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Mission curators share ancestry but disagree on Serra’s sainthood

January 23, 2015
Christina Gray

Twenty-four hours after Pope Francis announced his intention to canonize Franciscan Father Junipero Serra at the end of the year, Mission Dolores curator Andy Galvan told Catholic San Francisco that the news made him feel like he’d won the lottery.

“Father Serra has always been a saint to me, I’ve just been waiting for the pope to announce it,” Galvan said on Jan. 16. For almost 40 years he’s been a board member of the Junipero Serra Cause for Canonization.

Galvan traces his heritage to a pair of native people baptized, married and buried at Mission Dolores during the Spanish mission era (1769-1833). That era was led by Serra, who established nine of California’s 21 missions, including Mission Dolores – formally known as Mision San Francisco de Asis – before his death in 1784.

Since Serra’s beatification in 1988, Galvan and others have worked hard to establish the case for his sainthood through the verification of two miracles, and a life lived in accordance with the cardinal virtues of hope, faith and charity, and the theological virtues of temperance, prudence, justice and fortitude.

A nun cured of lupus in the 1960s was the first miracle attributed to Serra, Galvan said.

“The second miracle Rome is accepting is the miracle of his life,” he said.

In the historic cemetery, a gaggle of fourth graders flock to the oversized statue of Serra looming over the graveyard after their teacher tells them they are looking at the newest saint.

Californians owe much of their state history to Father Serra, and he is lauded by Christians for his piety and fierce determination to bring the faith to the native people of California.

But his legacy is not without controversy. He has been denounced by some who say Spanish rule destroyed Indian culture in California and that he mistreated native people in the name of God.

Galvan said Serra was actually a defender of Indian rights in the 18th century. He went to Mexico City to get the rights to protect the Indians from the military who viewed the natives as only a labor force. 

“It was his methodology at the time to place the padres as guardians of the native people to protect them from the military,” said Galvan. “That was his idea.”

Didn’t Serra also use the Indians to build his missions? Galvan said yes, and no. “He was also attempting to teach them the Spanish lifestyle that was coming upon them, to encourage them to find a way to survive it,” he said. 

Galvan said he believes Pope Francis sees Father Serra as a role model for missionary action today.  He hopes that will include the native people in California, who he said “don’t feel welcomed” in mission communities, despite their historic link to them.

“The events of the past, you can’t fix them, you can’t change them,” he said. “But what our missions can do today is reach out to native people.”

Vincent Medina, Galvan’s cousin and assistant curator, agrees.

Medina said that the mission story often fails to acknowledge the native people who built the missions and lost their culture and many of their people in the process.  As he gives mission tours, he tries to balance that lost narrative by talking about the richness of the native land and culture the Spaniards found here.

Despite their shared Ohlone ancestry, the cousins diverge on the subject of sainthood for Father Serra.

Medina said Serra was aware of the punishment inflicted on the native Californians even if it wasn’t at his hand. He is not in support of canonizing him.

“I believe that if you are being canonized, if you are to be called a saint, it should be expected during your life you rose above the limitations of your time period.”

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