Junipero Serra’s Sainthood Dismays Many

by on September 24, 2015 · 1 comment

in California, Civil Rights, Culture, Health, History, Politics, San Diego, World News

Junipero Serra1By Doug Porter

Eighteenth century Franciscan missionary Junipero Serra was canonized by Pope Francis this week. Hailed by the church as “the evangelizer of west in the United States” and reviled by descendants of the indigenous people living along the coast, Serra’s ascension to sainthood is a controversial move.

The expulsion of the Jesuit order from the Spanish colonies by King Carlos III brought Serra to Baja California. In 1769, the government, fearful of intrusions by Russian traders to the north, dispatched the Franciscans to what we now call California. Serra founded nine missions, starting with the Mission San Diego de Alcalá and went about the business of ‘civilizing’ the local inhabitants.

Tales of the conquest of California by Spanish soldiers and Catholic missionaries by supporters of the church tend towards laying the blame for much of the ensuing slaughter on the military. Serra viewed the native population as children, children who needed the kind of brutal discipline meted out by the Franciscan order in order to find salvation.

Here’s the Union-Tribune’s Ricky Young:

The new title probably will not put to rest hundreds of years of disagreement over Serra’s treatment of Native American Californians as he went about establishing missions up the coast of California, starting with San Diego.

The pope has this to say about Serra: “He ushered in a new springtime of evangelization in those immense territories, extending from Florida to California, which, in the previous 200 years, had been reached by missionaries from Spain. This was long before the pilgrims of the Mayflower reached the North Atlantic coast. There are three key aspects to the life and example of Friar Junípero: his missionary zeal, his Marian devotion and his witness of holiness.”

The church’s position is that Serra was a friend of the tribes, protecting them against Spanish conquistadors and settlers along the coast. There is no shortage of contrary opinions, from people who say Serra is guilty of slavery and even genocide.

Idealized 19th-century depiction of San Diego Mission

Idealized 19th-century depiction of San Diego Mission

Alan Yuhas, writing for The Guardian, has a harsher view:

A story about conquest, religion and the Americas, central to a founding myth of California, will end this year with the pope bestowing sainthood on a man many see as guilty of “slavery” and “violent evangelism”….

“…Serra was not the face of evil”, says Deborah Miranda, a professor of literature at Washington and Lee University and an Ohlone Costanoan Esselen Indian. “But there were so many atrocities happening and he closed his eyes,” she said. “I don’t think he should be rewarded for that.”

For Miranda, Serra’s complicity outweighs whatever intentions he had. He was driven by ambition, she said, and in his desire to produce results for Spain he “laid the groundwork to erase our cultures and impose this burden of shame on Indians about being Indian”.

Rose Aguilar, also writing at The Guardian isn’t so sure about Serra’s intentions:

native americas killedElias Castillo, a three-time Pulitzer Prize nominee, spent seven years researching and reading books published by the Franciscans, which include letters written by Serra himself. In his book A Cross of Thorns: The Enslavement of California’s Native Americans by the Spanish Missions, Castillo doesn’t mince words when he describes the missions as “death camps run by friars where thousands of California’s Indians perished.” In letters, Serra wrote that he considered the indigenous population to be “barbarous pagans,” and that only Catholicism could save them from evil.

When the King of Spain sent Jesuit priests to prevent Russian fur hunters from claiming the region, he directed them to educate and baptize native peoples so they could become Spanish citizens, but Serra had other plans. He brutally converted them to Christianity and wiped out entire cultures, languages and villages in the process.

Under Serra’s leadership, soldiers violently captured California’s Native Americans, forced them into labor and imprisoned them until they died. According to Castillo’s exhaustive research, they were beaten, flogged and placed in shackles that didn’t allow them to bend their knees for days. If they grieved over the loss of loved ones, they were whipped. Mothers who had miscarriages were not allowed to mourn; instead, they were accused of having abortions and then forced to hold a carved figure of an infant while standing outside of a mission church.

Jamie Manson, at the National Catholic Reporter, says the Pope “fervently fast-tracked Serra’s canonization process in time for his visit to the United States.”

Getting to the “Why?” of this process, Manson (who is critical of the canonization) says it’s about fostering a renewed evangelism in the Church:

Monument of Junípero Serra (with Juaneño Indian boy) on plaza de San Francisco de Asis in Havana

Monument of Junípero Serra (with Juaneño Indian boy) on plaza de San Francisco de Asis in Havana

“Some powers are committed to erasing” Christianity, he said, “because our faith is revolutionary, because our faith challenges the tyranny of Mammon.”

Francis further warned against a “new form of colonialism” that has fostered inequality, materialism and the exploitation of the poor.

The strange irony is that Francis is using Serra, a missionary who sought to erase the culture and religion of one people, to try to counter the erasure of Christianity. He is using the founding father of religious colonialism to combat secular colonialism.

In the lead up to Serra’s canonization, some have argued that, to be a saint, you don’t have to be perfect, you only have to be holy.


This is an excerpt – very slightly edited to bring it up to date – from Doug Porter’s column at San Diego Free Press.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Geoff Page September 24, 2015 at 11:53 am

What a travesty.


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