Fr. Junípero Serra. Sculpture from his native Mallorca, Spain. 19th Century, Spanish school, approx. 2 feet tall. Located inside the main church at the Mission San Diego de Alcalá.
Fr. Junípero Serra, born Miquel Joseph Serra on Nov. 24, 1713, in Petra, Majorca, Spain, was responsible for establishing the mission system in Alta California. He was a Catholic priest of the Franciscan order and entered the Alcantarine reform movement in 1730, during the reign of Pope Clement XII (1730-1740). He came to Mexico City in 1749 at the time of Pope Benedict XIV (1740-1758) and taught theology. In 1768, near the end of Pope Clement XIII's reign (1758-1769), he was appointed the leader of a band of Franciscan friars for the Indian missions in Baja California.
We have no reason to believe Serra ever set foot in the Santa Clarita Valley. He stayed behind in San Diego with a leg injury when in 1769 the 64 members of the Portolà expedition (including Serra protégé Fr. Juan Crespí; fellow diarist Miguel Costansó; and Portolà's eventual successor as military governor of the Californias, Pedro Fages) set out over land from San Diego to Monterey. They passed through the Santa Clarita Valley from Aug. 8-10 of that year, en route to Santa Barbara.
Meanwhile in 1769, Serra set up Alta California's first mission at San Diego. When the Portolà party returned to that city in January 1770, Serra sailed to Monterey, where he initially established his headquarters. Fages, by this time his political rival, was stationed there, so Serra moved the mission to Carmel. (It might be noted that Serra had stayed behind in San Diego after walking north through Baja with a diseased leg. Franciscans were forbidden from using any form of conveyance, including a horse, except in dire necessity. When he sailed to Monterey, his inability to walk there was incontrovertible.)
Serra established the first nine of Alta California's 21 missions during the time of Popes Clement XIV (1769-1774) and Pius VI (1775-1799). His nearest to the SCV was also his last, San Buenaventura (Ventura) in 1782. (His successor, Fr. Fermín Lasuén, established the Mission San Fernando in 1797.)
Serra died Aug. 28, 1784, at Carmel. On Sept. 25, 1988, he was beatified ("blessed" status, one step below canonization, i.e., sainthood) by Pope John Paul II (1978-2005).