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Pope Francis Should Not Be Canonizing Junipero Serra

The pillager of California's natives has enough memorials already—and his sainthood has no place in the contemporary Catholic Church.
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This man was no saint. (Image: The Huntington Library)

Father Junipero Serra, the controversial figure who led the charge by the Catholic church to found a chain of missions in California, is set to be canonized today by Pope Francis in Washington, D.C. "He was the evangelizer of the West in the United States," Francis told reporters in January, when he first announced his decision to canonize Serra.

Serra, who was born on the Spanish island of Mallorca in 1713 and founded nine of California's 21 missions, will become a saint with only one miracle to has name—the curing of a 78-year-old nun with lupus—because he has been "venerated as a saint" for centuries, according to the Pope. (Canonization traditionally requires proof of two miracles.) A slick website set up by the Archdiocese of Los Angeles agrees with Francis: "Long loved in California, Serra will be revered by the whole world as a symbol of heroic sacrifice and evangelization."*

“Sacrifice and evangelization” aren't Serra's only legacies. In his biography of Junipero Serra, historian Steven Hackel recalls Serra's paternalistic attitude toward the Native Americans he came to convert: "An ideal father, Serra believed, 'because he loves him with fatherly love, he teaches [his child] to obey; when he fails in anything, he scolds him and punishes him, so that the son corrects his deviations.'" Native Americans, in other words, were to be treated like children who required discipline and obedience. There was no hint of understanding that Serra and his gang were intruding on someone else's land and culture. They traveled the spine of California with one goal; to convert every Native American they encountered. Once converted, some of the children were taught to read and write, and all were instructed in the traditions and rituals of the Catholic church.

There was no hint of understanding that Serra and his gang were intruding on someone else's land and culture. They traveled the spine of California with one goal; to convert every Native American they encountered.

"Conversion was not compulsory; rather, Indians chose freely to join the Church and the mission after a period of catechesis," says the L.A. Archdiocese website. This statement runs in direct opposition to Hackel's account, which recalls an episode in which Serra gave gifts to a 15-year-old Indian boy encouraging him to convert, telling the boy that those who were baptized would receive clothing from the church. In a place whose native people had almost no material comforts, holding out the promise of clothing and gifts for converts qualifies as coercion.

Forced conversion should cast a sufficient shadow over Serra's legacy. But he also oversaw a regime of violence against Native Americans: They were brutalized by Spanish soldiers at the Presidios of each Mission and, sometimes, by the missionaries themselves. Women were raped and left on their own to care for their children and, perhaps most devastatingly, tens of thousands of Native Americans were killed by exposure to disease, harsh labor conditions, and lack of access to medical care: Condemning the “pagan” practices of local doctors, missionaries barred practitioners from tending to their native community, and smallpox did worse than decimate the population—it killed up to one-third of Native Americans living around the missions. The suffering was more than physical: Native American culture, which had once thrived all over California, lost some of its central figures to disease and its rituals to Catholicism. Junipero Serra, who was so revered by Spanish and Mexican settlers, had become the figurehead of anti-Native sentiment. This is, in part, why the practice of sainthood is so dangerous: It enshrines in permanent glory a deeply imperfect person. It seems a bit of a surprise, too, that Pope Francis, whose empathetic reputation precedes him, should be the one presiding over Serra’s sainthood. Francis’ care for the poor and marginalized is well-documented, and it feels dissonant that he seems to have turned a deaf ear to the suffering and anger of so many native Americans.

To be declared a saint means, among other things, that you “reign in eternal glory," according to the New Catholic Encyclopedia, and that the Catholic Church holds you in a position of honor. Serra was a committed evangelist and has come to be known as the Father of California, connecting settlements throughout the state that had previously had no contact with one another. If you've ever driven state highway 101, you've likely seen the cast-iron bells marking the historic El Camino Real, the route Serra took as he founded the first missions. There are schools and roads named after Father Serra, and even a gin called Junípero, a reference both to Serra and the berry that gives the clear alcohol its flavor. Serra has already secured a vaunted position in California state history. The question now is what his place will be in the life of the church. He will be sainted, but will he be venerated in the hearts of individual Catholics? Or will they, troubled by his colonial legacy, stand in solidarity with their Native American peers?

Kagen Ward and Caroline Ward-Hollard are hoping for the latter. The mother-and-son team are descendants of the Tataviam tribe from the Santa Clarita Valley, and they have already begun their Walk for the Ancestors, a months-long journey over the 650 miles of road connecting the mission system. The two start their days burning sage to cleanse themselves and then begin their methodical journey, welcoming visitors along the way, to the next mission. There, they meet with Native Americans from other tribes—Ohlone, Miwok, Pomo—and spend time in prayer and conversation. They have declared today a Day of Mourning and are calling on supporters to wear black. They will meet at 12 p.m. in the cemetery at San Carlos Borromeo Mission in Carmel, where there will also be a live-stream of Serra's canonization.

Serra's bones lie beneath the floor of the basilica at the Carmel Mission. The basilica has large arched ceilings and thick wood pews, and the gilded reredos features carved images of the Archangel Michael and the crucified Christ, among others. The figures look down toward the floor where a striking portrait of Junipero Serra leans against a balcony atop his final resting place. "Fr. Junipero Serra, Apostol de California," reads his tombstone.

A few yards outside the basilica is the cemetery. Most marked graves contain the bodies of Mexican missionaries or church officials and their loved ones. Ringing the cemetery's north side are a series of mostly unmarked graves stuck with small wooden crosses and decorated with abalone shells. These are the graves of some of the Native Americans who died at the Carmel Mission. For those whose graves are long forgotten, a plaque remains to placate: "In memory of the Christian Indians and Spaniards who were interred in this cemetery between the years 1771–1833."


*Update — September 23, 2015: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated where Junipero Serra was born; he was born on Mallorca.