Junipero Serra, Controversial Priest Behind California Missions, Becomes a Saint

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Pope Francis speaks at the canonization of Junipero Serra on Sept. 23, 2015. (Credit: CNN)

Andrew Galvan knows the wound that lingers almost 250 years later, the one that bears upon the genesis of the great American West.

The British colonized the East, but here in California, the Spaniards arrived with their armies and Catholic missionaries to take the West.

It was Galvan’s great-great-great-great-grandparents who in 1794 were among the first Indians to be baptized in one of the state’s iconic missions whose architect was the pioneering and controversial priest Junipero Serra.

Many Americans may not know Serra’s name, but here in California, the Spanish missionary is as storied as the majestic coastline itself.

Serra initiated the building of the missions that line California and remain a top tourist attraction. Every fourth-grader here must learn the history of the 21 Spanish missions, built between 1769 and 1823, some of them now National Historic Landmarks. Serra built the first nine.

The Vatican reveres Serra, too. In fact, Serra is deemed such a great evangelist for the Catholic Church that Pope Francis officially declared him a saint this week during his visit to the United States.

For many Native Americans, Latinos and others, Serra was no saint, and his canonization makes an old wound bleed again. But to those who champion the missionaries’ daring foray into the dominion of American Indians, the sainthood heralds an apotheosis for the padre who brought the word of Christ here.

“I wouldn’t say the announcement of the Holy Father to canonize Junipero Serra has opened old wounds. It has provided an opportunity to remind many people, including Indians, that there are wounds that require healing,” said Galvan, 60, of East Bay, California. “These wounds have been there. The opportunity of canonization is an opportunity to heal these wounds.”

That may or may not be.

Historic firsts on many levels

Francis, the first Latin American pope, advanced the sainthood for Serra because he was “one of the founding fathers of the United States” and a “special patron of the Hispanic people of the country,” the Vatican says.

That makes Serra’s canonization a landmark moment for many Latinos, a people born of the cataclysm when the Old and New Worlds met centuries ago. After all, the first nonindigenous language spoken in America wasn’t English, but Spanish.

Serra became the first saint canonized on U.S. soil with Francis’ declaration in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday.

The setting made a not-so-subtle political point at a time when Congress and presidential candidates remain ferociously deadlocked about addressing an immigration flow so massive that Latinos are now the largest U.S. minority, about a sixth of them without documentation.

“This is the big story: The first Hispanic Pope is coming to America to give us our first Hispanic saint. This is not a coincidence,” Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles told the nation’s religion writers at an August conference.

“But this canonization is more than an ethnic event or a religious event. The Pope is calling all of us in America to reflect on our history and our nation’s Hispanic and Catholic heritage and our legacy as a nation of immigrants,” Gomez said. “For me, this is probably the most important dimension of the Pope’s visit.”

Francis also is the son of immigrants.

But Serra left behind a dark legacy that inevitably occurs when colonizers from the other side of the planet impose their will and religion upon an indigenous people.

Contagion and suffering decimated the native population several times over, and now the descendants of those original tribes struggle with, if not outright protest, sainthood for the missionary-in-chief of California. Their own Catholicism deepens the conflict.

A period of brutality

For many, the wound is better healed by relegating Serra to the abyss of history.

To them, the Franciscan friar from the island of Majorca represented yet another front in Europe’s imperial conquest of the native peoples and lands of America.

“We’re stunned and we’re in disbelief,” said Valentin Lopez, 63, chairman of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band located along Monterey Bay.

“We believe saints are supposed to be people who followed in the life of Jesus Christ and the words of Jesus Christ. There was no Jesus Christ lifestyle at the missions,” Lopez said, who has campaigned against sainthood for Serra.

“The mission period was brutal on our people,” he said. “There can be no doubt that Junipero Serra is personally responsible for destroying our culture.”

It’s not easy speaking against the church and the popular Pope because Lopez is Catholic, as are many in his 600-member tribe, he said. In fact, he was an altar boy for nine years in grade school.

“We were raised not to say anything bad about the Catholic religion, but at the same time, we can’t stay quiet about this. It’s like the altar boy scandal. All the people who stayed quiet about the altar boy scandal, how do they feel now?” Lopez said.

“It seems like the church is doing all it can to separate Serra from the atrocities and deaths and what happened to the Indians, but that does not work,” he said.

The life of Serra remains as controversial as any of the so-called conquistadores of Spain who ravaged their way through much of the Americas with crosses and swords — in pursuit of gold and silver while contending they were servants of Christ and crown.

A history of disease and forced labor

Indeed, interpretations of Serra’s legacy vary as much as the people telling it.

Consider what the official California school curriculum states bluntly:

“The historical record of this era remains incomplete due to the relative absence of native testimony, but it is clear that while missionaries brought agriculture, the Spanish language and culture, and Christianity to the native population, American Indians suffered in many California missions.

“The death rate was extremely high. Contributing factors included the hardships of forced labor and, primarily, the introduction of diseases for which the native population did not have immunity. Moreover, the imposition of forced labor and highly structured living arrangements degraded individuals, constrained families, circumscribed native culture, and negatively impacted scores of communities.”

Great evangelist of frontier West

Surely, Francis — a native of Argentina and the first Jesuit pontiff — knows the contentious legacy of the Spanish colonizers.

So why did Francis grant Serra sainthood — and even overlooked the requirement of a second miracle by Serra that’s typically needed for sainthood? Under an extraordinary form of canonization, the pope bypassed that requirement because a strong devotion among the faithful has long venerated Serra as saintly. Serra’s first miracle was healing a nun of lupus.

“The Pope is very concerned about the idea of evangelization,” said Fr. Ken Laverone, a church canon lawyer and a Franciscan in Sacramento who as vice postulator is two degrees removed from the Vatican in Serra’s canonization process. Laverone’s seventh-great-grandfather was among the settlers who followed the missions, at San Jose, in 1774.

“He saw Serra as a prime example of evangelization in the western United States, in California, primarily,” Laverone said.

Indeed, Francis lays out a bold new vision for Catholicism, plagued by what he called a “tomb psychology,” and makes “New Evangelization” a centerpiece of his papacy.

The Pope touched upon his pastoral standards in 2013: “I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security.”

Though Francis wasn’t specifically referring to Serra, the intrepid Spaniard does fit such a vision. Serra left behind a cushy academic job as a university professor in Spain and became a missionary in modern Mexico, with a vision to convert Indians on the entire North American coast to Alaska. Serra died in 1784 at one of the California missions, in present-day Carmel.

Laverone asserted it’s unfair to judge Serra in a 21st century context, but the canon lawyer “wouldn’t be surprised” if the Pope makes “a formal apology and a plea of forgiveness from the native people” this week, as Francis did in Bolivia this summer when he apologized for the “many grave sins” against South America’s indigenous people during Spanish colonization there.

Serra led ‘the genocide’

But activists with the Mexica Movement such as Olin Tezcatlipoca call Serra the leader of an atrocity. The movement is an indigenous right education organization for people of Mexican, Central American and Native American descent that advocates “total liberation from Europeans.”

“He planned the genocide,” said Tezcatlipoca, 55, a retired film editor in San Bernardino who legally changed his name to an indigenous one because he wanted “to do an ethnic correction with a name that reflects my true heritage.”

“The Pope is doing a continuation of genocide,” Tezcatlipoca added.

Psychiatrist Donna Schindler of Auburn, California, has worked with American Indians and indigenous people as far away as New Zealand for most of her 31-year practice. She described the record of atrocity and abuse, retold by Indian families today, as “historical trauma” or “intergenerational trauma.”

“It is the most painful things imaginable to hear these stories,” said Schindler, who also works with Lopez’ tribe. “The descendants have been suffering the soul wound for 200 years.”

Among the ugly legacies for Indians is how their ancestors are buried in unmarked graves in mission cemeteries — and yet they are still charged an admission fee of up $9 to enter a mission museum.

“This is so over the top,” Schindler said of Serra’s sainthood. “You’ve hurt these people already, and now we’re going to reinjure them for no particular reason.

“Why is this so important? What do they think they’re going to accomplish by doing this?” said Schindler, a Catholic who stopped attending Mass this year after plans for Serra’s sainthood became official.

Historian’s view: What really happened?

Serra’s fortunes rose after the Spanish crown expelled Jesuits from the empire, and the Franciscans took over former Jesuit missions in Mexico, where Serra had been based since 1750, said history professor Robert Senkewicz of Santa Clara University, who with historian Rose Marie Beebe wrote a recent book on Serra.

From 1769 until his death 15 years later, Serra worked in modern California as part of the Spanish empire’s expansion from Mexico City. Serra founded nine missions from San Diego to San Francisco from age 55 until his death at 70.

“The job of the mission was to basically assimilate the native peoples, to make them more Spanish. And part of making them more Spanish was basically making them Catholics,” Senkewicz said.

“It wasn’t that that the native peoples were dragged into the missions by force, but they kind of had little choice in some senses because there at least was some kind of food there,” Senkewicz said.

Once in the missions, the Indians were baptized and couldn’t leave without permission.

If they didn’t return on time, the priest would dispatch soldiers and other mission Indians, “and they would forcibly bring people back to the mission,” Senkewicz said. “It’s an odd sort of thing which is very difficult to understand now because people were invited into the mission.

“When they were returned, the punishment was flogging, and the flogging was very severe and it was very, very intense, and it was meant to be a painful deterrent,” the historian added. “And the flogging was pretty brutal at times.”

No documented evidence exists, however, that Serra himself flogged or used corporal punishment on the Indians, the Los Angeles Archdiocese says.

Serra often distanced himself and his missions from the soldiers’ garrisons, and he “was constantly critiquing the military for its treatment of the Native Americans,” including rape of Indian women, Laverone added.

“He didn’t want them to be infected by the Spanish military way of thinking,” Laverone said. “There was a battle there. Am I in charge or is the commander of the Spanish military?”

There was one thing Serra couldn’t control: virulence.

The Spaniards introduced disease that halved the Indian population from 310,000 to about 150,000 from the time of the missionaries’ arrival in 1769 until California became a state in 1850, Senkewicz said.

As staggering as the toll was, the Indians learned skills, built the enduring missions and learned Christianity.

And Serra was the patrician father of it all.

“He also was somebody who deep in his heart believed that he loved the Indians,” Senkewicz said. “He thought that they were like children, and the missions were frankly paternalistic institutions, and Serra was frankly paternalistic.

“A good father sometimes has to be stern and tough with his children,” Senkewicz said.

Transformation of a mission archaeologist

Serra’s impact on America speaks to the intersection of faith, identity, and origin.

Those themes exert profound power over people, and Ruben Mendoza is no exception.

An archaeologist, Mendoza is director of the California missions archaeological program at California State University, Monterey Bay, where he is among the founding faculty.

But for much of his life, he despised the Spaniards and their conquest of native people.

After all, Mendoza’s grandmother was a 4-foot-7-inch Yaqui Indian who lived in Mexico, where his family originates.

In fact, Mendoza, now 59, grew up reciting the Lord’s Prayer in Nahuatl, an indigenous language of Mexico.

Born and raised Catholic in California’s San Joaquin Valley, Mendoza condemned Spanish colonialism, which he called a “cancer.”

“I had become very negative to anything related to the Spanish or the European,” Mendoza said.

So he immersed himself in the culture of native people, which became his identity.

Then, life began to change when he worked an archaeological dig at a 16th century convent in Puebla, Mexico.

There he discovered something about himself.

Out of the rubble, he saw a mélange of artifacts of three peoples: European, Indian, and Mexican.

The relics piled together marked “the beginnings of an epiphany,” he said.

“Until 1993, I was ultra-indigenous,” Mendoza said. “I had ignored the Hispanic dimension. There I was forced to reconcile both of those things.”

Later, in 2006, the diocese of Monterey asked Mendoza to assess one of the missions founded by Serra.

Mendoza made another discovery: He found the original foundation of a chapel used by Serra in 1772, making it the earliest formal Christian architecture in California.

The find left Mendoza thunderstruck. Serra’s frontier evangelism among the Indians left a profound impression. And now Mendoza was standing in the remains of an area that once held the tabernacle.

“Suddenly, all of my ancestors channeled me in this area. I’m a scientist, and I now that sounds flaky, but it was so powerful, and I fell to my knees and made the sign of the cross,” Mendoza said.

“I had an adversarial relationship with Serra which went unspoken up until that moment,” Mendoza said. “I am both of these traditions. Why do I keep denigrating half of who I am in order to accommodate the indigenous?”

Now when Mendoza is asked about Serra’s canonization, Mendoza declares: “It’s past due.”

Though he has been “attacked as a person of indigenous heritage working on the missions,” Mendoza welcomes how the Serra controversy “opens a dialogue about Hispanics and the indigenous.”

Galvan’s story: the mission curator

Galvan, the fourth-great-grandson of the first mission Indians, has endured his share of vilifications, too.

What sets Galvan’s story apart is his role in the California’s missions.

He is the curator, or museum director, at Mission Dolores in San Francisco.

“I am the only descendant of Indians who were missionized at any of the 21 California missions who is currently in a position of responsibility at one of those missions. So it’s a unique situation, and it’s one that I would hope in the next 20 or 30 years changes,” Galvan said.

Galvan sees Serra’s sainthood as an opportunity for Indians to leverage the church for changes at the missions.

He would like to see free admission for visitors who are Native American, the creation of a standard presentation on the Indian world before the Spanish occupation, displays on which tribes built the mission, and an acknowledgment of native peoples today.

“Somewhere in the timeline, the Indians just disappear. Gone. They just don’t exist,” Galvan said of the missions’ educational features. “Most mission museums do not even acknowledge that native people exist today.”

In fact, Mission Dolores doesn’t even list the names of the 5,700 Indians buried there between 1776 and 1834 — except for two names.

They are Galvan’s fourth-great-grandparents, thanks to a grave marker installed by Galvan. Galvan is urging the church to create a digital projection screen of the remaining 5,698 names.

For now, Galvan is encouraged by the missions and their bishops to consider some of those proposals, though Galvan likens his efforts to “the dog barking in the building.” The Catholic Church now runs 19 of the 21 missions as active parishes.

“These are the positive things that could happen. The pus is still oozing. Do you want to put a poultice on it to make it better?” Galvan said, referring to the enduring wound of Native Americans.

While a crusader about healing those injuries, Galvan nonetheless endorses the canonization of Serra.

In fact, he has urged sainthood for Serra for the past 37 years, working with the Franciscans’ campaign.

“Everybody … asks, Andy, how can you support the guy? I have to be able to sleep at night. So I have answered that: I believe Junipero Serra was a very, very good man in a very, very bad situation. And the bad situation is what we call colonialism,” Galvan said. “Junipero Serra is being proclaimed a saint because he lived the life of a saint.”

Galvan added a personal note: “He is the person who brings the Christian gospel to my ancestors in California.”

With that conviction, Galvan will attend the Pope’s official ceremony canonizing Serra in Washington this week.

There, he will take on another unique role.

“I will be the happiest Indian in the United States of America that day,” he said of a St. Junipero Serra.

Correction: In an earlier version of this report, Junipero Serra’s last name was misspelled in a photo caption. The post has been updated.