Who Is Junipero Serra? The Biography Of One Of Our Newest Saints

by July, Saints

Who is Pope Francis’ new saint?

Pope Francis recently canonized St. Junipero Serra, who he called “the evangelizer of the west”,  in January while on board Sri Lankan Air Flight on the way to Manila.

Beatified by St. John Paul II in 1988, the 18th century missionary and Franciscan priest – who worked to defend the native people against the abuses of colonialism – was canonized by Pope Francis on Sep. 23 during his Apostolic Journey to the United States.

Serra was the missionary who founded the first nine of 21 eventual missions in California. Many of the missions became the centers of major cities like San Diego. He worked tirelessly with the Native Americans, and is said to have baptized more than 6,000 people, and confirmed more than 5,000.


Born at Petra, Island of Majorca, Nov. 24, 1713, Serra entered the Franciscan Order in 1730, and due to his high scores in his studies, was appointed lector of philosophy before being ordained to the priesthood.

In 1749 he joined the missionary college of San Fernando, Mexico, and journeyed to Mexico City to teach the same year. While traveling on foot from Vera Cruz to the capital, Serra badly injured his leg and would suffer from the injury for the rest of his life, although he continued to make his journeys on foot whenever possible. Later Serra requested to be reassigned to the Sierra Gorda Indian Missions some thirty leagues north of Santiago de Querétaro. He spent roughly nine years there, part of the time as superior. While at Sierra Gorda, he learned the language of the Pame Indians and translated the catechism into it so the Indians could learn the Christian faith. When he was later called to return to Mexico City, he became known as a fervent and effective preacher of missions.

Hailed as a founder of both California and the United States, the great evangelizer is commemorated in the U.S. capitol by a large bronze statue, which depicts him in his Franciscan habit lifting a cross high with his right hand, while holding a church in his left.

In 1767 he was appointed superior of a band of fifteen Franciscans for the Indian Missions of Lower California. While accompanying Portolá’s land expedition to Upper California in 1769, Junipero, established the Mission San Fernando de Velicatá, in Lower California. He arrived at San Diego on July 1, and on July 16 founded the first of the twenty-one California missions – which led to the conversion of all the natives on the coast as far as Sonoma in the north. The missions established by either by Father Serra or during his administration were: San Carlos in 1770, San Antonio in July of 1771, San Gabriel in September of 1771, San Luis Obispo in 1772, San Francisco de Asis in October  1776, San Juan Capistrano in November  1776, Santa Clara in 1777 and San Buenaventura 1782.

Serra returned to California in 1774, and was later present for the founding of the presidio of Santa Barbara in 1782. In 1778 Junipero was formally allowed to administer the Sacrament of Confirmation. In the final three years of his life, Serra again visited the missions from San Diego to San Francisco – a six hundred mile trek – in order to confirm all who had been baptized.

He constantly suffered from his injured leg and also from his chest, but never looked for a cure. It is believed that he confirmed close to 5,300 people, most of whom were the Indians who had converted to Christianity due to the missions.

Saint Junipero Serra died in Monterey, California, Aug. 28, 1784. He is remembered primarily for his courage, zeal, a love of mortification, self-denial, and absolute trust in God. Hailed as a founder of both California and the United States, the great evangelizer is commemorated in the U.S. capitol by a large bronze statue, which depicts him in his Franciscan habit lifting a cross high with his right hand, while holding a church in his left.

What does Pope Francis have to say about Junipero Serra?

He was one of the founding fathers of the United States, a saintly example of the Church’s universality and special patron of the Hispanic people of the country. Junipero Serra and the Franciscans who ran the missions were “missionaries who brought the Gospel to the New World and, at the same time, defended the indigenous peoples against abuses by the colonizers. (He was a) tireless missionary (who had) the desire to proclaim the Gospel ad gentes, that heartfelt impulse which seeks to share with those farthest away the gift of encountering Christ: a gift that he had first received and experienced in all its truth and beauty”. May 2, 2015 at Rome’s Pontifical North American College.

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