

“With the pronouncement of these words, Serra was a Franciscan for life. He vowed himself to be one of the trees in the forest of Saint Francis, striving for the hardiness and resilience of the juniper tree, undaunted by the worldly winds of adversity.”3 This day, when he gave himself completely to God, was the greatest of his life. Franciscans have the custom to renew their vows on April 16, the day their Order was given papal approbation, regardless of the date of their profession. No matter where he might be, Fray Junípero always celebrated this day with great solemnity.

Priest and Professor

“Leaving the novitiate house at the Convent of Jesus, Junípero moved to the Convent of San Francisco within the city walls. Here, in the center of medieval Palma close to cathedral and sea, he would spend the next eighteen years, first as a student and then as a professor of philosophy and theology. Ahead of him now were six years of study, three in philosophy and three in theology, before he could become a priest.”4 An excellent student, Fray Junípero had no trouble with his studies. He was ordained deacon, along with thirty-three others, on March 17, 1736, and two days later was given permission to preach. Fray Serra was not yet twenty-four when the rest of his group were ordained a year later, in May. He had to wait till Advent of that year (1737), when he had reached the canonical age to be ordained. He then had a two-year wait until, on February 21, 1739, he received faculties to hear confessions.

Fray Junípero Serra was made the librarian of the monastery for a year, then was assigned to teach philosophy. In his first three-year class were two young friars who would follow their teacher to the New World and become almost as famous as he. Both men were natives of Palma and had chosen to keep their baptismal names upon their professions: Fray Juan Crespí (the diarist, explorer, and naturalist of the Portolá expedition) and Fray Francisco Palóu (Fray Serra’s special friend and later biographer). While teaching, Fray Junípero himself pursued graduate studies in theology at the Ramón Lull University and received his doctorate in sacred theology in 1742. In 1743, not only was he invited to preach the Corpus Christi sermon at the cathedral (an honor not accorded to everyone), but he was also unanimously chosen to fill one of the two Duns Scotus chairs of sacred theology within the Lullian University.

During the next six years, Fray Serra’s name became well known. The sermons that he preached all over the island were his first active missionary efforts. The good friar “never lost the ability to touch his hearers, simplifying difficult theological concepts to make them understandable to all.”5 Probably his most famous sermon, which one critic thought was “worthy of being printed in letters of gold,” was given on the feast of Blessed Ramón Lull, January 25, 1749.

The Heart of a Missionary

Around 1748, the zealous preacher felt the desire to be a missionary in the New World, in which there was a renewed interest at this time. While some thought of the land across the Atlantic exclusively in terms of gold and riches, the Franciscan thought only of souls. Some time later, he would reveal his missionary impulse: “I have had no other motive but to revive in my soul those intense longings which I have had since my novitiate when I read the lives of the saints. These longings have become somewhat deadened because of the preoccupation I had with studies.” For the present, though, he held his peace and prayed to do God’s will. However, word leaked out – probably from a superior Fray Serra confided in – and several other friars became enthusiastic about the American missions. Rumors ran rampant, and when Fray Francisco Palóu told his teacher that he, too, wished to go on this mission, Fray Junípero responded: “I am the one who intends to make this long journey, and I have been sorrowful because I would have no companion for so long a journey; but I would not on that account turn back from my purpose. I have just finished making two novenas to the Most Pure Conception of Mary, Most Holy, and to Saint Francis Solano, asking them to bestir the heart of someone to go with me, if it were the will of God…”

Junipero Serra and the Legacies of the California Missions. Virginia Steele Scott Galleries, Erburu Wing. Aug. 17, 2013-Jan. 6, 2014. Copy of the portrait of Father Junipero Serra from Santa Cruz convent, Queretaro, by Father Jose Mosqueda, n.d. Oil on canvas, 32 x 26 1/2 in. Santa Barbara Mission Archive-Library. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

Junipero Serra and the Legacies of the California Missions. Virginia Steele Scott Galleries, Erburu Wing. Aug. 17, 2013-Jan. 6, 2014. Copy of the portrait of Father Junipero Serra from Santa Cruz convent, Queretaro, by Father Jose Mosqueda, n.d. Oil on canvas, 32 x 26 1/2 in. Santa Barbara Mission Archive-Library. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

The two friars promised each other to make their resolution known to nobody but their superiors. They sent a letter to the general of the Indies, Fray Matias de Velasco, in Madrid, asking permission for the two of them to become missionaries.

In Mexico City there was an Apostolic College, San Fernando, founded in 1734 for the purpose of training missionaries for the Indian missions. About the time Fray Palóu and Fray Serra sent their letter, an official representative from the College of San Fernando had arrived in Spain for the purpose of recruiting thirty-three candidates for the missions. The response the Majorcans received was rather discouraging: The names of Serra and Palóu would be remembered in case there were any unexpected vacancies. Because of past refusals from certain Majorcan superiors to provide missionaries, recruiters had formed the habit of looking elsewhere. This being the case, the contingent of thirty-three had already been found and were gathering in Cádiz, Spain, waiting to sail.

Fray Serra went to Petra to give a Holy Week mission. Both he and Fray Palóu prayed to do God’s will. When five of the thirty-three chosen friars changed their minds upon seeing the Atlantic and reflecting on the long voyage ahead, permission was sent to the two Majorcans to join the group. The letter of permission, Fray Francisco notes, was “lost somewhere between the friary’s portal and the cell I inhabited.” A second letter was sent by special envoy when the authorities received no reply to the first, and Fray Palóu went to Petra to tell Fray Serra the good news. Reporting on his teacher’s reaction, Palóu wrote: “The fact was for him a source of greater joy and happiness than if he had received a royal decree naming him to some bishopric.” Both men still kept the matter secret from the general public. After Easter Sunday and one last pilgrimage to Nuestra Señora de Bon Any, Fray Junípero bade his parents goodbye, but without telling them how much of a goodbye it really was. He would, before embarking from Cádiz, write them a letter of explanation.

Atlantic Crossing

On Low Sunday, April 13, 1749, the missionaries bade their brethren at San Francisco a tearful farewell. Fray Serra made a public confession of his faults and showed his humility and affection by kissing the feet of all the friars present, including the novices. The Father Guardian gave them his blessing, and the two went aboard a cargo ship that would take them to Malaga, where they would catch another boat to Cádiz. Fray Junípero Serra was thirty-five years old and Fray Francisco Palóu was twenty-six.

This voyage, the first on the open seas for the two Majorcans, lasted fifteen days. What could have been something of a retreat turned into a continuous battle with the English captain, who perhaps had been indulging in too much grog. Don DeNevi and Fr. Francis Moholy describe the trip, drawing from the authoritative biography by Fray Palóu:

“According to Palóu, the Englishman was ‘an obstinate heretic’ who had dabbled in theology. Despite the language barrier, he continually insisted on arguing religion; the two Franciscans scarcely had time alone enough to recite the Divine Office. Musty Bible in hand, the provocative sea captain argued his views, never realizing that Serra was an expert in sacred theology with five years’ experience examining doctoral candidates… In response to the captain’s passion for argument, Serra would quote chapter and verse from memory, suggesting the man look up the corresponding pages in the Bible. When this became too embarrassing for the captain, he replied that the pages must be missing. The captain became so irate that he threatened to throw Junípero and Francisco overboard and proceed directly to London. Palóu considered the threat serious. Serra had to remind the sour, cantankerous fellow that if he did not deliver the friars safely to Malaga, there would be international repercussions. ‘Our king would demand indemnity from your king, and you will pay with your head.’ One evening, the man became so furious he pulled his dagger and placed it at Serra’s throat, ‘apparently with the intention of taking his life.’ But the anger subsided, and the bully withdrew the knife and stalked off, leaving a torrent of abuse in his wake.”6

Fray Palóu, far more worried than his companion, spent a sleepless night, but they arrived safely in Malaga the following morning and in Cádiz two weeks later.

Four months were spent in Cádiz waiting for all the papers, plans, and supplies to be gathered. There were still several vacancies in the band of missionary candidates, so upon Fray Junípero’s request, three more Majorcans were added to the roster: Fathers Juan Crespí, Rafael Verger (who would become the superior at the College of San Fernando), and Guillermo Vicens. When everything was finally ready, on August 30, 1749, thirty-one Franciscans and a number of Dominicans set sail for Mexico – first stop: Puerto Rico!

Before they left, Fray Serra sent a letter for his parents to a fellow friar, Fray Francisco Serra (apparently no close relative), who was to read it to the family. Filial love and tenderness, as well as strong determination to do God’s will, marked the letter of this son whom they would not see again this side of Heaven.

Although the Atlantic crossing was a quick, uneventful one for those days, it was by no means comfortable. On board, there was very little space and less water; for, fearing that the water supply would give out in the October heat, the captain rationed the water to one small glassful per meal. Even with the generosity of a Majorcan sailor on board, the friars suffered from this circumstance. Fray Palóu recalled that, when a fellow-passenger asked Fray Serra about how he fared, he replied: “It does not bother me at all…. I have discovered an excellent remedy against thirst, and that is to eat less and talk less, and so save my saliva.” However, this did not prevent the mortified religious to exclaim at the end of the voyage, “Sometimes I would have drunk from the dirtiest puddle in the street; for a sip of water I would have done anything.”7

Since Fray Serra was never seasick, he said Mass every day, unless the waves were too high. As he made himself available to everyone, his priestly heart had plenty of opportunity to spend itself, especially in hearing confessions.

Puerto Rico

On the Feast of Saint Luke, October eighteenth, the weary, thirsty missionaries arrived at the port of San Juan, Puerto Rico, where there was an eighteen-day layover for supplies. The captain was supposed to supply them with provisions during this time, but upon arrival, he went back on the agreement and told the missionaries they would have to fend for themselves. He was so tightfisted, he did not even give them any chocolate! (Chocolate – a Spanish staple – and snuff tobacco were two provisions that even the very ascetic Fray Serra found it difficult to be without.) They probably fared better with the new arrangement, though, since the people took the friars to their hearts and provided for them generously.

That San Juan was as good a place as any to begin their apostolic work was apparently Fray Junípero’s impression, for without taking any time to rest, he announced: “Tomorrow, for the comfort of the inhabitants, we shall begin a mission which will last as long as our ship remains in port. I invite all to come tomorrow night to the cathedral, where it will commence.”

During the mission, which consisted of sermons, processions, and other spiritual exercises, the hardest work was to hear all the confessions, which sometimes lasted from three in the morning until midnight. Here, as elsewhere, Fray Serra showed his selfless zeal and charity. He also shows his humility, in deeming his sermons to be of no worth, while praising the sermons of the other friars enthusiastically: “Mine were chaff; theirs, gold and grain; mine, cold as snow; theirs, warm and ardent as fire; mine were dark as night; theirs, clear and cheerful as day.”

At the end of the eighteen days, having said Mass on the Feast of All Saints, the friars embarked on the month-long journey ahead through the islands and reefs of the Caribbean. On December second, a great storm arose and raged for two days. All thought they would perish. Throughout the nights of terror, Fray Junípero was very calm. When Palóu asked if he wasn’t afraid, Fray Serra replied that he was; but when he thought about why he had come, his fears were allayed. Upon someone’s suggestion, all the religious wrote the name of the saint in whom they had the most confidence, and placed the slips in a bowl (Fray Serra wrote the name of Saint Francis Solano, and Fray Palóu that of Saint Michael). A name was drawn, everyone looked: Viva Santa Barbara! The storm calmed down and they were able to continue towards Vera Cruz. It was on December fourth, the feast of Saint Barbara, and also the day of Saint Francis Xavier’s burial, that they so narrowly avoided shipwreck.

The ocean-weary mission band arrived at Vera Cruz on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. “The ship was leaking and without a mainmast, and the officers assured [the friars] that they could not have kept at sea a single day longer.”8 When the friars gathered for the Mass and sermon of thanksgiving (part of the promise to Saint Barbara for her intercession), the sermon was entrusted to Fray Serra’s “insignificant self,” as he said. Fray Palóu, however, writes that his sermon was most inspiring, narrating the wonders of God’s protection over their entire trip.

Vera Cruz was the gateway to Spanish territory in the Americas. El Camino Real, the King’s highway, formed a cross, running inland two hundred fifty miles to Mexico City (the intersection of the cross), then another two hundred miles south-southwest to the Pacific (at Acapulco), with the other branch running north and south from Santa Fe (now in New Mexico) over a thousand miles into Central America. (Blessed Junípero Serra would later be partially responsible for another branch of El Camino Real, north along the Pacific Coast.) Right now, however, Mexico City was the friars’ goal: over two hundred miles of a dirt path leading “through tropical forests, over arid plains and high plateaus, and across formidable mountains, with volcanoes, lakes and perennial snow.” Fray Serra and another friar decided to walk this unfamiliar trail in strict accordance with the Franciscan Rule, which stated that a friar “must not ride on horseback unless compelled by manifest necessity or infirmity.” The rest of the group came under the exceptions because they were either ill or verging on illness.

Down Mexico Way

With only their breviaries (for the recitation of the Divine Office), the two friars set out with complete trust in Divine Providence. They would beg their food and lodging from Indian and Spanish families along the way por amor de Dios – “for the love of God.” For fifteen days they walked, averaging fifteen miles a day. Later, Fray Serra would tell of several incidents from this trip. He told of someone coming along, from a great distance and at just the right time, to show them where to ford a river in their path. The same stranger provided the friars with shelter that night, after which they discovered ice on the road from a cold rain. The missionaries felt sure they would have died if not for the man’s timely generosity in answer to their prayer. Another time, just when the friars thought they would faint from heat and exhaustion, a man on horseback came by and gave them a few pomegranates which provided them with the strength to continue.

There was only one serious complication on their whole trip, but its effects would be felt for the rest of Fray Junípero’s life. “His left foot became swollen, and he was bothered by a burning itch, which he blamed on a mosquito bite. One evening, upon arriving at a small farm, he could barely walk or stand. His condition was so bad that he was forced to remain at the farm for an additional day. Half asleep in the night, he unconsciously rubbed the swollen foot, and in the morning, it was raw and bleeding. Palóu later identified the mosquito that stung Serra as the zancudo, a variety of Mexican mosquito whose sting can be fierce. Without the proper rest and medication, there can be serious complications. In Serra’s case, the result was an affliction that tormented him for the rest of his life.”9

A hobbling Fray Junípero and his companion finally arrived in Mexico City on December thirty-first. They fittingly began the new year by celebrating Mass at the shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe. They then traveled the last four-and-a-half miles to the College of San Fernando, where they were reunited with the other friars. On the quiet college grounds, surrounded by one hundred fourteen missionary friars, the group was supposed to spend a year of spiritual preparation, not unlike a second novitiate, before being assigned to the various missions in Central America.

Fray Junípero immediately showed his religious zeal. Giving himself only one day’s rest, he immediately fell in with the community routine, even asking to be allowed to stay with the novices (a request only partly fulfilled). Following the monastic Hours of Divine Office, “from midnight until two in the morning, the entire community chanted Matins and Lauds, said the litany, and spent an hour in meditation. A brief rest was then taken until around five when the new day began with Prime and the other canonical hours, private Masses, and the Mass for the whole community. Only at the conclusion of these Masses was a light breakfast of a roll and chocolate eaten… After this followed classes in the languages of Mexico’s Indian tribes, on methods of organizing and maintaining missions, or on theology. A noonday meal and a visit to the Blessed Sacrament preceded the siesta. The remainder of the day was occupied with Vespers, more studies, Compline, a litany, another hour of meditation until supper was served at seven, then more chanting followed by bed at eight. Seclusion of the friars was strictly observed… Recreation was taken in common on the patios or, when feasible, in walks outside the city. All wore habits of gray wool, woven from unbleached white and black fleeces…Here, then, were formed the missionary minds whose influence would one day be felt from Mexico to northern California. The goal of the training for apostolic missionaries was to become conditioned to privation, fatigue, and penance for the love of God and the sanctification of themselves and their neighbors. But even the best of them would not find it easy on the frontier. In later years, Serra would write from distant California that to the mission should come only those who were ready for extreme fatigue and misery; on that score he could offer them abundance.”10

Sierra Gorda

When Fray Junípero and his companions had been at the college for less than six months, the college guardian, Fray Velasco found himself forced to seek for volunteer missioners from the college. The field of labor was the Sierra Gorda missions, a half-moon of outposts in the rugged Sierra Gorda, one hundred fifty miles north of Mexico City, in the heart of the Sierra Madre mountain range. Fray Serra immediately volunteered, and with him several dozen others. A half dozen were chosen, including Fray Junípero and Fray Francisco Palóu. As before in Majorca, there were those in Mexico City who didn’t want to send Fray Serra away after having heard him preach, but Fray Velasco knew what he was doing. He even tried to appoint Fray Junípero as the president (prefect) of the Sierra Gorda mission, but Fray Serra, pleading his inexperience, talked him out of it. At last, in 1750, Fray Junípero Serra was going to the missions, and in the role he liked best: as a simple friar under obedience.

There were five missions in the Sierra Gordas (which district is sometimes called the Switzerland of Mexico), the main one being in Jalpan, founded in 1744. Here, in 1750, Fray Serra, with Fray Palóu as assistant, started his missionary labors among the Pame Indians. At the time Fray Junípero took over the adobe mission buildings roofed with cane, there were fewer than a thousand baptized Indians, and not one of them was making even his Easter duty. The Pames were not as fierce as the Apaches, but less friendly than the various Mexican Indians. They “liked to prowl around the mountains like animals,” and had none of the habits of civilization. The padres immediately set to work learning the language, and within a couple of months had translated the basic prayers and a catechism into the Indians’ language. With much prayer, example, instruction, and hard work, by the time Fray Serra was recalled to Mexico City eight years later, the Jalpan mission could boast of a large stone church, which took seven years to build, and could hold the entire congregation. And Jalpan was not the only Sierra Gorda mission under Fr. Serra’s guidance to build a stone church. More importantly, the Indians were practicing the Faith. The former savages reasoned, “If the good padre needs to go to confession, who am I to abstain?” To show how thoroughly they had given up their idolatry, the Pames gave their pagan goddess Cachum, “mother of the sun,” to the good padre.11

The Pames were being civilized, too, farming their own plots of land, trading their wares (such as sisal rope and fine palm mats) for cotton to spin and weave for clothing. They could sing the Mass (apparently more enjoyable for them than for any outside listener!) and the children performed plays about the Christ Child. Fray Serra had “used every means and method his apostolic zeal suggested…to install in the neophytes a great and tender devotion…[to] Our Lord, the Most Holy Virgin…to the Most Holy Patriarch Saint Joseph, to Our Seraphic Father Saint Francis and to [the other] saints.”12

Mexico City Again

On September 26, 1758, Fray Junípero returned to San Fernando, expecting to be sent to the new mission field of San Sabá (Texas), to work among the Comanche, replacing (with Fray Palóu) two missionaries recently martyred. Politics changed plans, however, and Fray Serra had to offer up his disappointment. For the next nine years he dedicated himself to the college and its preaching apostolate, while Fray Palóu was sent back to the Sierra Gorda as president.

The preaching apostolate of San Fernando College was no soft job. The college was a home base for several missions, some quite far away (as much as twenty days distant). Our missioner made his rounds among them, spending up to three months in one place. These missionary journeys were alternated with preaching assignments in Mexico City itself; therefore, Spaniard and Indian alike were to benefit from the burning zeal of this seraphic preacher. It is estimated that, from 1758 to 1767, Fray Junípero traveled over 5,500 miles – from the mining town of Zimapán and the desert villages of Mesquital, to the mountain dioceses of Guadalajara, Puebla, Oaxaca, and Valladolid, and to the Huasteca. And all that with his ulcerous foot.

To die to himself, to unite himself to the Passion of Our Lord, and as reparation for his sins and the sins of others, Fray Junípero, “was not content with the ordinary exercises of [San Fernando] in regard to acts of discipline, vigils, and fasts. He privately scourged his flesh with rough hair shirts, made either of bristles or with points of metal wire, with which he covered his body. He also took the disciplina [an iron and braided-wire scourge] unto blood during the most silent part of the night…He also did [public] penance for the sins of others. By strong censures he would move his listeners [during his sermons] to sorrow and penance for their sins; he struck his breast with [a] stone, in imitation of Saint Jerome; in imitation of Saint Francis Solano, to whom he was devoted, he used the chain to scourge himself; he used the burning torch…burning his flesh in imitation of Saint John Capistran and various other saints,”13 to show people the horror of sin and its punishments.

Mexico City was in need of such example. Wealthy and lazy, the ruling class was epitomized by the women who had to be served their cup of chocolate by their maids before leaving the church. Fray Serra loved chocolate (it was a bitter trial to have to drink coffee), but such indolence he could not stand. There is no record of whether or not he was able to completely stop the practice, although one would suspect he squelched it effectively. (He certainly didn’t share the same fate as a bishop among the Chiapas, who, having attacked this practice, was poisoned – with a cup of chocolate.)

Serving as novice master, and occasionally as Inquisitor Commissary, sought after as a confessor and retreat master, Fray Junípero became one of the most well known men in Mexico City, though he never visited anyone at home. Often, people would come to the college seeking him, only to find that he was off on another missionary tour.

On one of their trips, the friar and his companion were given a most extraordinary grace. On the thirty-two-day trip back to the college from La Huesteca, a man, his wife, and their Child gave them shelter in a small, poor, yet extremely tidy house. The next day, thanking their hosts, the friars continued on their way. A group of muleteers they met informed them there was “no house or ranch for many leagues.” Going back, the friars went to show them the house, but they found only the three cottonwoods that had sheltered it. Fray Serra and his companion “pondered not only the neatness and cleanliness of the house, despite its poverty, and the affectionate tenderness with which they dispensed their hospitality, but also on the extraordinary inner consolation which they had felt in their hearts.”14 They concluded that their poor hosts were none other than Jesus, Mary and Joseph, the Holy Family. Fray Palóu, who related the story, took pains to mention the worthy thanks that the friars gave for this grace.

Baja California

On June 24, 1767, there arrived a royal edict from the king of Spain, Carlos III, to the Viceroy of New Spain, expelling all Jesuits from Spanish territories and ordering the Franciscans to take over their missions. This joy for the Franciscans was the result of a tragic scandal in the Church of the eighteenth century: the suppression of the Jesuits (see sidebar, this page). The truly horrific nature of this act cannot be overstated. For one thing, it revealed corruption in very high places in so-called Catholic nations that they could pressure the pope, as they did, to placate the antichrist Masons who desired the suppression. For another, the loss of the valuable services of so great a missionary and teaching order was, in itself, bound to have an adverse effect on the Church and the world. It was under sad circumstances, then, that the Franciscans had opened up to them the missions of California. Some of those missions show the change of hands: the seals of both the Jesuit and Franciscan Orders can still be seen in them.

Fray Junípero was immediately recalled from the mission he was on and placed in charge of fourteen friars as the presidente of the fourteen Baja missions, with Fray Palóu to be second in charge. Although they left immediately (mid-July) for San Blas, whence they would sail north to Loreto, there were so many delays that they didn’t arrive in Baja California until Easter, 1768. It took some doing to pick up where the Jesuits had left off. The dwindling Indian population had scattered, despite the Jesuit Fathers’ injunctions to wait for the friars who would replace them. The land was utterly barren and lonely. So arid was the peninsula, described by the governor as “a lot of land strewn with thorns and thistles,” that before anything could be grown, the Jesuits had hauled dirt from the coast in baskets. The staple of everyone’s diet was the prickly pear cactus.

Loreto was the unpretentious capital of Baja California. Although Don Gaspar de Portolá, the governor, welcomed the friars warmly and immediately turned the church over to their care, he retained the living quarters for himself, leaving two small rooms for the friars who would be resident there. While he provided their meals, he charged the mission for them.15 Also, the friars were in charge only of the spiritual affairs of each mission; the Viceroy de Croix had ordered the temporal affairs, previously managed by the Jesuits, to be administered by soldiers under Portolá, making for a truly awkward situation.

Fortunately, the situation was quickly rectified by the arrival of the Visitador General, José de Gálvez, who, having more power than the Viceroy, was able to reassign all mission affairs into the hands of the friars. He also informed Fray Serra of Spain’s plans to safeguard the Alta California coast from Russian and English possession by establishing missions from San Diego Bay to Monterey Bay (claimed by Sebastián Viscaíno). Upon hearing this news, Fray Junípero had the bells rung and characteristically volunteered to go himself, an assignment his superiors formally gave him, under the title “presidente of all new missions.” The remainder of Fray Serra’s first year in charge of the Baja missions was spent in visiting all fourteen missions and preparing for the northward expedition. There were to be five separate parties: three by sea and two by land, to carry settlers, soldiers, friars, and supplies for the first three missions, slated to be San Diego, San Carlos Borromeo (Carmel) at Monterey, and San Buenaventura on the Santa Barbara Channel.

When Fray Junípero asked if there wasn’t to be a mission named after Saint Francis, Gálvez responded that if the saint wanted a mission named after him he would have to find a third port to bear his name, and there his mission would be built. He found it: Today, San Francisco Bay is the second most important harbor in the United States.

In one of his letters to the Viceroy, Gálvez writes: “In the charity and zeal of the apostolic ministers who are in charge of the missions of this peninsula, I have found all the cooperation necessary to satisfy my desires… They love the Indians with great charity and tenderness, nor do they lose sight of the public interest of the crown and its vassals.” Indeed, if Fray Junípero Serra had had his way, his “ladder of missions” would have extended all the way to Alaska! How different our American history would be had his holy desires been fulfilled!

The Ladder Goes Up

The entire “Sacred Expedition” – as the mission to Alta California was dubbed – was placed under the patronage of Our Lady of the Conquest, La Conquistadora. The Archbishop of Mexico City, Francisco Antonio Lorenzana y Butrón, donated a statue of Our Lady of Bethlehem for the missionaries to carry. The San Carlos and the San Antonio set out within a month of each other and were to wait for the overland parties in San Diego Bay, where the men under Ferdinand Rivera arrived, on May 14, to find both ships’ crews stricken with scurvy (twenty-seven men died before July). A third boat, the San Jose, was also sent, carrying supplies and most of the mission furniture, but it was lost at sea. Fray Serra was supposed to travel with the second expedition under Portolá, but his foot was so bad that he told Portolá to start without him and he would join the group later. Fray Junipero spent Easter at Loreto with Fray Palóu; when he left, he was so crippled he had to be lifted onto his mule.

Making his lonely way north, visiting the northern Baja missions as he went, on May first, he caught up with the Portolá expedition at the northernmost mission of Santa Maria. After a two-day journey from this last mission, at Velicatá, he founded his first new mission, San Fernando, on Pentecost Sunday, May 14, 1769. Here, at this bridge between the old and the new missions, he assigned Fray Miguel de la Campa. It was several days before the Indians began to show up, but when they did, the friars knew they were definitely in new missionary territory. Fray Junípero writes: “Then I saw what I could hardly begin to believe…namely that they go entirely naked, like Adam in paradise before the fall…” In rectifying this situation, the first steps towards Christian civilization were made. Presents were exchanged, the Indians were told to come to Fray de la Campa for anything they needed, but not under any circumstances were they to steal from him.16 Then the expedition north continued.

At this point, Fray Junípero’s foot became so swollen and infected he was afraid he would have to be carried in a stretcher. All attempts to make him turn back were unsuccessful (this is when the letter opening this article was written). Seeing that he would become a burden to the company, the priest asked one of the muleteers, Juan Antonio Coronel, for help. Coronel applied a poultice of herbs and fat with such effective results that everyone considered the recovery miraculous, at least in part. Fray Serra wrote to Fray Palóu: “I left the frontier in a very bad condition with regard to my foot and leg; but God brought it about that… I was enabled to make the daily trek just as if I did not have any ailment. At present my sore foot is as clean as my well one, but from the ankles halfway up the knee it is in the same condition as my foot was. It is all one sore. However, there is no swelling, but only the itching which I feel at times. In short, there is nothing to cause concern.”

It took the expedition another month and a half to reach San Diego, during which time they met many Indians, some friendlier than others. More territory was named and mapped. Because of the men and boys’ lack of clothing, Fray Junípero had been rather worried about how the Indian women would appear, but his fears were put to rest. “Until now we had not seen any women among them; and I desired for the present not to see them, when amid these fiestas [one group of Indians put on a mock battle for the Spaniards’ entertainment] two women appeared, talking as rapidly and effectively as [all women] know how and [are] accustomed to; and when I saw them so decently clothed…I was not sorry at their arrival.” In another place, he writes that he wishes the European ladies were as modest. The Indians truly stole his heart, “I can not find words to describe their affability.”

Others, with less supernatural prejudice in favor of the Indians, saw them as “the most shameless and insistent beggars …full of latent mischief…an inert and spineless race…[with] sluggish minds free from supernatural terrors as well as from the occasional lofty conceptions common to the Indians of the north.”17 But, “if they lacked the intelligence and serious dignity of the Iroquois, they lacked also their abnormal delight in cruelty. If they were seldom picturesque and never impressive, they were as a rule friendly, and, when well treated, grew affectionate. If they had no clan organization and no sense of loyalty, they forbore to quarrel among themselves. Palóu affirms that their family relations and their social relations were equally peaceful.”18

While these Indians of Upper California stole Fray Junípero’s heart, they also tried to steal more removable possessions. Fray Serra noted that, if he gave them all the cloth they wanted (i.e., his habit), he would be surrounded by a large community of pagan Franciscans. They also wanted to examine his spectacles, which passed from hand to hand before disappearing. “God knows what it cost me to recover them,” he said. He did finally find them in the possession of an Indian woman who wanted them for an ornament. The petty thefts common to these Indians would show up again and again, giving ample testimony to the friars’ patience. “It was on the whole easier to Christianize than to civilize these tribes of the Golden West. Civilization implied work, domestic bondage, a settled habitation, a round of duties, clothing in hot weather, a half-hearted approach to cleanliness, and various other unwelcome obligations.”19 Easy living is almost always a stumbling block to conversions; this can be seen especially in our society today. However, zeal, applied in large quantities, can be most effective. Fray Junípero wrote: “What I should like to be able to do is to affix to their hearts the words, ‘Put you on the Lord Jesus Christ.’ May the most provident Lord and heavenly Father Who clothes the little birds in feathers, and the fields with grass, grant that my wish be accomplished in their regard.”

San Diego

On July 1, the Portolá expedition – and with it, our beloved Blessed – arrived at San Diego Bay and reunited with the other contingents. “It was a day of great rejoicing and merriment for all…Thus was our arrival in health and happiness and contentment at the famous and desired Port of San Diego. Thanks be to God.” It should be recalled that the purpose of this expedition, at least from the perspective of the civil authorities, was to establish presidios – fortified settlements – in San Diego and Monterey, thus securing what Spain had already claimed over 160 years earlier. The arrival at San Diego Bay accomplished half of this goal.

As with the French and Spanish colonial efforts elsewhere in the New World, the missionaries in the Sacred Expedition were part of a colonial effort on the part of their civil government. The same methods had brought St. Francis Xavier to India. It should not surprise us that a Catholic State would consider evangelizing a region an integral part of its colonization. The presidios that Spain was founding in California were military garrisons and missionary foundations at the same time. While the missionaries took advantage of this larger expedition to gain entry to an area, their eventual goal was to establish a mission off the grounds of the garrison. While the civil authorities did not always act by the highest motives, neither Fr. Serra’s missions, nor the Jesuit missions in Canada and New York of the previous century (which gave us the North American Martyrs) would have been a reality without them. (It should be said, in their defense, that the civil authorities often did act from good motives.) Because of this civil-ecclesiastical partnership, the activities of the missionaries were largely dictated by the maneuvers of the civil authorities. This sometimes caused friction.

Despite the depleted numbers due to scurvy, the decision was made to send the San Antonio back to San Blas for more men and supplies. Portolá (with Fray Crespí and Fray Gómez) would continue the search by land for Monterey, and a few soldiers would stay with Fray Serra and Fray Parrón. The supplies that the San Antonio was to bring would eventually be needed for the very life of the expedition.

Mission San Diego, named after Saint Didicus (a Franciscan lay-brother sacristan, d.1463, Alcála, Spain), was founded on the feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, July 16, 1769. The cross was raised, the bells were rung, but the first months were unrewarding. When the novelty of the newcomers wore off, the Indians attacked, killing one Christian Indian boy and wounding a friar and the blacksmith. After this, the Indians were friendlier; they even agreed to allow Fray Junípero to baptize one of their infants. At the last minute, though, an Indian snatched the baby and fled. Fray Junípero was to mourn this soul for the rest of his life.

In January, the Monterey expedition returned, having found San Francisco Bay and the site of future Los Angeles, but missing Monterey. By March, the San Antonio was not yet back, and Portolá was ready to give the whole project up rather than let his men starve. Fray Junípero pleaded for time, and finally convinced him to wait until a novena to Saint Joseph was made. If the supplies did not arrive by then, they would go home. There was no sign of a ship for the next nine days, which were probably the most anxious of Fray Serra’s life. The soldiers began packing for the trek back. On March 19, Fray Junípero said a High Mass to end the novena. Around three in the afternoon, a sail was sighted, and soon the San Antonio sailed into the harbor. Everyone was overjoyed, and Fray Serra was so grateful, he said a High Mass on the nineteenth of every month for the rest of his life in thanksgiving to Saint Joseph.


With the arrival of supplies, the first priority was to find Monterey. Fray Crespí would again travel with Portolá’s land expedition, and Fray Serra would go by sea. Fray Gómez and Fray Parrón were left in charge of mission San Diego. This time there were no difficulties, and no loss of life or health (except for several sailors who got scurvy). Monterey Bay was found on Ascension Thursday. The San Antonio arrived after an uncomfortable journey, on June first. Three days later, Pentecost Sunday, Mission San Carlos Borromeo was founded.

On June 9, the San Antonio sailed away to tell the good news in Mexico City, leaving Lieutenant Pedro Fages as commandant at the Monterey presidio. This young man was the perfect example of someone who lets a little power go to his head. While he bowed down to his superiors in a servile manner, he was a tyrant in regard to his inferiors. Once, Blessed Junípero had to put an end to a mutiny of some of Fages’ men. Fages “wanted the savages civilized and made good subjects of the King of Spain…and he recognized that their Christianization was a part of this process. But what he and his successors looked upon as a means to an end, the padres regarded as an end in itself; in fact, ends and means were in this case more or less transposed, the missionaries being primarily concerned with the salvation of souls, but fully acknowledging that civilization (in the sense of civil and military authorities) was a method of bringing about the spiritual object.”20 Fages did make himself a bit of a hero during a famine in 1772, but for the most part he was a real stumbling block to the friars.

The problems that Fages caused for Blessed Junípero were not unlike those many trials that St. Paul had in his missionary journeys. Thanks be to God that the Franciscan, like the Apostle before him, saw the benefits of suffering for the Gospel’s sake. The fruits of this were forthcoming. He was able to write: “All the missionaries grieve – we all grieve – over the vexations, labors, and reverses we have to put up with. No one, however, desires to leave his mission. The fact is, labors or no labors, there are several souls in heaven from Monterey, San Antonio, and San Diego.”

Mission San Carlos was temporarily run at the presidio, until the permanent mission could be moved five miles away, near the Carmelo River. Meanwhile, Fray Serra performed his first baptism in Upper California, a five-year-old boy: Bernardino de Jesús, on December 26, 1770. By the following May, twenty more Indians were baptized. That same month, the San Antonio returned with ten new missionaries and the first mail Fray Junípero had had for two years. With this mail came fresh orders from the College of San Fernando: Mission San Carlos could now be moved away from the presidio and other missions founded.21

More Missions

Fray Serra himself founded Mission San Antonio de Padua, a five-day journey from Monterey, on July 14, 1771, and, with his written directions, Mission San Gabriel Archangel was founded two months later by Fray Angel Somera and Fray Benito Cambón. (The site of this mission later became the city of Nuestra Señora de los Angeles – Our Lady of the Angels – now shortened to “Los Angeles.”) A year later, news was sent that the long overdue supplies would have to be carted to Carmel and San Antonio, since contrary winds kept the supply ship from proceeding past the Santa Barbara Channel. Commander Fages and Fray Junípero, along with a few soldiers, another friar, and a ten-year-old Indian servant named Juan Evangelista José, left Monterey to travel to San Diego to arrange for the supplies to be hauled. This was Fray Serra’s first overland trip along the five-hundred-mile El Camino Real. It was not to be his last. On the way, Fray Junípero raised the cross for California’s fifth mission, San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, on September 1, 1772. Fray Cavaller was left in charge with a four-man guard.

In Journeying Often

This trip was very valuable for the future missions. Sites were picked out, and Fray Serra dreamed of his ladder of missions, one day’s journey from each other. It was also Fray Junípero’s first visit to mission San Gabriel Archangel. He wrote that it was “without doubt the most excellent mission site so far discovered. Once it is sufficiently developed, it will be able, doubtless, to sustain not only itself but all the rest.” He was very pleased with the seven or eight Indian orphans the friars had taken in: “precious creatures, one of whom spoke Spanish beautifully.” The Indian languages were a great obstacle for the friars, one that was best overcome by teaching the Indians Spanish (the first lesson was always Amor a Dios, “Love God”, and this became an official greeting between Spanish and Indians, Christian or pagan!). The Indian children, knowing their own language and picking up Spanish quickly, were of tremendous assistance as translators.

Upon his arrival at San Diego, arrangements were immediately made to send relief supplies to the northern two missions. Fray Serra, however, did not return north immediately; instead he turned south. Someone needed to go Mexico City to lay the troubles between the soldiers and the friars before the new Viceroy, Chevalier Antonio Mariá Bacareli. With Juan Evangelista as his companion, Fray Junípero set out to travel the two thousand miles to Mexico City. “This trip to Mexico has broken me down considerably, since with the fatigue of the journey, [we] arrived in the city of Guadalajara burning with fever. A few days later, I was advised to receive the Last Sacraments, and was in real danger. Later on, the fever turned into an intermittent one, and I continued on my trip in that condition. On arriving at Querétaro I was again so ill, that they, too, advised me to receive the Last Sacraments. But in a short time I recovered, and finally I arrived…. It was some time before I recovered my strength, and I suffered much from loss of appetite.”

His companions at San Fernando College described him as a “lion, giving in only to fever, for none of the ailments that constantly afflict him, especially shortness of breath, chest pains, and sores on his legs and feet, have ever kept him from his apostolic duties…. For the austerity of his life, his humility, charity and other virtues, he is truly worthy to be counted among the imitators of the Apostles.”22

When Fray Junípero was well enough, he visited Viceroy Bucareli, who asked him to submit his case in writing. Fray Serra did so, outlining California’s needs and problems in a thirty-two point Representacíon. The viceroy was so impressed that he “constituted himself judge, jury, attorney and patron of the cause.”23 The result of the meeting with Bucareli was that Fray Serra walked away with more of a victory than he had sought. New laws were codified, which took effect January 1, 1774. These laws “provided for expansion of the mission system, placement of Indian welfare exclusively under missionary control… redefined presidio-mission relations, increased the supply and distribution of food, animals, supplies, and mail, and encouraged Mexican emigration.” Armed with this assistance, Fray Junípero returned to California.

His desire to serve God in the California missions can be summed up in this one statement of his: “California is my life and there I hope to die.”

Off and Running

During his absence, the administration of the Baja missions had been turned over to the Dominicans, thus relieving the Franciscans of that responsibility. This put more missionaries at Fray Serra’s disposal for the Upper California missions. It also reunited him with his beloved Fray Palóu, who would be his second in charge. Mission San Diego had been moved, both for agricultural reasons and to be separated from the presidio. Captain Juan Baptista de Anza was exploring an overland route to bring a whole group of colonists into California. In 1776 – the year the American Colonies rebelled ­- de Anza brought almost two hundred settlers overland from Sonora, Mexico, to start the colony of San José, near mission San Francisco. Mission San Carlos (Carmel) had increased the number of baptisms to seventy-five, which Fray Serra doubled in the next two months. The missions were at last “off and running.”

Rivera had replaced Fages at Monterey, but things still did not run smoothly. Harboring a grudge for non-existent slights of two years before, he wouldn’t give the go-ahead for the founding of the next mission until 1775; and then, the same day San Juan Capistrano was founded, news arrived that Indians had attacked San Diego, killed Fray Jayme, and burned the mission. Rivera insisted that the Indians be punished before the mission be rebuilt or any new ones founded. Fray Junípero, when he heard the news of the martyrdom, wrote: “I would welcome such a fate, with God’s grace and favor…Thanks be to God, now indeed the land has been watered [by a martyr’s blood]; certainly now the conversion of the San Diego Indians will be achieved.” It took a year of political maneuvers, but finally a pardon was obtained for the Indians, and in particular for Carlos, the baptized Indian who led the revolt. “Great was our joy when we obtained a general amnesty…. Because of our love of God, we set them free, so that they might [having repented] lead better lives.”

Mission San Diego was rebuilt, and was to be the first mission to reach one thousand baptisms. On April 17, 1784, Fray Junipero wrote to Fray Lasuén, who performed the thousandth baptism at San Diego: “I had a notion of excusable, self-complacency, that I would be among the four who were close to the mark [Missions Carmel, San Diego, San Gabriel, and San Antonio] to reach that mile stone. But hail to San Diego! Here we are still eight short of reaching a thousand. But I am consoling myself with the thought that we will reach the mark that San Diego reached in March. But in either case, may the glory and honor be God’s alone!” On June 3, 1784, he performed Carmel’s thousandth baptism, naming the Indian: Millan Deogratias. “Millan” is after Saint Emillian Cucullatus, but is close to millar, Spanish for “one thousand.” Put together with Deogratias, which is a saint’s name literally meaning “Thanks be to God,” there is an obvious play on words: “A thousand thanks be to God!”

New missions were established: San Francisco de Asís (October 9, 1776), San Juan Capistrano (re-founded November 1, 1776), Santa Clara de Asís (January 12, 1777), and San Buenaventura (March 31, 1782). The missions grew and prospered, in spite of the constant friction with civil authorities, who made everything an argument: even Fray Junípero’s patent from Pope Clement XIV, granting the right to administer the Sacrament of Confirmation. “The Indians were formed to every trade, and each mission yearly sent off its cargoes of surplus products and manufactures, to receive in return the necessary European goods. This prosperity constantly attracted new-comers, who were in time trained to the life of the mission. The wealth of these missions…shows how great the progress of the Indians had been.”24

Patiently and energetically bearing everything, even the temporary censure of his own Order, and in spite of his failing health, Fray Serra traveled up and down the coast, confirming, encouraging, and writing letters upon letters to benefit his Indians and the friars working for them. In 1783, despite constant chest pains and his troublesome leg, Fray Junípero made a last round of the missions before his patent to administer Confirmations was to run out. “I consider this to be my last journey. May God be pleased to let me finish it, if it be His holy will.”

“To be with Christ”

On May 26, 1784, with his confirmations totaling 5,308, his baptisms over 6,000 in California alone (over 10,000 had been baptized under his presidency), Fray Junípero Serra came home to Mission San Carlos to die.

The last months before his death were spent in work, despite his “worn-out body.” Doctors’ remedies, which all his life he had avoided, only increased his pain, but he bore them with continual patience and cheerfulness. In June, he performed his last marriage; in July, his last Confirmation, Extreme Unction and burial; on August 2, 1784, he administered his last baptism; on August 8, he wrote his last letter. This letter ended: “What I appreciate most of all are the prayers to Our Immaculate Queen so that we may achieve success, and afterwards, Heaven.”

Because of the imminence of Serra’s death, Fray Palóu was called from San Francisco. When he arrived, however, hearing Fray Junípero’s strong voice, Palóu doubted that his teacher and confrere was so close to death. A soldier, who had known Fray Serra since 1769, assured the doubting friar: “There is no basis for hope: he is ill. The saintly priest is always well when it comes to praying and singing, but he is nearly finished.”

The next day, Fray Palóu had to sing the monthly High Mass in honor of Saint Joseph because Fray Serra was too weak, although he sang with the Indian choir. On the twenty-fourth, he was still working, making garments for the Indians. He gave half the blanket from his plank bed to an Indian woman who had stolen chickens in the early days of the mission.

Two days later, he was much weaker and made his last confession to Fray Palóu, who continues the story: “As soon as morning dawned on the 27th I went to visit him and found him with his breviary in his hands, since it was his custom always to commence Matins before daybreak… He said he would like to receive the Most Holy Viaticum, and that for this he would go to church. When I told him that it was not necessary…that the Divine Majesty would come to visit him, he said no, that he wanted to receive Him in church, since if he could walk there, there was no need for the Lord to come to him.”

Joining a procession of Indians and soldiers, Fray Serra walked unaided to the chapel, intoned the Tantum Ergo, and received the Blessed Sacrament. No one else’s eyes were dry: “Some shed tears from devotion and tenderness, others out of sadness and sorrow,” wrote Fray Palóu, “because they feared they would be left without their beloved father.” The rest of the day, Fray Junípero spent in his cell in meditation; but that evening he got worse, and the Last Sacraments were administered.

He did not sleep that night, but at dawn he appeared relieved and greeted the officers and chaplain of a visiting ship. Fray Junípero asked to be buried in the chapel next to Fray Crespí, who had died in 1782. That same day, he promised, “If the Lord in His infinite mercy grants me eternal happiness, which I do not deserve because of my sins and faults, that I shall pray for all and for the conversion of so many whom I leave unconverted.” Suddenly, a great fear came upon him, which left when Fray Palóu recited the prayers for the dying. The visitors left, and Fray Junípero said to his former pupil, “Now let us rest.” It was siesta time and he had not slept for thirty hours.

Fray Palóu left, but came back shortly thereafter to find him “just as we had left him a little before, but now asleep in the Lord, without having given any sign or trace of agony, his body showing no other sign of death than the cessation of breathing; on the contrary, he seemed to be sleeping. We piously believe that he went to sleep in the Lord a little before two in the afternoon, on the feast of Saint Augustine…and that he went to receive in Heaven the reward of his apostolic labors.”

The bells rang out the news to the entire mission: Fray Palóu writes that “many Indians came weeping over the death of their beloved father who had begotten them anew in the Lord and who was more esteemed by them than if he had been their natural father.”

The “Father of California” was buried the following day in Mission San Carlos, where his remains are to this day. In 1985, two hundred and one years after his death, Fray Junípero Serra was declared Venerable, and, in 1988, Blessed. “In Fray Junípero Serra…we find a shining example of Christian virtue and the missionary spirit,” said the Holy Father on that occasion.25 Let us pray that through his intercession, Our Lord and His Immaculate Mother will send more such workers into the vineyard: California, America, and the whole world!

This article was originally published in From the Housetops with two sidebars: One, called A Letter Home And one called The Jesuit Suppression

1 This may seem unbelievable, but, as of last year and within a few miles of Mission San Diego, there were residents who knew nothing either of the mission or the life of Father Serra, to say nothing of his religious / historical importance to the metropolis in which they lived. They certainly couldn’t give directions.


2 Or Mallorca, either way, pronounced Mah-YOR-kah.

3 Junípero Serra – The Illustrated Story of the Franciscan Founder of California’s Missions, Don De Nevi, Ed.D. and Noel Francis Moholy, S.T.D., O.F.M., Harper and Row Publishers, 1985, page 18.

4 Ibid, page 20.

5 Ibid, page 24.

6 Ibid, page 31.

7 The Long Road of Father Serra, Theodore Maynard, Appleton-Century-Crofts, Inc, 1954, page 48.

8 Ibid, page 54.

9 Junípero Serra – The Illustrated Story of the Franciscan Founder of California’s Missions, page 43.

10 Ibid, pages 45-46.

11 Fray Junípero Serra was made a commissary of the Inquisition for all of New Spain in 1752. Idolatry was strictly forbidden, but no one was ever forced to become a Catholic. The willing presentation of the idol shows how deeply Fray Serra had won their confidence.

12 Palóu’s Life of Fray Junípero Serra, pages 29-31, cited in Junípero Serra – The Illustrated Story of the Franciscan Founder of California’s Missions, page 43.

13 Ibid, page 209.

14 Ibid, page 46.

15 The missions of the Californias were supported by the Pious Fund, started by the Jesuits and funded by devout people who wished to support the missions.

16 Before this mission was abandoned (in 1821) 3,017 baptisms, 759 marriages, and 2,157 burials were recorded. Nothing but adobe ruins remain.

17 Junípero Serra, Agnes Repplier, All Saints Press, 1962, pages 35, 57.

18 Ibid, page 115.

19 Ibid, page 58.

20 The Long Road of Father Serra, pages 145, 163.

21 The present mission is the restored stone church built in 1797, after Father Serra’s death. It was the seventh church, replacing the previous adobe structures that were redone every couple of years.

22 Palóu’s Life of Fray Junípero Serra, page 415.

23 Ibid, page 140.

24 Trials and Triumphs of the Catholic Church in America, Professor P. J. Mahon and Rev. J. M. Hayes, S.J., J. S. Hyland & Company, 1907.

25 Beatification sermon, Pope John Paul II, September 25, 1988, Saint Peter’s Basilica, Rome.