story and photos by Tyler Kindred
On Wednesday, September 23, 2015, Father Junipero Serra was canonized into sainthood by Pope Francis at a special mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington D.C. Serra, “The Apostle of California,” was the first saint to be canonized on U.S. soil, and America’s first Latin Saint.
The pope’s visit to America was met by a mass of media attention. It had been the first visit by a Pope to America since Pope Benedict in 2008. Pope Francis has gained controversial attention for his more liberal attitude towards subjects such as homosexuality, facing climate change and the female role in the church.
Pope Francis comes from Argentina, and is the first non-European Pope since Pope Gregory III from Syria in 741 A.D., nearly 1,300 years ago. His attitude towards the poor and his abolishment of lofty titles such as ‘My Lord’, have earned him the title of “The People’s Pope.” And so the biography of Pope Francis blends in with that of Father Serra: a controversial Hispanic figure, aimed at revitalizing the lower classes of society, with a duty that blurred the benevolence of spreading Catholic faith with the practicality of holding a governmental position of authority.
In 1749, the western coast had largely been unestablished. Junipero Serra set out as a missionary, leaving Spain and traveling through Mexico and the western United States to spread Catholicism to indigenous populations. His first mission was established in May of 1769, in San Fernando de Velicatá. On November 1, 1776, with the ink still wet on the Declaration of Independence, the “jewel” of the California missions, our local mission of San Juan Capistrano, was established and serving the indigenous Acjachemen people.
As was the case in other parts of the United States, the impact of spreading western culture to indigenous populations brought with it devastating effects to the culture. Though the conversion to Catholicism was optional, the pressure to do so was great. Those who were not eager to convert were relocated from their homeland, whipped, imprisoned or otherwise tortured. Serra’s decision to use corporal punishment on offenders was considered controversial at the time.i
Supporters of Serra have taken the position of defending him and his actions, and differentiating his attitude from his companions.
“All of his writings reflect genuine respect for the indigenous people and their ways,” said Los Angeles ArchBishop Jose H. Gomez. Historian Steven Hackel, author of a 2013 book about Junipero Serra entitled Junipero Serra: California’s Founding Father elaborated: “what they are trying to say is that Serra protected indigenous people from soldiers and settlers and things would have been a lot worse without him. There’s very much truth in that … but the other side of the equation is what did those missions … mean for tens of thousands of Indians.”ii Hackel went on to explain that after Serra’s death, conditions for the natives worsened and much of the culture quickly died off.
Pope Francis broadly referenced the atrocities that took place in America. While visiting Bolivia this July, Pope Francis announced, “I humbly ask forgiveness, not only for the offense of the church herself, but also for the crimes committed against the native people during the so-called conquest of America.”iii
Pope Francis’ attitude towards poor, as well as addressing climate change head-on, has distinguished him from previous clergy, and given him favor with many members of the Church. “Mistreatment and wrongs which today still trouble us,” Francis continued, “especially because of the hurt which they cause in the lives of many people.”
Pope Francis separated Junipero Serra from the aggressive Catholic tactics, saying Serra “sought to defend the dignity of the native community, to protect it from those who had mistreated and abused it.”
Native American groups were vocal about their concerns. Over 50 tribes were represented in opposition to Serra’s sainthood. Deborah Miranda, member of the Ohlone Costanoan Esselen Nation of California, explained:
“My objection and the objection of many California Indians is that he is being honored for in fact dishonoring many of our California ancestors. The missions ended up killing about 90% of the California Indians present at the time of missionization, creating all kinds of cultural and emotional baggage that we still carry to this day.”
The week of the canonization, a six-foot statue of Junipero Serra, at the mission of Carmel, was vandalized. The statue was toppled, and nearby spray paint read “Saint Of Genocide”. Native American tribal members voiced disapproval of the incident, and no lead on the perpetrators was found. The security camera on scene was not working at the time, and the guards had heard no disturbance.
At a time period when the spread of western ideals, both the benevolent and the more short-sighted, were at the crux of a massive renovation of a continent, Junipera Serra was both a visionary and a pioneer. Upon his canonization, Pope Francis declared Serra “a founding member of the United States.” His mission system, dotting the western coast of the Americas, became a symbol of the Spanish Colonial Era in California. At the time of his death, over 4,600 native converts were being housed in the mission system he constructed.
There are those who voice a defense for Junipero Serra, and separate his actions from those of his companions.
In his final address to the United States, Pope Francis concluded his visit, saying “It was particularly moving for me to canonize Saint Junipero Serra, who reminds us all of our call to be missionary disciples…”
ii Harriet Ryan, “Pope Francis Praises Junipero Serra As U.S. Founding Father” Los Angeles Times, May 2, 2015.
iii Laura M. Holson, “Attack On Statue Of New Saint Junipero Serra Digs Up Old Conflicts” New York Times, September 29, 2015