Father Junipero Serra

Father Junipero Serra played a major role in the founding and development of California. Learn more about his life.

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His Life

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Serra was born of lowly people in the island of Majorca, and while he was yet a little child sang as chorister in the convent of San Bernardino. He was but sixteen when he entered the Franciscan Order, and before he was eighteen he had taken the final vows. This was in the year 1730. His baptismal name, Michael Joseph, he laid aside on becoming a monk, and took the name of Junipero, after that quaintest and drollest of all Saint Francis's first companions; him of whom the saint said jocosely, "Would that I had a whole forest of such Junipers!"

At last, in 1749, there assembled in Cadiz a great body of missionaries, destined chiefly for Mexico;

For nineteen years after their arrival in Mexico, Father Junipero and his three friends were kept at work there, under the control of the College of San Fernando, in founding missions and preaching. On the suppression of the Jesuit Order, in 1767, and its consequent expulsion from all the Spanish dominions, it was decided to send a band of Franciscans to California, to take charge of the Jesuit missions there. These were all in Lower California, no attempt at settlement having been yet made in Upper California. Serra was put in charge of it, and was appointed president of all the California missions.

The history of the next fifteen years is a history of struggle, hardship, and heroic achievement. The indefatigable Serra was the mainspring and support of it all. There seemed no limit to his endurance, no bound to his desires; nothing daunted his courage or chilled his faith. When, in the sixth year after the founding of the San Diego Mission, it was attacked by hostile Indians, one of the fathers being most cruelly murdered, and the buildings burned to the ground, Father Junipero exclaimed, "Thank God! The seed of the Gospel is now watered by the blood of a martyr; that mission is henceforth established;" and in a few months he was on the spot, with money and materials, ready for rebuilding; pressing sailors, neophytes, soldiers, into the service; working with his own hands, also, spite of the fears and protestations of all, and only desisting on positive orders from the military commander. He journeyed, frequently on foot, back and forth through the country, founding a new mission whenever, by his urgent letters to the College of San Fernando and to the Mexican viceroys, he had gathered

Father Junipero's most insatiable passion was for baptizing Indians; the saving of one soul thus from death filled him with unspeakable joy.

When he preached he was carried out of himself by the fervor of his desire to impress his hearers. Baring his breast, he would beat it violently with a stone, or burn the flesh with a lighted torch, to enhance the effect of his descriptions of the tortures of hell.

There were nine of these missions, founded by Serra, before his death in 1784.

Father Junipero Serra

(Source: Library of Congress).

 

His Funeral

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Ever since morning the grief-stricken people had been waiting and listening for the tolling death-bell to announce that all was over. At its first note they came in crowds, breathless, weeping, and lamenting. It was with great difficulty that the soldiers could keep them from tearing Father Junipero's habit piece-meal from his body, so ardent was their desire to possess some relic of him. The corpse was laid at once in a coffin which he himself had ordered made many weeks before. The vessels in port fired a salute of one hundred and one guns, answered by the same from the guns of the presidio at Monterey, --an honor given to no one below the rank of general. But the hundred gun salutes were a paltry honor in comparison with the tears of the Indian congregation. Soldiers kept watch around his coffin night and day till the burial; but they could not hold back the
throngs of the poor creatures who pressed to touch the hand of the father they had so much loved, and to bear away something, if only a thread, of the garments he had worn.

Father Junipero Serra's funeral

(Source: Library of Congress).

 

Books about Father Junipero Serra

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Links to other sites on Father Junipero Serra

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  Library of Congress California History Collection - The Missions
 

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