Junípero Serra: Saint Among the Indians Maligned by the Left

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Junípero Serra: Saint Among the Indians Maligned by the Left
Junípero Serra: Saint Among the Indians Maligned by the Left

Mallorca: Cradle and Roots

The honors rightly paid to Friar Junípero Serra on all continents should not overshadow the Majorcan roots and soul of this slender Franciscan with a gigantic soul. He was born on November 24, 1713, on the Spanish island of Majorca in the Mediterranean Sea.

His root’s vitality stems from the Golden Island’s blessed soil, as do its millenary olive trees kissed by the Mediterranean sun. Junípero did not improvise when developing his ministry. It matured over an entire life, slowly absorbing domestic virtues, peasant wisdom, intense religiosity, frugality, unwavering patience at work, honesty of conduct, serene tranquility, practical sense, and trust in Providence. All these traits are characteristics of the Mallorcan people.

The inhabitants call their island “sa Roqueta” (small rock), a concept they clung to even after crossing the ocean. That is how the then-administrator of the Missions of Baja California and a disciple of Junípero, Friar Francisco Palou, referred nostalgically to Mallorca in a 1773 letter to his teacher.

On this foundation stone, Junípero added Franciscan spirituality. Long years of ascetic discipline formed his personality to reflect the spirit of the Seraphic Father Saint Francis. Then came intellectual training and university teaching. Already a lecturer in philosophy at age 31 at the Royal Convent of San Francisco in Palma de Mallorca, he was appointed full professor of Scotist philosophy at the Lulliana University.

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Friar Junípero alternated university teaching with pastoral work. He was a much sought-after preacher at Mallorca’s parishes and convents. He gave two outstanding sermons in the local cathedral on the occasion of the feast of Corpus Christi. He also gave four sermons in Mallorquin, the dialect of Mallorca’s Catalan language, at the convent of Saint Clare. One of these sermons was titled: “God Is Kind When He Forgives.”

A Poet’s Soul

Grace does not erase nature but perfects it. At the height of his academic and pastoral ministry, Junípero understood that the love of Christ urged him to share this ardor with all human beings, particularly the most needy. Thus, he left for America, where he increasingly identified himself with Saint Francis by embracing the Cross with growing strength. In the remaining thirty-five years of his life, the former professor would teach the most disadvantaged of God’s children—the Indians.

He carried out this mission with a poetic Franciscan soul linked to nature. No pastoral concerns prevented him from exalting the stars of the Sierra Gorda, admiring the rugged landscape of Upper California, singing the beauty of Castilian roses planted along the Camino Real or thanking God for the abundance of wild fruits. Friar Junípero always found time to marvel at the delicate agility of the deer, the gentle flight of the seagulls, and the awkward gait of the terrible brown bears. With exquisite ecclesial sensitivity, he gave saint’s names to the missions he founded and the valleys, mountains, and rivers. Thus, the California coast’s diverse geography is adorned by an enchanting Franciscan litany.

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First, however, he desired the salvation of the souls of the Indians—those naked but beautiful and well-proportioned children of God who wandered in the immense expanses of the desert. They were born in a hole in the earth, where the mother lay down on a bed of embers covered with herbs to warm herself. They counted the days with acorns and considered riding friars to be sons of their mules like a puppy carried by his mother.

Every time Friar Junípero met a new Indian, he prayed: “God, make him a saint!” He taught the Indians to greet each other with this formula: “Love God! Love God!” He knew how much these creatures had cost Jesus Christ and spared no effort, sweat or suffering to attract them to God. When asking for new missionaries, he did not hide the extreme difficulty of the task. He wanted them to be “in love with Christ.” As he wrote to his superiors in Mexico, “everything is easy for those who love.” He was also very frugal: “As long as we have good health and have an omelet of wild herbs, what else can we desire?”

His task was to learn difficult and strange languages, love the Indians tenderly, share their sufferings, expose himself to a thousand dangers, and even face poisoned arrows. In short, he taught these tribes to live civilly, thus adding them to the Faithful of the Catholic Church and subjects of the King of Spain. He did all this with a Franciscan spirit, in the simplicity and joy of total abandonment to Providence. This was the formula for his success.

Apostolic Preacher

To carry out his mission, Friar Junípero Friar was appointed Apostolic Preacher. He then embarked from Cadiz to Mexico on August 20, 1749. In a letter to his friend Father Francisco Serra of the Convent of San Bernardino, he thus expressed his joy: “It is the best thing that could have happened to me. It exceeds the desire of my parents to see me well established.” He explained that the motive for this gesture was none other than God’s love: “God’s love comes first. The most important thing is to do God’s will. It is because of His love that I left my parents.” His purpose: “Know that I have embarked on this journey because I would like to be a good religious.”

His biographer Francisco Palou explains that this drastic turn “was due to a sudden and serious sorrow.” About this tragedy, nothing is known. However, God is always present in such moments. So it was with Saints Paul, Francis of Assisi, Ignatius of Loyola, and many others. Junípero was no exception.

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As a good son, he turned a thought to his mother, Margaret, who had always prayed for him: “So, my mother, perhaps it is exactly because of your prayers that God has put me on this path. Be satisfied with God’s will and say continually: Blessed art thou, O God, and may Thy will be done!” This beautiful ejaculation contains Friar Junípero’s whole spirituality.

He left behind his native land, parents, sister, brother-in-law, nephew (the future Miguel de Petra, a zealous Capuchin and a distinguished architect and mathematician), and his cousin, uncles, friends, and acquaintances. He left his religious brothers, superiors, teachers, disciples, and his promising teaching career. Twelve years as a professor had confirmed him as an outstanding intellectual and distinguished speaker. Commenting on his sermon of January 25, 1749, on non-friendly professor exclaimed: “This speech deserves to be printed in gold letters!”

Junípero took leave of his native town, preaching the sermons of Lent from March 19 to April 6 in the Church of San Pedro de Petra. On the following Easter Tuesday, he preached at the sanctuary of the Virgin of Bonany, patron saint of the island, to whom he dedicated his last thought before leaving.

Defending the Immaculate Conception

Friar Junípero’s devotion to Our Lady originates from the Hail Mary his mother made him recite every morning and evening. He developed this devotion by attending Marian festivities in the nearby church of San Bernardino, where he joined the choir. He had a pleasant and melodious voice which he kept until old age.

He had a special devotion to Our Lady of Bonany. Five days before embarking on his journey of no return, he gave in her presence a sermon on the theme “Announce the Lord’s Wonders to the People”—a genuine prediction of the apostolic deeds waiting in the New World. The first indigenous child he baptized was named Maria Bonany.

Friar Junípero had an extraordinary love for the Virgin of Guadalupe. The ship that took him to the New World was called Nuestra Señora la Virgen de Guadalupe. Upon his arrival in Mexico on December 31, 1749, he immediately went to her sanctuary of Tepeyac to thank her. Later, he enthroned her image in the mission church of Santiago de Jalpan and had the indigenous artist José Paez paint her picture for the mission of San Juan Capistrano.

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He fervently preached the Immaculate Conception with the title of Purissima Prelata and dedicated a litany to her, which was published in 1765. He never forgot his promise to defend the mystery of the Immaculate Conception. He even attracted the Inquisition’s attention by publishing a treatise titled Novena of Praise to Honor the Most Pure Conception of the Most Holy Mary. Here are some passages that show the author’s expressive elegance:

“Be, O Lady, the dawn that announces our joys; the anchor with which we moor so as not to be overwhelmed by life; a weapon to defend us against our enemies; the food, lest we falter in the service of thy Son; our advocate to obtain final happiness so that our last alleluia on earth comes together with the first alleluia in thy admirable company for all eternity. Amen.”

In 1770, Friar Junípero founded the San Carlos Borromeo Mission, for which he obtained from the Visitor General a statue of Our Lady of Bethlehem. He enthroned it under a large oak tree with the title Conquistadora.

Feast of the Reapers

From the height of his immortal throne, Friar Junípero will look favorably upon the mention of some of his companions who shared his apostolic labors in California. The light of fame did not fall upon them as on their teacher. Nonetheless, they too are worthy of glory as great missionaries who evangelized the Pacific coast in North America.

His disciple and biographer, Father Francisco Palou, was the chronicler of the Californian era. His writings give the impression that the Acts of the Apostles did not end with Saint Luke’s narration but continues throughout history with successive apostles the Holy Spirit raises up in the Church and sends to preach the Gospel to every creature. Father Palou was the first to receive Junípero’s confidence about his decision to leave for the missions in the New World. Embarking with him, Palou shared all his efforts until he breathed his last in Carmel.

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Nothing bears greater fruit for the apostolate than the blood of martyrs. The fields of California are irrigated with Majorcan blood. Father Luis Jaume was the first to pay the price of life. On November 5, 1775, on a moonlit night, six hundred Indians attacked the San Diego mission, causing extensive damage, destroying images and setting houses afire. Father Jaume tried to calm them down with a crucifix in hand, saying: ‘My children, love God!’ But it was in vain. The Indians bound him and massacred him with clubs and arrows, wreaking havoc on his body. He was the protomartyr of those virgin lands, and his blood encouraged Frair Junípero, who commented upon hearing the ominous news: “That land has now been irrigated! Now we can hope the San Diego Indians will convert!” Friar Junípero ordered the highest honors bestowed on the martyr and asked every missionary to apply in suffrage for his soul the twenty Masses prescribed by the Franciscan ritual.

His Life Program

Friar Junípero’s life was entirely dedicated to his spiritual children, neophytes, catechumens and fellow missionaries, whom he constantly kept busy. For example, at the San Carlos Mission, one friar went to work the fields with men, another taught women, a third educated children, and yet another looked after the vegetable garden. They met three times a day to pray together and dedicated the evening to instructing catechumens. In a letter to the Viceroy Bucarelli in 1775, Frair Junípero wrote, “The holy purpose with which we carry out these manual works, at first sight, extraneous to our life condition, certainly makes them pleasing to God, the angels and men.”

He paid attention to every aspect of mission life: Indians, soldiers, settlers, harvests, buildings, livestock, supplies, etc. He never neglected to foster good relations with the military governor, the viceroy, and the San Fernando College, the missions’ headquarters. All these activities required a lot of time. When appointed superior of the missions, he also had to write letters and reports, which consumed almost half of his time. His apostolic “concern for the churches” also involved the frequent use of pen and paper. More than once, he complained in confidence that he had now become a scribe rather than a missionary. He often wrote in uncomfortable conditions, sitting on the ground without a table or chair, using a simple gull’s pen. He often fought against time because the post was about to set sail. This type of effort, rarely considered in official history, should not be underestimated.

Dressing the Indians

Indian nudity was a severe problem in the California missions. Friar Junípero explained it to the viceroy:

“Covering the nudity of many girls and boys, men and women, even if only in part, not only to protect them from the cold (which is very severe in this area during much of the year) but above all to foment decency and urbanity, especially among women, is a colossal difficulty with which I have to deal daily.”

In the same letter, the missionary explained he had so far managed to dress the Indians by consuming the salaries of the friars, collecting old clothes from here and there, and recycling one hundred military blankets. However, at the time of writing, he had nothing left:

“In the church, without other clothes, the natives resort to wearing the rough skins they abandoned at their baptism. We don’t even have a flock of sheep to make wool. . . . Perhaps these lamentations will reach some gathering of rich and devoted people in contact with Your Excellency. I hope they can open their souls to this work of mercy of dressing the naked, as important as feeding the hungry. For God’s sake, forgive me if I dared to disturb Your Excellency.”

The letter had the desired effect and many alms, both in money and in-kind, arrived at the missions from Mexico City.

Talks in the Dawn of New Times

Not everything was suffering in Friar Junípero’s missions. There were also many consolations. For example, he made a trip to the capital in 1773 accompanied by the Indian Juan Evangelista, whom he had baptized and confirmed. It was an excellent opportunity to converse at length with the neophyte, penetrating his soul and understanding how he could open up both to the Catholic faith and European civilization. For the first time, Friar Junípero could analyze both the Spanish and Indian worlds in depth.

Friar Junípero asked Juan Evangelista if, seeing Spanish monks and soldiers, the natives had concluded there was a distant land where everyone was like them. He replied no. The natives, he said, thought that all men were like themselves. Seeing these strange people, they imagined they had sprung from the earth’s womb.

Juan Evangelista was stunned as they arrived in Mexico City, which was so wealthy that it deserved the title of “America’s Rome.” He marveled at its palaces, carriages, churches and elegantly dressed ladies. His belief that the Spaniards were the children of mules or a disgorging of the abyss faded over time, and he recognized there was another, much more beautiful world. He said he would try to convince his people to convert when returning to his land.

A Description of Friar Serra

At one point, the 60-year-old Friar Junípero stayed at the San Fernando College in Mexico City for six months. A young friar wrote to a confrere in Catalonia a letter that could well be the Majorcan missionary’s most authentic portrayal:

“He is the Father President [of the missions], a man of venerable seniority, a former chaired professor at the University of Palma. In twenty-four years of mission work, he never spared any effort to convert the infidels. In his troubled old age, he retains the strength of a lion, surrendering only to high fever. No ailments, especially suffocating breathing difficulties, nor sores on his feet and legs manage to restrain his apostolic impetus.

“He amazed us during his stay among us. When seriously ill, he never neglected to come to the choir day and night except when his fever was too high. We often gave him up for dead, and he always rose again. It was only out of obedience that he went to the infirmary. During his travels among the infidels, he often found himself so ill from wounds and other infirmities that he had to be taken in a litter rather than stop to cure his half-dead body. To everyone’s amazement, he always recovered thanks to the Divine Providence. For all these things, his austerity of life, humility, charity and other virtues, he deserves to be counted among the imitators of the Apostles.

“He will soon be back in Monterey, a thousand miles by land and sea as if nothing had happened. He will visit the missions, cheer them up with his presence, and establish new ones until his death. May God grant him many years of life! I could say many things about this holy man.”

A Rosary of Missions

As revealed by his correspondence, Serra sought to erect all the missions needed to convert the Indians. He founded four missions along the Camino Real between Carmel Bay and the Port of San Diego. The missions of San Francisco, San Juan Capistrano, and Santa Clara followed in chronological order. Further south were the missions of San Antonio, San Luis Obispo, and San Gabriel. They formed a chain of missions no more than forty-five miles away from each other.

However, the word “chain” is too cold a term, perhaps suitable for cars and highways but not to designate missions. Maybe it is better to speak of a “rosary,” the beads of which would be the missions, and the chain, the road connecting them. Friar Junípero spoke of his foundations as a “ladder” he ascended and descended along the northern Pacific coast.

He wanted to found eleven missions, perhaps to emulate the eleven Franciscan monasteries of the Seraphic Province of Mallorca.

Death of the Blessed

Like Saint Francis, Junípero had overly mortified his body. He was exhausted by the time he turned seventy. In 1784, he found himself weak and with labored breathing. He no longer even noticed the pain in his leg, which had long tormented him. In mid-August, a doctor examined him and proposed a cauterization to free his lungs. Unfortunately, it was useless. The servant of God understood the time had come to place himself in the hands of the Father.

On August 27, his strength began to fail. He immediately told Father Palou, his confessor, that he wanted to go to the chapel to receive Communion and prepare for his passing. He went bravely on foot, accompanied by a procession of friars, royal officers, soldiers and Indians. He sang the Tantum ergo on his knees in a loud voice for the last time. With tears in his eyes, he received absolution and then Holy Communion. Returning to his cell, he felt his strength fail, asked for the extreme unction, and later recited the saints’ litanies and the penitential psalms.

He slightly improved the next day, the feast of St. Augustine. Sitting on an austere bamboo chair, he felt death was like a companion. He asked his confessor to be buried next to the late brother, Fray Juan Crespi. He still managed to pray the Breviary and get a cup of broth. Lying down on a rough wooden bed, he fell asleep, never to wake up again. His disciple and biographer, Father Palou, found him embracing a large crucifix that had always accompanied him in his apostolic labors. Aware of losing a benign father, the Indians offered him beautiful wildflowers. While everyone cried, some of them thought it best to carve out pieces of his garment to keep as precious and venerated relics.


In the solemn Mass of September 25, 1988, Most Rev.Thaddeus Shubsda, bishop of Monterey-Fresno, presented to the pope an account of the missionary’s life accompanied by abundant documentation and officially asked for Fray Junípero’s beatification. The Representación, also known as the Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, stood out among those documents.

Sister Bonifacia Dyrda, of Saint Louis, Missouri, cured of an illness by the intercession of the Venerable, was present at the Mass, and her testimony aroused great enthusiasm among the faithful.

John Paul II proclaimed Fr. Serra blessed on September 25, 1988. On September 23, 2015, he was canonized at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. In California, his feast is celebrated on July 1 in memory of his arrival in San Diego; in Mallorca, it is celebrated on August 26.


Dr. Font Obrador is considered a foremost expert on Saint Junípero Serra. This article is shortened and adapted from his address at the Serrano International Conference on June 5, 2004. Excerpts from his lecture in Genoa on June 5, 2004, at the Serrano International Conference. Reproduced with permission. See “Atti del Convegno ‘Il Beato Junípero Serra e l’Evangelizzazione delle Americhe,’” Genoa, Serra International, 2005. Dr. Font Obrador (1932-2005) was President of Palma de Mallorca’s Friends of Brother Junípero Serra Association.