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Franciscan Spirit Blog

Junipero Serra: Saint or Scoundrel?

May 9, 2020
 Mission San Gabriel Arcangel in San Gabriel, Calif., is seen in this 2015 file photo. The fourth mission established by St. Junipero Serra caught fire before sunrise July 11, 2020. (CNS photo/Nancy Wiechec)

In 1778, when Junipero Serra visited the Mission San Gabriel Arcángel, the ringing of mission bells would signal that Mass was about to start. But on a warm, sunny, 21st-century Sunday, there is instead a great rattle, then several deafening blasts as a train rushes along tracks not far from the thick-walled church.

The pianist, the presider, and the congregation pause, still as the ornately carved statues of Gabriel the Archangel and St. Francis behind the altar. Finally, the last earth-shaking train tremor fades, and Mass begins.

The train is one of many changes in California’s landscape since Fray Junipero Serra established the first mission in Alta California (now the State of California) at San Diego de Alcala in 1769. But then, as now, tremors and even earthquakes continue to make their mark in physical, emotional, and spiritual ways. The most recent of them happened this year, with the announcement by Pope Francis in January that he hoped to canonize Blessed Junipero Serra.

Immediately, reactions were strong. Some people were delighted. Others protested. Still others wondered, “Junipero who?”

As the months unfolded between the pope’s announcement and the canonization in Washington, DC, coming in September 2015, it became clear that Serra would be no ordinary saint, and the conversations about the Franciscan priest’s life, faith, and legacy would have an effect on generations to come.


Junipero Serra’s Mission

“Blessed Junipero Serra was a man of heroic virtue and holiness who had only one burning ambition—to bring the good news to the people of the New World,” writes Los Angeles Archbishop Jose Gomez in an editorial in the diocesan newspaper, The Tidings.

Long before Serra was born on the Mediterranean island of Mallorca on November 24, 1713, waves of Spanish military forces and political leaders worked to control areas now known as the southwestern United States and South and Central America. Religious orders, including the Franciscans, established missions where native peoples were converted to Christianity and learned the European way of life.

By the time Miguel Joseph Serra joined the Franciscans, taking the name Junipero, and was ordained a priest in 1730, there was already a compelling connection between Serra’s Mallorcan roots and evangelization.

Two Franciscan theologians had tremendous influence over Serra: Blessed John Duns Scotus, who championed the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary, and Ramon Llull, a Mallorcan and convert to Catholicism who devoted his life to evangelism, particularly among Muslims.

“You can’t understand Serra unless you have some grasp of John Duns Scotus and his spirituality and theology,” Father Ken Lavarone, OFM, co-vice postulator for the Serra cause for canonization, tells St. Anthony Messenger. “Serra was also a scholar of Llull, and brought that sense of spirituality with him.”

Serra did not immediately follow the call to become a missionary. Rather, for almost 20 years, he remained among the vibrant Franciscan community on his island home of Mallorca, rising to prominence as a preacher, teacher, and scholar. But despite his prestige and achievements, he became restless. No longer content to preach to the alreadyconverted, the bespectacled, dark-haired priest volunteered to join the Franciscan missionary efforts in the New World. He sailed out of Cadiz, Spain, in 1749, never to return home.

For the next 20 years, Serra worked at missions in Mexico, particularly Sierra Gorda and Baja California, and spent long stretches of time traveling the countryside, preaching. From the time he arrived on Mexico’s shore, he preferred walking to riding, a practice which resulted in a leg injury that plagued him throughout his life, and which earned him great respect among many along the way.

Serra’s years in Mexico have not stirred the same kind of controversy as his activity in Alta California.

Auxiliary Bishop Edward Clark of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles is involved with ongoing activities to more accurately tell the mission story. He tells St. Anthony Messenger, “There’s a historical reason; in Mexico, the Church had been established for a long time, and the natives had been Christians for a long time.”

In Alta California, the military was combined with ecclesial authority as the new territory was settled and developed.

“When Serra went to California,” says Bishop Clark, “he had a mandate to establish missions and to colonize.”

In 1768, the Spanish government was concerned that Russians seeking new trapping territory might try to stake claims in Alta California, so the king decided it would be better for Spain to settle the area. Serra was charged with establishing missions that would bring the Church and European civilization to the new territory.

John Macias, PhD, historian, parishioner, and board member at San Gabriel Arcangel Mission, says, “The purpose of the missions was really to build a frontier society so that the Spanish empire could say to the British or the Russians, ‘We have citizens of the empire that speak Spanish and go to Mass. We’re here.’”

By the standards of the day, at 55, Serra was an old man when he arrived in Alta California. His health was not robust; he suffered such pain that, sometimes, it was doubtful if he could continue walking. But his desire to convert souls overrode any physical disability. On July 16, 1769, he founded the first mission at San Diego de Alcala.

Over the next 14 years Serra founded eight more California missions, the backbone of a network that served to bring Christianity to the native peoples and gather them “under the bell” of the missions. He baptized, confirmed, married, and buried thousands of Indians, and his position as “Father-President” in Alta California put him at the forefront of all mission activities and in constant, and sometimes contentious, interactions with Spanish military and Crown officials, as well as his own Franciscan superiors.

It is for this role that Serra has, in recent years, become a lightning rod for protest from native peoples and others who feel that the colonization process destroyed the native people’s habitat and way of life, beginning a centuries-long infliction of pain that has not healed.


Canonization and Colonization

In spite of the pain, “acknowledging Serra is a way to reach out to Latino Catholics,” Macias says. “The Church has been a big part of the Latino culture since the colonial period, and the missions are a part of that. For Latino Catholics, visiting the structure, the art, is a way of connecting with their Catholic faith. But this cannot overshadow or marginalize the sacrifices and the turmoil of the indigenous culture. The most important thing is that we work with it, acknowledge it.”

Andrew Galvan is an Ohlone Indian who traces his ancestors back to the late 18th century in Mission San Francisco de Asís (now Mission Dolores), where he is curator. Galvan acknowledges the devastation of colonization and its negative effects on native peoples and the landscape.

“The Spanish come, and they bring with them the horse, cow, pig, goat, lamb—and none of them existed in California then,” Galvan says. “Those animals loved our native grasses. They ate up everything—the habitat for the deer, venison, and other game my ancestors would hunt. The things the Spanish brought destroyed the native grocery store.

“As their way of life became increasingly threatened, the native peoples saw how the missions were developing. They saw the corn in the fields, the cattle that would be slaughtered. They reached a time of little choice. Every tribal group comes to this moment. They moved to the missions for survival.”

In the missions, the Indians experienced more loss from diseases and imposition of non-native customs that were often diametrically opposed to the way tribes had been living for centuries.

Galvan says, “The anthropologists tell us, the California native was probably the cleanest person in the world. We were living in unison with nature. In the missions, people were densely crowded, religion and language were changed, and in unsanitary and unhealthy conditions, they’re going to get sick. It was a disastrous choice.”

But Serra himself, Galvan says, “was in love with the Indians,” and points to recent archaeological and historical research, including translations of Serra’s own letters and papers, that reveal that the Franciscan from Mallorca worked very hard to maintain his focus of converting people to Christ, and to do so with love and respect for those whom he wanted to bring to Christ.

“Mercy was important to Serra,” says Father Lavarone. In one incident, Indians attacked the mission at San Diego and killed one of the Franciscan missionaries there.

According to Father Lavarone, “The Spanish government wanted to get the men who did it, but Serra told them, ‘No, we must show mercy.’”

Several times, Serra decried the sexual promiscuity of the Spanish military toward native women. He traveled throughout the mission chain at great physical cost, administering the sacraments and advising the other missionaries, some of whom had difficulty with the extreme isolation of missionary life in California. He regularly took ink to paper to call for more support and supplies, which often were lost at sea or diverted by other people along the supply chain.

Bishop Clark tells St. Anthony Messenger, “Serra was a self-sacrificing missionary at a very difficult time.”

“I’ve been the happiest Indian in California,” Galvan says. “The journey for me and the reason why I am so devoted to Junipero Serra is that I see him as the individual who first brought the Gospel to my ancestors. You have to pull that out from all the other things. This does not make apologies. But [colonization] would have happened—the Russians, the French, someone would have come.”

Serra died at the mission in Carmel in 1784, and is buried there. After his death, another 12 missions were founded, along with Mexican rule, secularization of the missions, the Gold Rush, and California statehood, each of which inflicted more pain to native peoples, causing a kind of cumulative historic trauma.

But Serra’s personal example of sacrifice and devotion to evangelism and his Franciscan vocation are some of the reasons why he is greatly admired today. These qualities do not remove long-festering pain, but they help lay the groundwork for the future, post-Serra canonization.


‘Always Go Forward, Never Go Back’

A mural depicting emerging Catholicism in North America by Frank A. Martinez greets people entering the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles. The rendering depicts figures from early 18th-century California, including St. Junipero Serra, right, and native people building the missions and harvesting crops. The central figure at the top is Mary. (CNS photo/Nancy Wiechec)

A mural depicting emerging Catholicism in North America by Frank A. Martinez greets people entering the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles. The rendering depicts figures from early 18th-century California, including St. Junipero Serra, right, and native people building the missions and harvesting crops. The central figure at the top is Mary. (CNS photo/Nancy Wiechec)

Junipero Serra’s motto describes perfectly his commitment to persevere—from Mallorca to Mexico, from mission to mission. It also underpins today’s activity of many people in the Church, especially those with mission connections.

Yve Chavez is completing her doctorate in art history at the University of California, Los Angeles. She is a Tongva Indian and board member at the San Gabriel Arcangel Mission, working with the materials collection at the mission.

“The mission is a sacred space in a Catholic context and in an indigenous context,” she says. “I am Catholic and Tongva. My maternal grandmother’s ancestors built the mission, and my mother and her siblings were baptized here. One of our main goals is to ensure that the native experience and perspective are incorporated in the museum narrative. Not just from the past, but also from the present day.”

Dr. Macias, who is of Mexican descent and was baptized at Mission San Gabriel, says, “For me as a parishioner and even as a historian, there’s more to the mission than an old church, a garden, and a museum. There is a legacy that is pretty painful. The canonization is going to force us as a Church to really listen to the indigenous community. But, in a way, too, it will help the Church grow.”

Bishop Clark, Father Lavarone, and several others, including four other bishops and representatives from the mission tribes, have formed a committee in California to develop ways that the Church might respond to native people’s concerns.

Bishop Clark tells St. Anthony Messenger, “In California, in state and Catholic schools, third graders learn about the native peoples, and fourth graders learn about the missions. But the curriculum is really a whitewash. We have a God-sent opportunity to tell the true story. One of our subcommittees is dedicated to developing a new curriculum for our Catholic schools that will get the story right.”

Another subcommittee will look at the displays at the missions, making sure the history, particularly native history, is accurate and complete.

“They will ask leaders of each of the tribes to tell us what can be done to improve them,” says Bishop Clark. “It’s important that the displays and information be authentic.”

“That’s one of the things we want to do here,” says Macias, “to be able to really sit down with the members of the Gabrielino community to assure them that their heritage and history will not be forgotten.”

Opening the church grounds and ceremonies to native peoples is another area to be addressed.

The Indians built the missions, but, says Bishop Clark, “At some of them, natives come to pray at the cemetery and they’re told to pay admission at the museum. Many places, they have not been allowed to introduce some of their native customs at a funeral ceremony. If it’s complementary, then it should be allowed. We want to formalize that.”


The Serra Effect

The effect of Serra’s canonization will undoubtedly be felt beyond the borders of California and Mexico. John Liston, executive director of Serra International, an organization dedicated to supporting the growth of vocations, sees it as a tremendous opportunity to promote the organization’s efforts for vocations and to support those who are already ordained.

“I think this has energized our membership and given them a renewed sense of purpose,” Liston says. “Father Serra personally embodies the kind of put-out-into-the-deep missionary spirit that all members of the faith should have. He did that by leaving his net behind and following Christ.”

Still another effect is the development of individual spirituality that can flow from reflection on Serra’s devotion to the Immaculate Conception of Mary and evangelism.

Father Tom Elewaut, pastor at Mission San Buenaventura, the ninth and last mission founded by Serra, says, “Fray Serra’s life will continue to encourage us to evangelize and witness to the Gospel, and to go forth to have an influence on our culture in mercy, love, and forgiveness.”

Dan Lackie, OFM, development director for the Province of Santa Barbara, sees the canonization as a way to deepen our understanding of the Church, particularly in the Americas. “There are a lot of possibilities with connecting with our Catholic history,” says Father Lackie. “And it’s a call to look deeper at the question of intercultural convergence.”

But for Father Lackie there is a profoundly personal effect, too. “It’s a real call to look at myself as an evangelizer, what it means to make a sacrifice.”

Pope Francis’ announcement that he would canonize Junipero Serra jolted many—some with surprise and delight, others with anger. But this upheaval, however painful, also began a dialogue that some feel is long overdue and, in keeping with Serra’s motto, will move ahead.

“Dialogue with [Native Americans] will continue,” says Bishop Clark. “It’s a time for healing, and we hope that healing will come.”

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