Holy Mission, Controversial Saint

Carmel Mission Basilica

The full name of this mission is San Carlos Borromeo del Rio Carmelo. St. Jun’pero Serra founded it in 1771. Of the nine missions Serra established in California, this was his favorite. He is buried here, and since his canonization, the mission church is home to his shrine.

The mission itself is glorious. An arch of beautifully carved stone draws you through the main doors and into the church. To one side, rising above the entrance is a bell tower crowned by a unique dome, shaped like an oval cut in half. The church is filled with works of art imported from Spain, Mexico, and Italy.

On September 23, 2015, during his visit to Washington, DC, Pope Francis led a canonization ceremony and declared Serra a saint. A canonization is a joyful event, but in some quarters, controversy swirled around Serra. Some Native American activists and their supporters charge the Franciscan with flogging Native American converts who tried to leave the missions. He was also accused of damaging the ecosystem of California by introducing European livestock. Some see Serra as an agent of Spanish imperialism, abusing the Native Americans he converted to the Catholic faith. Furthermore, Native Americans who became part of the mission system eventually lost their culture and even forgot their tribe’s language.

But if Father Serra has detractors, he also has defenders, who suggest that he was a missionary committed to his vocation and the Native Americans. In truth, the European conquest of America is fraught with both sadness and grace. The Church ultimately named Serra a saint.

Carmel Mission is a lovely place to pray for all missionaries who leave their homes and sacrifice their lives to bring the Catholic faith and all the aid they can summon to people far away.

Adapted from 101 Places to Pray Before You Die, by Thomas J. Craughwell (Franciscan Media). Click the image below to learn more.

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