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Pope to canonize Junipero Serra amid controversy

September 17, 2015
Valerie Schmalz

Pope Francis’ decision to canonize Blessed Junipero Serra, calling him the “evangelizer of the western United States,” and “one of the founding fathers of the United States,” shocked those who view the Spanish Franciscan as a symbol of oppression of the California native peoples and who blame Christian conversion for their virtual extinction.

Pope Francis announced his plans to canonize Blessed Serra during the airplane trip in January from Sri Lanka to the Philippines. In his May 2 homily at the Pontifical North American College, the pontiff laid out more explicitly his reasons for canonizing Blessed Serra.

“He ushered in a new springtime of evangelization in those immense territories,” Pope Francis said in his homily at the Mass during a day devoted to exploring research about Blessed Serra. “This was long before the Mayflower reached the North Atlantic Coast.”

Blessed Serra is “a saintly example of the church’s holiness and special patron of the Hispanic people of the country,” Pope Francis said. “There are three key aspects to the life and example of Friar Junípero: his missionary zeal, his Marian devotion and his witness of holiness.”

Those aspects of Blessed Serra are almost lost in the controversy that has whirled around the 5 foot 2 Franciscan friar from the island of Mallorca, controversy which has included demonstrations outside California missions, a Moveon.org petition against his canonization, and a failed attempt by some California lawmakers this summer to remove Blessed Serra’s statue from the U.S. Capitol.

What was the role of Blessed Serra and the California Missions for Native Americans?

A group of historians gathered in Rome in the spring and presented documentation of Blessed Serra as a “tireless missionary” who placed his evangelization of Native Americans under the patronage of Our Lady of Guadalupe.


‘The ultimate martyrdom’

Ruben Mendoza, an archaeology professor at California State University in Monterey Bay, called the association of Blessed Serra with the crimes and abuses of the latter half of the 19th century “the ultimate martyrdom Serra has suffered.” While not a descendant of the coastal California Mission Indians, Mendoza is Yaqui Indian and Hispanic Catholic. He testified in July before a California State Assembly committee in favor of keeping Blessed Serra’s statue in the Capitol.

Mendoza, along with other historians, said that although colonization eventually brought an end to the hunter-gatherer way of life of California’s native peoples, their great decimation occurred 100 years later as Americans settled the territory of California during the Gold Rush and afterward.

In fact, said Robert Senkewicz, Santa Clara University history professor and author of a new heavily documented biography of Blessed Serra, the Franciscan sacrificed and fought for the native peoples against the Spanish military, who accompanied the missionaries to California.

“(Serra) constantly ended up at odds with a whole series of military leaders on how the Indians should be treated,” said Senkewicz, who co-wrote with his wife, Santa Clara professor Rose Marie Beebe, “Junipero Serra: California, Indians and the Transformation of a Missionary” (University of Oklahoma Press, $34.95).

Despite being near death due to illness, Blessed Serra completed an agonizing, months-long journey from San Diego to Mexico City to push for the replacement of the military governor of what is now California because of the abuses suffered by the California Native Americans, including the rape of a Native American woman by a Spanish soldier, said Senkewicz.

“In that regard, we can say Serra was ahead of his time,” said Senkewicz.”He was proactive for the civil rights of native peoples.”


Understanding Serra

Blessed Serra’s commitment to evangelize rather than destroy the native peoples was evident from the beginning of his life as a missionary, according to Senkewicz.

“In our book we try to understand Father Serra in his own time and from his own values and from his own identity as a Catholic missionary priest,” Senkewicz said. “Junipero Serra left a ‘cushy’ job as a theology professor on (the island of) Mallorca, never to return, living a hard life on the frontier.”

The friars came as part of the colonial expedition, and Spain’s strategy was that by bringing the native peoples into its settlements and way of life, it would cement its hold on the California territory. However, the objective of Blessed Serra and the Franciscan missionaries was evangelization, Mendoza and Senkewicz said.

“Serra spent the final half of his life, from the moment he arrived in Mexico City on Jan. 1, 1750, until his death at Carmel on Aug. 28, 1784, struggling to live out his own beliefs in the midst of that complex and bloody reality,” Senkewicz and Beebe write in their 2015 biography. “The manner in which he did so was controversial in his own day and remains no less controversial today.”

The worst abuses of the California Indians, however, came much later, said Mendoza, who believes the antagonism toward the missionary is based on the fact that many of Blessed Serra’s critics confuse the impact of Spanish colonizing and missionary activity on the native communities with the decimation of the native peoples after California became a U.S. territory in 1848.

The California legislature over time appropriated more than $1 million to pay for bounties for killing California Indians and paid $5 a scalp, said Mendoza, citing “Murder State: California’s Native American Genocide 1846-1873,” by Brendan C. Lindsay (University of Nebraska Press, $35).

Another objection to Blessed Serra’s canonization involves reports that California Indians at the missions were beaten, but Mendoza said there is no documentation that Blessed Serra abused anyone although corporal punishment was common at the time.


Serra as scapegoat?

Andrew Galvan, who is descended from an Ohlone Indian and is curator of the Mission San Francisco de Asis, or old Mission Dolores, in San Francisco, said Pope Francis’ decision to canonize Blessed Junipero Serra without the standard second miracle is because the Franciscan “lived the life of a miracle.”

However, Galvan, who worked for decades on Blessed Serra’s sainthood cause, hopes that the pontiff will apologize in the U.S. for the Catholic Church’s involvement in colonialism as he did July 9 in Bolivia.

“The ones who oppose canonization, it is more a symbol than the real Serra. Serra becomes responsible for everything that happened during the mission era,” said Jeffrey Burns, director of the American Academy of Franciscan History in San Diego, who said the Spanish destroyed the native peoples’ hunter-gather way of life by establishing farms and cattle ranches.

But Burns said of Blessed Serra: “He is the one who brought the faith to California.”


Much of this story was originally published in Our Sunday Visitor Newsweekly.

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