Saint Junipero Serra y Ferrer OFM was a Franciscan Friar and Priest who established the Franciscan Missions in the Sierra Gorda and the first 9 Spanish missions in California.
Saint Serra was born on November 24th, 1713 in Petra, Majorca, Spain, with the name Miquel Josep Serra i Ferrer (in Castilian he is known as Miguel Jose Serra Ferrer). Saint Serra grew up working the fields with his family, growing wheat and beans and tending to the cattle but even at a very early age he was extremely interested in visiting the Franciscans at the church of San Bernardino. The Church was only about a block from their families house and he soon began learning reading, writing, mat, Latin and Gregorian Chants there. At 16 he enrolled at the Franciscan school in the capital city and at 16 he became a novice in the order.
He entered the Order at Palma, specifically the Alcantarine branch of the Friars Minor. He took the name Junipero to honor Brother Juniper, one of the companions of Saint Francis of Assisi. He immersed himself in religious studies and vowed to remain celibate. He loved reading stories of Friars roaming around the world and suffering martyrdom to bring souls into the church and was an avid reader of any news containing stories of missionaries becoming canonized or beatified.
He formally became an ordained priest in 1737 and earn an ecclesiastical license at the Convento de San Francisco. At the end of his first course teaching philosophy, he said to his students:
"I desire nothing more from you than this, that when the news of my death shall have reached your ears, I ask you to say for the benefit of my soul: 'May he rest in peace.' Nor shall I omit to do the same for you so that all of us will attain the goal for which we have been created."
He earned a doctorate in theology from the Lullian College and occupied the Duns Scotus chair of philosophy there. In 1748 he confided in Francisco Palou that the wished to become a missionary and he found Francisco wanted to joining him fully. The two set sail for Cadiz, the departure point from Spain to the new colonies in America. He wrote a letter to a friend, asking him to console his old parents now as their son departed, writing:
"They [my parents] will learn to see how sweet is His yoke, and that He will change for them the sorrow they may now experience into great happiness. Now is not the time to muse or fret over the happenings of life but rather to be conformed entirely to the will of God, striving to prepare themselves for that happy death which of all the things of life is our principal concern."
In 1749 the team landed in Veracruz. Horses were offered for the team as they travelled the Camino Real but Saint Serra and a companion refused, saying that they followed the rule of his patron Saint Francis of Assisi, specifically that they should not ride on horseback unless necessary. Carrying only their breviaries, the group set out. During the vigorous hike his left foot began to swell and the next morning his leg was found to be raw and bleeding. This wound would continue with him the rest of his life and caused much difficulty walking. They soon arrived at the village of Jalpan and found the mission there in disarray. He erected 14 stations and began leading parishioners carrying a heavy cross to each before washing the feet of 12 Pames elders in a recreation of Jesus's activities. He made massive inroads with the locals, learned their language and helped in the administration of a massive church construction project that employed local craftsmen over 7 years of work.
On June 24th, 1767 Carlos Francisco de Croix, the Viceroy of New Spain, read a Spanish royal decree to all assembled church officials:
"Repair with an armed force to the houses of the Jesuits. Seize the persons of all of them and, within 24 hours, transport them as prisoners to the port of Veracruz. Cause to be sealed the records of said houses and records of such persons without allowing them to remove anything but their breviaries and such garments as are absolutely necessary for their journey. If after the embarkation there should be found one Jesuit in that district, even if ill or dying, you shall suffer the penalty of death."
This decree had been five months in the working through King Carlos III who had long detested the Jesuit priests. The Franciscan missionaries stepped into the vacuum created by the expulsion and Saint Serra was appointed president of the missions of Baja California. Saint Serra was also chosen to accompany Gaspar de Portola to push forward northwards, an opportunity for Saint Serra to bring untold numbers to Christ. When Gaspar tried to dissuade him from coming due to the pain in his leg, Saint Serra said to him:
"Let us not speak of that. I have placed all my confidence in God, of whose goodness I hope that He will grant me to reach not only San Diego to raise the standard of the Holy Cross in that port, but also Monterey."
On March 28th, 1769 Saint Serra departed writing:
"I took along no more provisions for so long a journey than a loaf of bread and a piece of cheese. For I was there [at mission Loreto] a whole year, in economic matters, as a mere guest to receive the crumbs of the royal soldier commissioner, whose liberality at my departure did not extend beyond the aforementioned articles."
On May 14th, 1769, Pentecost, Saint Serra founded his first mission, Mission San Fernando Rey de Espana de Velicata. They found the locals much like Adam and Eve, choosing to embrace them rather than look down upon them. After a journey of over 900 miles from Loreto, the group arrived in San Diego on July 1st, 1769. Other missions followed from San Diego - Monterey, San Antonio and San Gabriel, San Luis Obispo, San Francisco and San Juan Capistrano, Santa Clara, and San Buenaventura. He journeyed to Mexico City to settle differences with the Spanish governor there and helped form the basis for the first legislation in California - the Bill of Rights for Native Americans. The Franciscan Friars were appointed as legal guardians for the Native Americans as the Spanish government believed them to be inferior and inhuman despite the cries of Friars who sought to defend them and their humanity.
In 1779, missionaries under Saint Serra planted the first ever sustained vineyard at Mission San Diego de Alcala. Because of this planting he became known as the Father of California Wine and the variety planted became known as the Mission Grape, a variety that would dominate California wine production until 1880. In total Saint Serra confirmed 5,309 people total into the Catholic faith.
On August 28th, 1784, Saint Serra fell ill and died from tuberculosis at Mission San Carlos Borromeo. He was buried there under the sanctuary and the missionary efforts passed to Fermin Lasuen. Saint Pope John Paul II beatified Saint Serra on September 25th, 1988 in front of a crowd of over 20,000. In his address he said that Saint Serra:
"sowed the seeds of Christian faith amid the momentous changes wrought by the arrival of European settlers in the New World. It was a field of missionary endeavor that required patience, perseverance, and humility, as well as vision and courage."
On September 23rd, 2015, Pope Francis canonized Saint Serra. It was part of the Pope's first visit to the United States and the canonization was the first to occur on American Soil. On May 2nd, 2015, at the Pontifical North American College in Rome, Saint Francis said to a crowd:
"Friar Junípero ... 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."
Today his feast is celebrated on July 1st.