On Nov. 24, 1713, Miquel José Serra was born in the island town of Petra, Mallorca, off the coast of Spain. His parents were deeply religious and Miquel attended a Catholic school in town run by members of the Franciscan order. The Franciscans were founded by St. Francis of Assisi. St. Francis was known for his devotion to the poor. Miquel was a bright boy and his teachers encouraged him to further his studies in the capital city, Palma. There Serra flourished and through studying and working at the cathedral decided to join the Franciscans and study to become a priest. As a way to emphasize that he was undertaking a new way of life, he decided to take a new name. Miguel chose Junípero, in honor of one of the first companions of St. Francis.
As a young priest, Junípero focused on studying and teaching. He became of professor of theology and lived a comfortable life in Mallorca. At some point in his 30’s, he became dissatisfied with academics. Similar to the St. Francis who abandoned his wealth to help the poor, Serra left his comfortable life to travel to the Americas to become a missionary. A missionary is a person sent on a religious mission, especially one to promote Christianity in a foreign country. Many people left Europe and traveled to America for many reasons. Fr. Serra did so for one reason. He wanted to spread Catholicism to the indigenous people of the Americas.
The trip was dangerous. Many people did not survive the voyage across the Atlantic Ocean but Fr. Serra was lucky and arrived in New Spain (Mexico) in 1749. As a way of preparing for what he knew would be a very difficult life as a missionary, Serra got off the boat and walked the 250 miles on foot to Mexico City. During this journey, an insect bit Serra and his leg became very inflamed. Since he did not believe in using medicine, the wound didn’t heal and hurt Serra for the rest of his life.
Serra spent eight years working as a missionary among the Pame Indians about 200 miles north of Mexico City. He preached and translated Christian prayers into the people’s native language. He was a humble man and treated the natives he encountered with respect. He wanted them to become Christians but he knew it would take patience and hard work to earn their trust.
At this time the Spanish government controlled all of South and Central America as well as much of what is now the southwestern part of the United States. But much of the land in northern Mexico and the American Southwest was not settled with Spanish people. The people that lived and worked the land were various Native tribes. They had their own languages and customs and had lived on the land for thousands of years.
After Father Serra had been in Mexico for 18 years, the Spanish government decided that it wanted to settle more Spanish people in these areas. Their intent was to first teach the Native people how to farm and live like the Spanish people did. They felt that they were a very successful country and that the Indians ought to become more like them.
Since Spain was a Catholic country, part of Spain’s plan when colonizing was to also spread Catholicism. Father Serra agreed to travel to Alta California and make the initial encounter with the native people and teach them about Catholicism. He also agreed to teach them about farming and the Spanish way of life. Father Serra was very excited for this opportunity to be a missionary in these areas that were very far away from Mexico City. It is why he traveled to the Americas and he was determined to build missions and spread his religion.
The first mission Father Serra founded in California was San Diego de Alcalá in 1769. For the next 15 years he traveled up and down the California coast and founded eight more missions. He worked hard to convert the native people to Christianity as well as educate them and introduce farming practices to them. It was not an easy job. Many native people were scared of the Spanish and could not communicate with them. Father Serra tried to earn their trust by giving them food and showing them beautiful paintings that depicted Catholic saints. He hoped they would learn that the message of Christianity was a good one and would help them.
Father Serra’s intent was never to harm or hurt the native people. Unfortunately many of the Spanish people who traveled with him carried germs and diseases to which the native people of California had never been exposed. Since the native people were not yet immune to these diseases, many eventually died from them.
Father Serra also tried to make things better for the native people. He constantly stood up for them with the Spanish government and worked to have laws made that would protect them. He honestly felt that as Spain settled the area the Indians would be more prosperous and happy in missions than they would be than if soldiers or settlers started to come and just make the natives work for them or just push them out of the area.
Many native people appreciated Serra and the missions but the many others did not. They saw their way of life being changed and did not understand why this had to happen. They did not like it. Serra understood this and tried to show these native people how their lives would get better if they stayed inside the missions. He deeply believed that by baptizing native people he was enabling them to go to heaven, since he felt that he was on a mission from God, his enthusiasm for the missions that he established never weakened.
Father Serra died at his headquarters, the Carmel mission, in 1784 when he was 70. He is buried in the mission’s church.
Source: Junipero Serra: California, Indians and the Transformation of a Missionary- Rose Marie Beebe and Robert Senkewicz