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Miguel José Serra was born on the island of Mallorca and educated by the Order of St. Francis of Assisi. An excellent student, Serra joined the Franciscans, taking the name of Junípero. He became a professor of philosophy, but requested assignment to Mexico in 1749 to minister to the natives.
In 1767, the Jesuits were expelled from the Spanish empire, which opened the door for the Franciscans to increase their influence. Serra was selected to head his order’s effort in Alta (Upper) California, where there were souls to be saved and Russians to be resisted. A settlement was established at San Diego in 1769, the first of nine California missions to be founded by Serra.
The California officials took their spiritual aims seriously, gathering the neighboring Native Americans into the mission enclosures to encourage religious conversion and the abandonment of traditional lifeways.
Serra was widely recognized for his iron will. Despite severe asthma, he walked the entire distance from Vera Cruz to Mexico City when he first came to the New World, and would later travel up and down the California coast on foot or donkey back. He also wore a shirt with sharp metal barbs turned inward against his skin.
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