Father Junipero Serra was born Miguel Jose Serra on November 24, 1713 at Petra on the island of Mallorca in Spain. He entered the Franciscan Order when he was sixteen, taking the name Junipero. Serra was a great intellectual who was appointed as a professor of theology and he seemed destined for a lifetime of academic pursuits.
In 1750, in spite of his age and poor health, Serra volunteered to serve in the Franciscan mission in the New World. He arrived in Vera Cruz, Mexico in ill health but insisted on walking from there all the way to Mexico City, some 200 miles away. Along the way, he was bitten by a mosquito and the bite became infected. This injury bothered him for the rest of his life. Father Serra then worked in the Sierra Gorda area of north central Mexico for the next 17 years.
When the Franciscans took over the California missions from the Jesuits in 1767, Father Serra was put in charge. In 1769, at the age of 56, he made his first expedition to California with Gaspar de Portola. The decision to create missions in California was political as well as religious. Spain wanted to gain a foothold in California before the Russians pushed southward. Serra traveled with a military expedition, establishing missions in the new territory. On the way to California, Serra's leg was so sore that he could hardly walk, but he refused to go back to Mexico, saying "Even though I should die on the way, I shall not turn back".
Serra spent the rest of his life as head of the missions in California, founding nine missions in all including his headquarters at the mission San Carlos de Borromeo in Carmel. Among other accomplishments, he introduced agriculture and irrigation systems and converted the Indians to Christianity. Unfortunately, not all the results of Spanish settlement were good. The Spanish carried diseases that the natives had no immunity to, and because of the resulting deaths the Indian population declined from about 300,000 in 1769 to about 200,000 in 1821.
Father Serra was a small man who worked hard despite physical ailments which included asthma and a chronic sore on his leg. His superhuman efforts led him to near starvation, bouts of scurvy and hundreds of miles of walking and riding through rough and dangerous terrain. As if this weren't enough, he was known for his various mortifications of the flesh, including wearing heavy shirts with sharp wires pointed inward, whipping himself until he led and using a candle to scar his chest. In spite of all this, he traveled more than 24,000 miles in his lifetime.
Father Serra died in 1784 at the age of 70 at Mission San Carlos de Borromeo where he was buried under the sanctuary floor. In 1987, Pope John Paul II beatified Father Serra, the second of three steps necessary to achieve sainthood.