looking back

Looking Back – The Story of Junipero Serra

By Kinen Carvala

Three thousand people attended the unveiling of the 30-foot-tall bronze statue of Junipero Serra in Golden Gate Park on Nov. 17, 1907, reported The San Francisco Call newspaper. The service organization Native Sons of the Golden West dedicated the statue; and James D. Phelan, who earlier was mayor of San Francisco, donated funds for the statue. More than 100 years later, Serra officially became a saint through canonization by Pope Francis on Sept. 23, 2015.


The Junipero Serra statue in Golden Gate Park. Photos by Michael Durand.

Serra’s progression to sainthood started with Bishop Philip Scher in the Monterey-Fresno Diocese requesting in 1934 that the Vatican start the process. Research into Serra’s life and legacy then began (Californian schoolchildren are well aware of Serra as the founder of many California missions). 

He was declared Venerable in 1985. The 1960 claim of nun Mary Boniface Dyrda that her lupus was miraculously cured after praying to Serra was accepted by the Vatican in 1987, leading Serra to be declared Blessed in 1988. Normally an additional miracle is necessary for the Blessed to reach sainthood, but Pope Francis waived this requirement when he made Serra a saint in 2015.


Serra was born in 1713 on the Spanish island of Mallorca in the Mediterranean. He was a good student in the local convent. At 16, he moved to a larger convent to study to become a priest. During his studies, Serra would have heard of other missionaries who had preached in the Americas. The death of Serra’s mentor, Antonio Perelló, in 1748, may have made Serra wonder if he should remain a teacher in Mallorca like Perelló or go out to spread the word of God. Serra decided to take up one recruiter’s (College of San Fernando in Mexico City) offer in 1748 and worked for several years in what would become central Mexico as a missionary, administrator and Inquisitor.

After Spain struggled against other European empires in the Seven Years’ War, it was eager to consolidate control over the edge of its empire. Serra was one of the new administrators brought in to oversee missions in Baja California (of present-day Mexico) in 1768. It was there that Serra also founded his first mission in 1769.

Worried about possible Russian expansion from Alaska southward, Spanish authorities authorized land and sea expeditions to establish missions in Alta California (present-day California). Each new mission was not necessarily the northernmost one at the time; a mission was founded in 1770 near the newly established regional capital of Monterey before some future missions to the south, like San Luis Obispo or San Gabriel were built. 

Eager to find potential converts while on expeditions with soldiers and other clergy, Serra would reach a Native American (First Nation) settlement and find it either abandoned or inhabited by people who took an interest in the items that the Spanish were carrying (possibly more out of a desire to trade than to convert to Christianity).  

The earliest baptized Indians at any given newly established Alta California mission in the 1770s tended to be children. One baptized Rumsen (a group in the Ohlone tribe) boy took the name Juan Evangelista and become Serra’s servant. Later on, missionaries would teach Christianity to adults who would be baptized. First Nation adults were also expected to farm like Europeans on fixed plots of land, instead of moving between seasonal food sources as First Nation inhabitants had done before. 

Serra continued the practice of flogging (a punishment common throughout the Spanish Empire) that padres used on those who did not conform to rules of life in the mission, such as monogamous marriages without the possibility of divorce. Serra often asked soldiers to retrieve First Nation  persons who left the missions. The soldiers sometimes refused, and one of Serra’s letters noted an occasion when he sent one padre and several First Nation men to arrest and forcibly return a group of runaways. Indian populations in missions were also vulnerable to disease for lacking immunity to European diseases.


The Junipero Serra statue is located on the eastern end of the Music Concourse near the de Young Museum. The picture above, looking northwest, shows the Francis Scott Key statue.

Normally only bishops can have someone confirmed as a member of the Catholic Church, but Serra received a special dispensation to perform confirmations as a non-bishop, which he then did as part of various visits to the  Alta California missions.

Out of the various Christian groups active in Spain’s colonies, Serra’s was the Franciscans, named after medieval Saint Francis (named “San Francisco” in Spanish) from the Italian town of Assisi. Serra was outraged when “San Francisco” was not on the list of designated names for new missions. Cermeño, a Spanish captain in 1595 had named some bay to the north as “San Francisco,” but later Spaniards did not know where this bay was located. A colonial administrator told Serra that if he wanted a mission to be named “San Francisco,” then the long deceased saint should reveal to the Spanish the location of his namesake bay. Miraculously, an expedition in 1769 found a great bay and named it San Francisco (though Cermeño’s San Francisco Bay was actually around Drake’s Bay in Marin). A later expedition on behalf of Serra selected the site for Mission San Francisco de Asís, or Mission Saint Francis of Assisi, in 1776 (i.e., Mission Dolores). “Dolores” is Spanish for “sorrows,” and the alternative name “Mission Dolores” is from a nearby now-vanished Dolores Creek, which was named on the Friday of Sorrows, commemorating Mary, mother of Jesus. Mission Dolores would become a popular stop for travelers in the region as San Francisco became a major port. The mission’s population at its peak was 1,000 to 1,200 between 1801 and 1821, the year Mexico became independent from Spain.

Serra died at Mission San Carlos Borroméo in Carmel, his headquarters, in 1784 at age 70 and was interred there. Out of the 21 Alta California missions founded between 1769 and 1823, nine were established during Serra’s lifetime.  

The implementation of secularization laws passed in 1833 by the Mexican Congress and 1834 by the Alta California legislature led to Alta California mission lands to fall into the private hands of well-connected Mexican citizens.

Not everyone agrees that Serra’s actions as a missionary were saintly. The Muwekma Ohlone Tribe issued a statement opposing Serra’s canonization, citing forced conversions and devastation of Indian culture. Statues of Serra were vandalized both in Carmel (September, 2015) and Monterey (October, 2015) following his canonization.

Serra’s statue in Golden Gate Park is in the northeast corner of the Music Concourse. Trees obscure the statue’s south side, so the best way to visit the statue is to enter the Music Concourse by walking from JFK Drive and turning south onto Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive to see the statue’s north side.

The 30-foot-tall bronze statue was sculpted by Douglas Tilden and cast in Chicago. Bay Area architect Edgar Mathews designed the granite base. “IHS” is visible in the center of a cross in Serra’s right hand. “IHS” is from the similar looking letters at the beginning of Jesus’ name in Greek: ΙΗΣ (the letters iota, eta, and sigma).


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