Father Junipero Serra – The founder of the California Missions

statue of Father Junipero Serra

Junipero Serra

Father Junipero Serra, OFM (1713-1784), acknowledged as the “founder of California”, accomplished this by establishing the mission system. From this beginning, the cities, roadways and economy of present day California have their source.

A Portrait of Junipero Serra

2013 marked the tercentenary of the birth of this man who, without a doubt, has been the most influential person in the shaping of the state of California.

Monuments, statues and plaques throughout the state attest to this fact. Streets, parks and mountain peaks all bear his name.

There is controversy about Father Serra as well. Whether he was a cruel enslaver of natives or a holy and benevolent evangelizer depends a lot on how one views religion in general and the Catholic Church in particular.

I will not add to the controversy here. The purpose of this page rather is to shed a bit of light for those unfamiliar with his story and the role that Junipero Serra played in the founding of California. Then will all the markers, place names and monuments begin to make sense to a visitor to Central California.

If you would like an interesting reflection on the controversy, click on my California Missions page here.

Junipero Serra Quick Facts:

Date of birth: November 24, 1713

Birth Place: Town of Petra, Mallorca (Majorca), Spain

Name at birth: Miguel Jose Serra

Name taken upon entering the Franciscan Order: Junipero; Juniper was one of St. Francis of Assisi’s original companions.

Education: Theology at Lullian University, Palma, Mallorca

Religious Organization: The Franciscan Order of the Catholic Church

Profession: Catholic priest; professor of theology; presidente of the mission system in Baja California (1750-1768); then presidente and founder (1769-1784) of the mission system in Alta California (present day California)

Missions founded: San Diego (1769); San Carlos Borromeo or Carmel Mission (1770);  San Antonio de Padua (1771); San Gabriel Arcangel (1771); Mission San Luis Obispo (1772); San Francisco de Asis (1776); San Juan Capistrano (1776); Santa Clara de Asis (1777); San Buenaventura (1782).

Headquarters: Carmel Mission

Date of death: August 28, 1784 at age 70

Place of death: Carmel Mission

Place of burial: The sanctuary of Mission Carmel

Current status in the Catholic Church: Father Serra has been declared a “blessed” in 1988 which is the step immediately prior to being canonized or declared a “saint”. He is thus referred to as “Blessed Junipero Serra”.

The statue of Junipero Serra at Mission San Miguel

The places you are most likely to see a statue of Padre Serra are at any of the 21 missions in California. The statue in the photo above is at Mission San Miguel. Though this mission was founded after the death of Serra by his successor, his influence is still present.

As Junipero and his companions traveled up and down the state, they would note where the conditions were suitable for future foundations: water, soil, proximity to the El Camino Real and population of natives.

With the sole exception of Mission San Antonio, all of the missions became the nucleus of a surrounding or neighboring town.

Monument marking the landing spot of Junipero Serra in Monterey

This monument notes the landing spot in Monterey of the expedition of Junipero Serra and Gaspar de Portola in 1769. It can be found at the intersection of Artillery and Pacific at one of the entrances of the Presidio of Monterey.

The US Army now occupies this presidio whose founding dates back to that landing.

Presidios were the military foundations of the Spanish empire. Their purpose was to provide protection for the settlers and missions.

However, young soldiers far from home sometimes tend to be “rambunctious”. Father Serra, wanting to lessen this bad influence on his native converts, moved this mission from Monterey to its present location in Carmel.

Junipero Serra statue plaque

This plaque and the statue shown at Mission San Miguel, can be found at 100 locations throughout the state of California. Real estate developer William H. Hannon, to commemorate the founder of the California Missions, placed identical statues at all the missions, schools and other places of historic interest. (More information here).

The statues are life sized and show the small stature of Serra – he was only 5 feet 2 inches tall. Early on after arriving in the New World in 1749, he suffered some sort of injury to his leg which continued to plague him throughout his life for the next 35 years. Father Serra also suffered from asthma which ultimately led to his death.

Despite all these infirmities, he diligently worked to establish the California missions.

Statue of Junipero Serra at the I-280 rest area

I’m not sure about the artistic merits of this particular statue in San Mateo County, but it does exhibit two notable truths about Padre Serra.

The first is shown by the posture of the statue – Serra pointing and moving forward.

His life motto was “Siempre adelante y nunca atras”, which is “Always go forward and never turn back”. He did show remarkable determination in accomplishing his life’s work, both in the Old and New worlds.

The second is that the main north-south roadway in Central California and beyond, Highway 101, is the same route that Junipero Serra and his companions blazed, The El Camino Real.

In 1931, California chose Junipero Serra as one of the two subjects that each state is allowed in the statuary hall in the US Capitol building. Political correctness might dictate a different choice today, but nonetheless, it attests to the undisputed impact that Serra had on the state.

The cenotaph or empty tomb of Junipero Serra at Mission Carmel

This is the cenotaph, or empty tomb, of Junipero Serra at the Mission Carmel. This is located in one of the five museums at this mission.

It was created by Jo Mora and dedicated in 1925. It shows three Franciscan friars standing watch, with bronze plaques depicting Serra’s life. In the marble are the Franciscan emblem as well as other motifs. Finally, there is a small bear at Serra’s feet, signifying the State of California.

Serra's tomb in the sanctuary of Mission Carmel

“We know Father Serra’s life from the time he was born, where he was trained, what he thought and what he did. He wasn’t out there saying, ‘Wow, look at all these Indians. Let’s whip them into shape.’ He was physically there, he worked hard, worked 18 hours a day. He was much nicer to the Indians, really, than even to the governors. He didn’t get along too well with some of the military people, you know. His attitude was, ‘Stay away from the Indians.’ I think you really come up with a benevolent, hard-working person who was strict in a lot of his doctrinal leanings and things like that, but not a person who was enslaving Indians, or beating them, ever.”
. . “. . . He was a very caring person and forgiving. Even after the burning of the mission in San Diego, he did not want those Indians punished. He wanted to be sure that they were treated fairly. . . “

DR. IRIS ENGSTRAND, professor and chair of the Department of History at the University of San Diego

Detail of Serra statue and cart at Mission San Miguel

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