In 1776, as the American revolution was unfurling in the east, another transformative event was taking place in the west that would ultimately shape the future of the United States. In California, an unyielding Franciscan donned in gray robes laid the foundation of Mission San Juan Capistrano, which today is renowned for its annually returning swallows. This mission was the seventh of nine established under the auspices of this resolute Spaniard.

Born on Spain’s Mallorca island, Junipero Serra, as he became known, joined the Franciscan Order and adopted the name of Saint Francis’ innocent companion, Brother Juniper. Until the age of thirty-five, he dedicated most of his time to theological studies, first as a student and later as a professor, gaining notoriety for his compelling preaching. However, he felt a deep-seated longing to follow in the footsteps of Saint Francis Solanus, whose missionary work in South America he had heard about years earlier. Junipero aspired to convert the indigenous people of the New World to Christianity.

His journey began with a voyage by ship to Vera Cruz, Mexico. From there, he and a companion made the arduous 250-mile journey to Mexico City on foot. During the trip, Junipero suffered an insect bite on his left leg which became infected, causing him lifelong health complications that often posed a life-threatening risk. Undeterred, he devoted the next eighteen years to missionary work in central Mexico and the Baja Peninsula, eventually presiding over the missions there.

When King Charles III of Spain commanded an expedition to secure territory ahead of Russia, Junipero found himself tasked with a new mission. Jose de Galvez, acting as the last of the spiritual and military conquistadors, urged Junipero to join him on a journey to present-day Monterey, California. Upon their 900-mile northward journey, the first mission they established was San Diego in 1769. That same year, a food shortage nearly led to the expedition’s cancellation. Junipero, resolved to stand by the local people, started a novena alongside another friar in preparation for Saint Joseph’s Day, their planned departure date on March 19. Miraculously, a relief ship arrived on the very day they had prepared to leave.

Additional missions sprang up in the following years: Monterey/Carmel (1770); San Antonio and San Gabriel (1771); San Luis Obispo (1772); San Francisco and San Juan Capistrano (1776); Santa Clara (1777); San Buenaventura (1782). Even after Serra’s death, twelve more missions were founded.

On one occasion, Junipero made the arduous journey to Mexico City to resolve significant differences with the military commander. Despite arriving gravely ill, his negotiation yielded the famous “Regulation,” which served to protect the Indians and the missions. This legislation laid the groundwork for the first significant laws in California, essentially serving as a “Bill of Rights” for Native Americans.

In the eyes of the Spanish, the Native Americans were leading an inhumane life, which led to the friars becoming their legal guardians. The indigenous people, once baptized, were kept within the mission to prevent them from falling back into their old ways. This decision has been criticized by some today as unjust.

Junipero’s missionary life was filled with struggle — against harsh weather, hunger, unsympathetic military commanders, and even threats from non-Christian native groups. Nonetheless, his unwavering zeal was continually fueled by nightly prayer sessions that often lasted from midnight until dawn. He baptized over six thousand people and confirmed five thousand. His missionary travels could have encircled the globe. He brought more than faith to the Native Americans — he offered them a more humane standard of living. His genuine compassion earned their love, as evidenced by their mourning upon his death. Junipero was laid to rest at Mission San Carlo Borromeo, Carmel, and was beatified in 1988.

Editorial credit: Michael Vi /
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