On the morning of July 16, 1769, on a windswept hillside overlooking the Pacific Ocean, Father Junipero Serra celebrated High Mass before a hewn wooden cross. The Mass signaled the sunset of Spain’s mission colonization of the New World but the dawn of Father Serra’s greatest work.

By the 1760s Spain’s empire had been drained by far-flung battles and internal decay. When the Russians began moving from Alaska down the western coast of North America, the Spanish became alarmed. In 1768, a plan to permanently settle California was formulated. This movement, spearheaded by Captain Gaspar de Portolá, would move north from Baja California to reach Monterey’s bay, where a garrison would be established. Each wave of settlement, by land or sea, would pass through San Diego, with coastal mission settlements planned between the two points.

Taking seriously the name of this “Sacred Expedition” was Serra, a 55 year-old Franciscan friar who, despite a badly infected leg, insisted on making the trip: “I have placed all my confidence in God, of whose goodness I hope that he will grant me to reach not only San Diego but also Monterey.” His prayers were answered.

Giving Up Success

Miguel José Serra was born November 24, 1713, on the island of Majorca. Schooled at a Franciscan friary, he requested admission to the Franciscan order at age 16. Serra chose the religious name “Junipero,” recalling the simplicity and good humor of St. Francis’s early companion.

His superb teaching gifts were soon recognized and sharpened through doctoral study. But his promising career did not satisfy the young professor. Late in 1748, he requested that he and Fray Francisco Palou (his future biographer) become apostolic missionaries to the New World.

While waiting at ...

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