Born Miguel José Serra Ferrer in Petra, on the Balearic Island of Majorca on 24 November 1713, Fr. Serra renamed himself in honor of Saint Juniper, who had also been a Franciscan. On 14 September 1730 he entered the Order of Friars Minor (O.F.M.). For his proficiency in studies he was appointed lector of philosophy before his ordination to the priesthood. Later he received a doctorate in theology from the Lullian University in Palma, where he also occupied the Duns Scotus chair of philosophy at the College of San Fernando until he joined the missionary college of San Fernando, Mexico in 1749.
That year he traveled to North America, first to Mexico City, where he taught. While traveling on foot from Vera Cruz to the capital, he injured his leg in such a way that he suffered from it throughout the rest of his life, though he continued to make his journeys on foot whenever possible. He requested a transfer to the Sierra Gorda Indian Missions some thirty leagues north of Queretaro where he spent nine years, including time as the mission's superior, learned the language of the Pame Indians, and translated the catechism into their language. Recalled to Mexico, he became famous as a fervent and effective preacher of missions.
In 1767 Serra was appointed superior of a band of fifteen Franciscans for the Indian Missions of Lower California. The Franciscans took over the administration of the missions on the Baja California Peninsula from the Jesuits on February 3, 1768 with Father Serra serving as "Father Presidente." On 12 March 1768, Serra set out from the Pacific port of San Blas on his way to California. Early in 1769, he accompanied Governor Gaspar de Portolà on his expedition to Nueva California. On the way he established the Misión San Fernando Rey de España de Velicatá on May 14 (the only Franciscan mission in all of Baja California).
When the party reached San Diego on 1 July, Serra stayed behind to start Mission San Diego de Alcalá, the first of the twenty-one California missions (including the nearby Visita de la Presentación, also founded under Serra's leadership) which accomplished the conversions of all the natives on the coast as far as Sonoma in the north. When Monterey was reached and Mission San Carlos Borroméo de Carmelo founded, Serra remained there as "Father Presidente" of the Alta California missions. In 1771 he relocated the mission to Carmel, which became known as "Mission Carmel" and served as his headquarters. Under his presidency were founded Mission San Antonio de Padua, Mission San Gabriel Arcángel, Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, Mission San Juan Capistrano, Mission San Francisco de Asís, Mission Santa Clara de Asís, and Mission San Buenaventura.
In 1773, difficulties with Pedro Fages, the military commander, compelled Father Serra to travel to Mexico City to argue before Viceroy Antonio María de Bucareli y Ursua for the removal of Fages as the Governor of California Nueva. At the capital of Mexico, by order of Viceroy Bucareli, he drew up his Representación in thirty-two articles. Bucareli ruled in Serra's favor on 30 of the 32 charges brought against Fages, who removed him from office in 1774, after which time Serra returned to California. In 1778, Serra was given dispensation to administer the sacrament of confirmation for the faithful in California.
During the remaining three years of his life he once more visited the missions from San Diego to San Francisco, traveling more than 600 miles in the process, in order to confirm all who had been baptized. He suffered intensely from his crippled leg and from his chest, yet he would use no remedies. He confirmed 5,309 persons, who, with but few exceptions, were Indians.
On 28 August 1784 at the age of 70, Father Serra died at Mission Carmel and was interred there under the sanctuary floor. Serra was beatified by Pope John Paul II on September 25, 1988.
The chapel at Mission San Juan Capistrano, built in 1782, is believed to be the oldest standing building in California. Known as "Father Serra's Church," it has the distinction of being the only remaining church in which the padre is known to have officiated. A bronze statue represents him as the apostolic preacher at Golden Gate Park in San Francisco.
Besides extraordinary fortitude, his conspicuous virtues included his zeal, humilty and absolute faith and confidence in God. The wide esteem for him by Californians is evidenced by the fact that Mrs. Leland Stanford, a non-Catholic, had a granite monument erected to him at Monterey.
In 1884 the Legislature of California passed a concurrent resolution making 29 August of that year, the centennial of Father Serra's burial, a legal holiday. Many of Serra's letters and other documentation are extant, the principal ones being his Diary of the journey from Loreto to San Diego, which was published in Out West (March to June, 1902) along with Serra's Representación.
A statue of Father Serra represents the state of California in Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol Building. It was sculpted by Ettore Cadorin and depicts Serra holding a cross and looking toward the sky. Both Spain and the United States have honored Serra with postage stamps.
"Siempre adelante, nunca retrodecer"
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