He was born Miguel Jose Serra at Petra on the Spanish Island of Mallorca, Spain. At the age of 16 he traveled to Palma, the capital of Mallorca, and entered the service of the Catholic Church, the Order of St. Francis of Assisi and took a new first name, Junipero. Serra stood just 5 feet, 2 inches tall. He received a doctorate in philosophy at the University of Luliana in Palma and taught at the Convent of San Francisco in Palma.
In 1750, Serra volunteered to serve the Franciscan missions in the new world and left Cadiz, Spain and sailed for Vera Cruz, Mexico, at the age of 36. He traveled by foot to Mexico City to dedicate his mission vocation at the shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe. He spent 17 years in missionary work in the Sierra Gorda in the present area of north-central Mexico.
When the Franciscans were asked to take over the missions from the Jesuits in Baja California in 1767, these remote facilities became Father Serra's responsibility. In 1769, he set off on an expedition with Gaspar de Portola to found missions at San Diego and Monterey, to establish the Spanish right to California and convert the indians to Christianity. He would spend the rest of his life in Alta California.
When Father Serra founded the first of California's missions in San Diego, he was 56 years old. He had asthma and a chronic sore on his leg that troubled him for the rest of his life. Serra himself established nine missions, with a total of twenty-one missions eventually being established along the El Camino Real, from San Diego to Sonoma, a distance of 700 miles. On August 28, 1784, at the age of 70 and after traveling 24,000 miles, Father Junipero Serra died at Mission San Carlos Borromeo and is buried there under the sanctuary floor.