José Miguel Serra was born the son of a farmer in Spain in 1713. When he was 17, he joined the Franciscans and took the name Junípero. As a priest, he taught philosophy and theology. Then he requested to be a missionary.
In 1749, he sailed for Mexico. After landing in Mexico, Junípero and another friar walked 300 miles to Mexico City. On the way, Junípero was bitten on the leg by a poisonous insect. This leg caused him pain for the rest of his life. At the shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Junípero dedicated his work to her.
In 1767, Junípero was made president of the 14 missions begun by Jesuits in Lower California. Then, when Spaniards took over Upper California in 1769, Junípero went with them. At age 56 and with his leg and foot swollen, he traveled the 900 miles on mule to San Diego, where he founded a mission. Junípero established 9 of the 21 Franciscan missions along the Pacific Coast and baptized a total of about six thousand Native Americans.
The missions were communities in which everything was held in common. The Native Americans were taught to grow crops and raise livestock. They learned to read, to sing, and to paint. They learned about the faith and asked to become Catholics.
Junípero once made the long trip back to Mexico City to meet with the military commander and establish rules to protect the Native Americans and the missions. Another time when an uprising left a Franciscan and several others dead, Junípero pleaded that the Native Americans held for the killings be released.
When Junípero was dying, he insisted on walking to the chapel for Holy Communion. He died on August 28, 1784. At his funeral, the weeping drowned out the singing. Junípero is called the father of California.
Excerpted from Christ Our Life, by Sisters of Notre Dame of Chardon, Ohio
Image credit: Junipero Serra by unknown artist, unknown date. Public Domain via Wikimedia.