Father Junipero Serra, founder of the Franciscan missions in California, was born in the island of Majorca about the year 1712. When only a little boy he became one of the choristers in the convent of San Bernardino. At the age of sixteen he received the habit of Saint Francis, and, laying aside his baptismal name of Miguel Josef, took that of Junipero, after one of the early members of the order whose wonderful charity and simplicity of character led Saint Francis to exclaim: “Would that I had a whole forest of such Junipers!” In the convent were three other novices, named Palon, Verger, and Crespi, with whom he formed a life long friendship. They were all alike filled with zeal for the salvation of souls, and longed to devote themselves to the work of foreign missions. Again and again did they petition to be sent to New Spain, but were as often disappointed. But at last, in 1749, they were allowed to join a band of missionaries about to saii from Cadiz. Father Palon, in his memoir of Father Junipero, gives many interesting details of their voyage to Vera Cruz, which lasted ninety-nine days. The vessel came near being wrecked in a storm. The provisions and water fell short, and they were threatened with starvation. But Father Junipero evinced no fear. He cheered his fellow-passengers with psalms and exhortations, and every morning said Mass for their safety. He enlivened them, too, with his quiet humor, telling them gravely he had discovered that the secret of keeping free from thirst was to eat little and to speak less! At last they arrived at port and then proceeded to the city of Mexico, where Father Junipero and his three companions took up their residence at the college of San Fernando. Here they spent nineteen years, preaching in the country round. But when the Jesuit missions of Lower California were suppressed in 1767 the Spanish undertook to establish some colonies along the Pacific coast, and sixteen Franciscans were chosen to found missions there. Among these were Father Junipero and two of his friends – Fathers Palon and Orespi. Father Verger remained at San Fernando. They were overjoyed to be sent on this mission. Father Junipero could not speak for his tears. All their lives they had longed to labor among the Indians, and now their wishes were to be realized.
Many of the Spanish colonists were no less fervent in religion than brave as soldiers. Don Josef de Galvez, who organized the expedition, declared his chief purpose was to establish the Catholic religion among the savages plunged in the gross darkness of heathenism. He packed the vestments and sacred vessels for the churches with his own hands. Part of the colonists went by land, and part by water with the supplies, seeds of all kinds, and two hundred head of cattle. Father Junipero, in his ardor, insisted on going by land, though still suifering from an injury received twenty years before in walking from Vera Cruz to Mexico. Galvez tried to dissuade him from going, but he declared he “would rather die than not go. The Lord would carry him through.” But his pain so increased that on the second day he could no longer walk or sit, or even sleep, and he refused to be carried in a litter. Summoning one of the muleteers, he asked him for a remedy. “What do I know, father?” said the man; “I can only cure beasts.” “Then look upon me as a beast,” replied Father Junipero, “and apply the same remedy.” Thereupon the muleteer prepared an ointment of herbs, which he applied with such good effect that the father slept all night, rose early to say Matins and Mass, and continued on the journey with comparative ease. But the wound troubled him all the rest of his life. He accepted it as a cross, would not attempt any radical cure, and even increased it by long journeys with his feet bare.
After a long and hazardous journey they arrived at their place of destination, and 16 July 1769, founded the mission of San Diego by setting up a cross facing the ocean and singing the Veni Creator Spiritus. Then Mass was celebrated in a bower of reeds and green branches, with “a discharge of firearms for music and the smoke of muskets for incense.” By the next winter the provisions ran low; many of the colonists died from fatigue and insufficient food. Father Junipero himself was dangerously ill. An order was issued to abandon the mission and 20 March fixed for their departure, in spite of the entreaties of Father Junipero. He betook himself to prayer night and day, and on Saint Joseph’s day celebrated High Mass with uncommon devotion. Before noon a sail was seen on the horizon. It then disappeared, but their courage was revived. Four days later the San Antonio arrived with plenteous stores to relieve their distress.
Father Junipero, who was at the head of the missions, at once set sail for Monterey, where he met Father Crespi, who had gone by land, and 1 June 1770, a cross was erected and Mass said under an oak still standing near the fort, in the same spot where it had been offered one hundred and sixty-seven years before by Padre Viscayno and his Carmelite monks. In this way he founded nine missions one after another: San Diego, 16 July 1769; San Carlos at Monterey, 3 June 1770; San Antonio, 14 July 1771; San Gabriel, 8 September 1771; San Luis Obispo, 1 September 1772; San Francisco (Dolores), 9 October 1776; San Juan Capistrano, 1 November 1776; Santa Clara, 18 January 1777; San Buenaventura, 31 March 1782.
But these missions were only established by dint of great hardships and perseverance. Father Junipero was the main spring of the work. Nothing daunted his courage or diminished his powers of endurance. He yearned over the souls of the Indians as brands to be snatched from the burning. He was ready to lay down his life for them. To baptize one soul filled him with joy unspeakable. When hostile Indians attacked the mission of San Diego, burned the buildings, and murdered one of the fathers, he exclaimed: “Thank God, the seed of the Gospel is now watered by a martyr’s blood!” He began at once to rebuild the houses, working with his own hands, and took a long journey to Mexico to obtain assistance. For this purpose he walked two hundred and forty miles, attended only by an Indian boy. They fell ill at Guadalajara and received the last sacraments, but recovered and continued on their way. At Mexico he received ample supplies, and with a joyful heart prepared to return. He kissed the feet of the friars at San Fernando and begged their blessing, saying they would see his face no more.
After establishing the missions of San Diego and Monterey he went south with a train of soldiers and mules, and, coming to a beautiful valley shaded by oaks and watered by a broad river, he halted, hung up the bells he had brought on the branch of a tree, and began to ring them with all his might, crying: “Give ear, O ye gentiles! Come to the holy Church! Come to the faith of Jesus Christ!” No one was in sight, but his prophetic eye saw the thousands of souls that would here be garnered in, and he rang on till an Indian at last appeared, filled with astonishment. Here he founded the mission of San Antonio, which proved to be one of the most successful of them all. But the mission of San Gabriel was, perhaps, the most interesting. This was about twelve miles from the town of Nuestra Sefiora de los Angeles, as though the angel of the Annunciation did not venture to approach nearer into the presence of the Virgin. Los Angeles, as it is generally called, was founded by twelve Spanish soldiers, who, with true national devotion, named it for the Queen of Angels. The Indians of this vicinity were of a superior race, with gentler manners and higher moral instincts.
Indian settlements grew up around each of these missions. The people were Christianized and taught various industries. Every morning and evening the bell summoned them to the church for their prayers. Father Junipero’s zeal never flagged. He is said to have baptized a thousand with his own hands. In the fervor of preaching he would beat his bare breast with a stone and apply a burning torch to his arm to give additional force to his descriptions of the ever-lasting fires. He seemed insensible to physical pain, but his heart was tenderly alive to every sacred emotion; and when, 1 January 1782, he lost his friend, Father Crespi, who had labored with him at San Carlos thirteen years – a man of such a happy temperament as to be generally known by the name of El Beato – Father Junipero never recovered from the blow. The next year he made a farewell visit to all the missions, going from one to another on foot, though seventy years of age. He went weeping from village to village because he could do no more for his beloved Indians. He returned to Monterey in January, 1784, and from that time his health declined. Every day, however, he said the canonical office, and the night before his death he walked to the church to receive the last sacraments. It was thronged with Indians and whites sobbing with grief. Father Palon read the prayers for the dying and gave him the Holy Viaticum. When the crowd began the Tantum Ergo Father Junipero’s voice rose clear and strong above them all, and, their voices faltering and giving out, he continued the hymn almost alone to the very end. He spent the night in prayer and thanksgiving, and the next morning entered into his eternal rest. It was the 28th of August, 1784. The bells announced his death. His body’was placed in a coffin made with his own hands a few weeks before. The people came lamenting and weeping, the poor Indians pressing around to touch his hands and carry away a thread of his garments. The vessels in port paid him a salute of one hundred and one guns, as if for a general, when laid in his grave at San Carlos.
The likeness we give of Father Junipero is from an old portrait at the college of San Fernando in Mexico. Some times he is represented with a stone and a flaming torch. His face is most characteristic, showing his gentleness of character, the spirituality of his nature, and his strong moral purpose.
The missions continued to increase and prosper after his death. By the year 1800 there were sixteen, and three were afterwards added. They were surrounded by villages of Indians, who were industrious, well clothed, and well fed. Everywhere were gardens, orchards, and vineyards. Herds of cattle and sheep covered the plains, and vast fields of wheat were reaped to provide for the immense population. There were workshops of all kinds. Every year the missions, with so much industry, naturally grew richer and more prosperous. The large tracts of land brought under cultivation at length so increased in value as to excite the cupidity of the Mexican government, and when the republic was declared in 1833 eight million acres were confiscated and the missions cut down to parishes. This was virtually suppressing them. The Indians, no longer employed by the mission fathers or provided for by them, were scattered. Everything began to decay. The following table will show the reduction of the population, the crops, and general diminution of wealth and civilization in the short space of eight years:
UPPER CALIFORNIA UNDER THE FRIARS IN 1834
30,650 – Christian Indians
424,000 – Horned cattle,
62,000 – Horses and mules
321,500 – Sheep
70,000 – Cereal crops (hectares)
UNDER THE CIVIL ADMINISTRATION IN 1842
4,450 – Christian Indians
28,220 – Horned cattle
3,800 – Horses and mules
31,600 – Sheep
4,000 – Cereal crops (hectares)
But though the devoted missionaries were robbed of their lands, their industries broken up, and, what was worse, their converts for ever scattered, many of the beautiful religious observances they taught are still kept up among the mountains and in remote districts. Among these is the morning salutation to the true Stella Matutina, so beautifully hailed by Aubrey de Vere:
Shine out, O Star! and sing the praise
Of that unrisen Sun whose glow
Thus feeds thee with thine earlier rays –
The secret of thy song we know.
Thou sing’st that Sun of Righteousness,
Sole light of this benighted globe,
Whose beams, reflected, dressed and dress
His Mother in her shining robe.
At Los Angeles till recent times it was the custom for the oldest member of every household (generally the grandfather or grandmother) to rise every morning with the morning star and salute the earliest dawn by intoning a hymn. At the very first sound of it all the other members rose or sat up in bed to join in the strain. The windows were opened and the hymn was echoed from street to street till the whole town was one angelic choir worthy of its name. Several of these hymns have been preserved, and ought to be collected and published. One of them has been literally translated from the Spanish by ” H. II.” as follows:
Singers at dawn
From the heavens above
People all regions;
Gladly we, too, sing.
Come, O sinners!
Come, and we will sing
To our Refuge.
Saying to Mary,
O beautiful Queen!
Princess of Heaven,
Your beautiful head
Crowned we see;
The stars are adorning
Your beautiful hair:
Your eyebrows are arched,
Your forehead serene;
Your face, turned always,
Looks toward God;
Your eyes’ radiance
Is like beautiful stars;
Like a white dove
You are true to your Spouse.
Come, O sinners!
Come, and we will sing
To our Refuge.
The San Carlos mission church near Monterey has recently been restored, and 28 August 1884, the centenary of Father Junipero’s death was solemnly and appropriately commemorated.
- “Father Junipero Serra”. , 1885. CatholicSaints.Info. 8 January 2017. Web. 23 March 2017. <>