Father Junípero Serra, a Spanish Franciscan missionary, founds the first Catholic mission in California on the site of present-day San Diego. After Serra blessed his new outpost of Christianity in a high mass, the royal standard of Spain was unfurled over the mission, which he named San Diego de Alcala.
Serra came to Spanish America in 1750 and served in the Sierra Gorda missions and then in south-central Mexico. A successful missionary, he was appointed a member of the second Spanish land expedition to Alta California in 1769. When the party reached San Diego, Serra remained with a few followers to found California’s first mission. The rest of the expedition continued on in search of Monterrey harbor, which had been previously used by Spanish sailors. Although the explorers failed in their aim, Serra succeeded in finding Monterrey in 1770, and there he founded his second mission—San Carlos Barromeo.
Appointed president of the Alta California presidios, Serra eventually founded a total of nine missions, stretching from San Diego to present-day San Francisco. The Franciscan fathers built large communities around their missions, teaching Christianized Native Americans to farm and tend cattle, and directing their work. These agricultural communities enjoyed a considerable autonomy from first the Spanish colonial authorities and then the Mexican government, but with the coming of the Americans in the mid-19th century most were abandoned.