A statue of Friar Junípero Serra stands proudly in Brand Park in Mission Hills across the street from the entrance to the San Fernando Rey de Espana Mission, one of 21 missions founded along California in the 18th century — nine of which Serra established himself.
The statue depicts the Catholic priest standing next to a young Native American boy. He is dressed in the traditional garb of the friars, his right hand holding a walking stick and his left hand resting on the boy’s shoulder.
Serra is revered by the Catholic church for evangelizing Native Americans in California, and for venturing farther into what eventually become the “Golden State” than any other Spaniard at that time. Pope Francis has announced he will canonize Serra on Sept. 23 when he visits the United States.
Serra will become the first Hispanic Saint in the United States. The Los Angeles Archdiocese, responsible for two of the missions founded by Serra, has praised this announcement.
“Father Serra’s canonization will be a great blessing,” said Archbishop Jose H. Gomez in a statement. “Father Serra was a holy man who brought the good news of God’s love and mercy to the Americas. He was also a strong protector of the Native peoples.
“I think it is special that America’s first Hispanic saint will be canonized on American soil by Pope Francis, who is the first pope from Latin America.”
Archbishop Gomez has also been invited to speak at the Pontifical North American College, Rome’s American seminary, during the pope’s first visit there for a special conference honoring Blessed Junipero Serra on Saturday, May 2.
Pope Francis will be the guest of honor at the conference’s Day of Prayer and Reflection, themed “Brother Junípero Serra: Apostle of California, Witness of Holiness.” The conference, a joint effort between the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the College and the Pontifical Commission for Latin America, is designed to help spread awareness of Serra’s life, mission and testimony. The gathering concludes with a special mass in Serra’s honor.
But the announcement of Serra’s impending sainthood has also met with criticism for his treatment of Native Americans during his quest to evangelize them.
The Mexica Movement, an indigenous rights educational organization, has organized several protests in front of the Los Angeles Cathedral over the canonization of Serra.
“We attempted to meet with Archbishop (Jose) Gomez over the proposed canonization of Junípero Serra. He refused to meet with us or return our phone calls,” the group said in a statement. “He does not care about the truth of the crimes and immorality of this white supremacist priest.”
The California Missions
Born Nov. 24, 1713, into a family of humble means in Majorca, Spain, Miquel Josep Serra i Ferrer later entered the Alcantarine Franciscans — a reform movement in the order — and took the name “Junípero” in honor of St. Juniper.
For his proficiency in studies, he was appointed lector of philosophy before his ordinations to the Catholic priesthood. At age 27, he departed to the Americas and arrived in Mexico.
In 1770, Serra moved to the area that is now Monterey where he founded Mission San Carlos Borroméo de Carmelo. He remained there as “Father Presidente” of the Alta California missions. He also founded Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcalá in San Diego, San Antonio de Padua in Jolon, San Gabriel Arcángel, San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, San Juan Capistrano, San Francisco de Asís, Santa Clara de Asís and San Buenaventura in Ventura, California.
Those missions helped connect California and allowed for the easy transit of goods and people along California, which was then part of Mexico. The missions were primarily designed to convert the natives. Other aims were to integrate the neophytes into Spanish society, and train them to take over ownership and management of the land.
As head of the order in California, Serra not only dealt with church officials, but also with Spanish officials in Mexico City and with the local military officers who commanded the nearby presidios (garrisons).
A Controversial Figure
Between 1769 and 1835, missionaries led by Serra are said to have baptized close to 90,000 Native Americans in California. Once they were converted, the natives were not allowed to leave their assigned missions; escapees who were captured by soldiers were often punished severely.
Mission officials also banned the traditional ways and customs of those Native Americans, including their language, food, dress and other ceremonies.
Some Native American groups assert that Serra enslaved converts, spread disease, and murdered countless individuals in order to forcibly impose Christianity on the population.
“For us it was a genocide and a holocaust. He ruined our religious beliefs and pretty much destroyed an entire culture and people based on evangelism,” said Rudy Ortega Jr., Tribal President for the Fernandeno Tataviam Band of Mission Indians, and chairman of the Los Angeles City/County Native American Indian Commission.
“I know that the Church has defended his actions saying that corporal punishment is something that was done at that time, and even if Serra didn’t put a hand on someone or didn’t slap someone himself, under his command and leadership other priests and soldiers did. He is accountable for that. For us he’s another form of Hitler,” Ortega Jr. said.
The Fernandeno Tataviam lived under the jurisdiction of the San Fernando Mission and endured to all sorts of punishment and denigration, erasing much of their history.
Ortega Jr. said a small percentage of his tribe is Catholic, and they feel the past is not something that should be brought up.
“The other portion of the tribe that are not Catholic, those people find that it’s a shame on the Pope and another backlash against Native Americans,” Ortega Jr. noted. “It’s like a victory dance for them. It pretty much adds injury more than anything else.”
A “Junipero Serra Anti-Canonization Page” has also been created on Facebook.
“It is imperative he (the Pope) is enlightened to understand that Father Serra was responsible for the deception, exploitation, oppression, enslavement and genocide of thousands of Indigenous Californians, ultimately resulting in the largest ethnic cleansing in North America,” cites a MoveOn.org petition page that seeks to gather signatures against the canonization of Serra — who died in 1784 at age 61 at the Carmel mission near Monterey — claiming the priest committed “genocidal acts.”
Others defend Serra, citing pardons he secured for those who had killed missionaries, and for having a prominent military leader fired for allowing the abuse and rape of Native Americans.
The Los Angeles Archdiocese has created a website devoted to Serra called StJunipero.org, to counter what it considers negative or inaccurate statements about the future saint.
Even the Vatican has been compelled to defend Serra from the criticism levied against him by different Native American groups.
The Rev. Vicenzo Criscuolo, a Franciscan at the Vatican’s saint-making office, said it was important to look at Serra as “a man of his time” who, as many others did then, used corporal punishment as an educational tool.
“It is not to be excluded, but it wasn’t ‘genocide.’ It wasn’t a death penalty,” he recently told journalists.
On Sept. 25, 1988, St. John Paul II declared Serra “blessed” after a thorough medical investigation found that there was no explanation for a nun’s healing from lupus. The pope affirmed a formal finding by Vatican investigators that the sister’s healing was miraculous through the intercession of Father Serra.
Another key piece of evidence supporting Serra’s canonization were 191 handwritten letters testifying to the holy work he conducted in the California missions.
Serra’s feast day is celebrated on July 1, and he’s considered the patron saint of vocations.
Archbishop Gomez said he hopes Serra’s canonization helps the Church’s evangelization efforts.
“Blessed Junípero is one of my spiritual heroes and a giant figure in the evangelization of the New World. He is one of California’s founders and he is associated with the origins of Los Angeles and its original name, El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora de Los Ángeles de Porciúncula, ’The Town of Our Lady of the Angels of Porciuncula,’” Gomez said, after Serra’s canonization was announced.
“It’s wonderful to think that this new saint once walked the road that is now the Hollywood Freeway and called it El Camino Real, ‘The King’s Highway.’ I believe Padre Serra’s canonization will help the Church’s new evangelization. It will remind us that our state and our country and all the Americas, are built on Christian foundations.”