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Father Junípero Serra

brother junipero serraOn 24 November 1713 Miquel Josep Serra i Ferrer was born into a farming family in Petra and was baptized the same day at the nearby Parish Church of St. Pere. While working the land alongside his father, he attended the local Franciscan primary school at San Bernardí Convent, hearing the Brother's stories of missionary work in distant lands. He was a good student and at the age of 15 years was sent to the San Francisco Convent in Palma where he became an apprentice in the Franciscan order in the Convent of Jesus a year later.

On 15 September 1731 Miquel entered the order and changed his name to Father Junípero in honour of Saint Juniper. He was soon teaching philosophy in San Francisco Convent and held the Chair from 1740 to 1743 before moving across Palma to take the Theology Chair at the Lullian University.

The stories of missionary work must have still occupied his mind because, he set sail for New Spain, (the area we now call Mexico) in 1749 with twenty Franciscan missionaries. The ship docked in Veracruz, the largest port on New Spain's east coast in December but while the rest of the group rode mules on the 200 miles to Mexico City, Father Junípero and a companion made the journey on foot.

brother junipero serraAfter a period of acclimatisation and instruction, Junípero accompanied a group into the Sierra Gorda (or Fat Mountains) of Querétaro to make contact with the Pame Indians, the indigenous tribe who still lived off the land. Their first stop was to establish a mission at Santiago Xalpan (today Jalpan de Serra) and they taught men about agriculture, raising animals, carpentry, ironwork and masonry and the women on cooking, sewing and weaving. The group stayed in the mountains for nine years, establishing communities at Landa, Tancoyol, Conca and Tilaco.

Junípero was looking for a bigger challenge and asked for permission to take a group of missionaries north into the Apache territory now known as Texas. He was not allowed to fulfil his wishes because missionaries had been stopped since the destruction of the San Sabá mission. Little is known about Serra's activities between 1758 and 1767 but he probably spent time working at the College of San Fernando in Mexico City or travelling from community to community to give the missionaries support.

Father Junípero's break came in 1767 when Carlos III ordered the expulsion of all Jews from New Spain and this included the Jesuit missionaries working with the indigenous and European population along the west coast of New Spain. This area was known as Alto and Baja California and while Alto California is part of the modern day State of California, Baja California is the long, thin peninsular to the south, now part of Mexico.

brother junipero serraThe Jesuits had been setting up missions across the Californian area and the Catholic missionaries were going to step into the void. Junípero led the sixteen Franciscan missionaries given the task and in July 1767 they sailed from the west coast of New Spain across to San Blas in Baja California. They headed to Loreto, a town founded by Jesuit missionaries in 1697, and the Mission of Our Lady of Loreto, the head of the missions of Alta and Baja California. After orientating themselves, the Franciscan monks walked north towards Alto California while a ship sailed along coast carrying cattle, pigs and horses. Their first Spanish foundation in Alto California was the Mission of San Diego of Alcala; it was 16 July 1769 and the founding of San Diego.

The Brothers set up each mission in the same way. To begin with they found a suitable place, with water and grazing land, for their chapel and dormitory. They also built a wall in case the natives turned against them. The building works soon attracted attention and that was the idea. The natives were still living off the land, harvesting fruits and roots, hunting animals and fishing. They also dressed in skins and live in huts made of branches and mud. The brothers welcomed the inquisitive natives and over time they gained their confidence and invited to them to settle nearby, teaching them how to live and at the same time they taught the Gospel, the ultimate purpose of their mission.

Over the next 15 years, Father Junípero's group established another nine missions; San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo, San Antonio de Padua, San Gabriel Archangel, San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, San Francisco de Asis, San Juan Capistrano, Santa Clara de Asis and San Buenaventura. They would all grow into important cities such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego, Sacrament.

brother junipero serraFather Junípero died in the Mission of San Carlos Borromeo, Monterrey, on 28 August 1784 and while there are few reminders in Mexico, he has not been forgotten in the United States. He is the only Spanish man remembered by a statue in the National Statuary Hall in the U.S. State Capitol in Washington D.C.; he has also appeared on postage stamps in both the United States and Spain.

Father Junípero is also remembered in his home town of Petra. St. Pere Church where he was baptised and the San Bernardí Convent where he studied as a child have changed little since he left nearly 300 years ago. Neither has his tiny house and the nearby museum which remembers his life; there is also a statue in the main village square. A mile and a half to southwest of the village is Ermita de Bonany, the small hilltop church where Father Junípero gave his last sermon to the people of his village before leaving for New Spain.

brother junipero serraThere is also a museum in San Diego where the first Californian mission was set up as well as the Junípero Serra High school in San Mateo. The Franciscan mission system still operates today and while it is venerated by the Church not everyone holds it in high regard. The missionaries had colonised the Native Americans, replacing their ancient way of life and culture with the strict, devout life of a missionary community. Father Junípero was also the Comisario for the Inquisition, responsible for dealing with denunciations against enemies of the Church. Another overlooked aspect of the missions is the impact of the European diseases unwittingly introduced to California and the thousands of native Indians who succumbed to them.

Pope Juan Pablo II beatified Father Junípero in 1988, however, his canonization was opposed in native parts of the United States because of negative impact of the missions on the indigenous Indian culture. Whichever way you look at it, Junípero had travelled a long way from farmer's boy to founder and architect of the California mission system.

To learn more about the town where Father Junípero grew up, check out the Petra webpage in the Pla section. To learn more about the San Francisco Convent, check out the Santa Eulalia and Temple webpage in the Palma City section. To find out more about Father Serra's museum go www.frayjuniperoserra.net

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