How tarnished is Serra’s halo?

A member of the Costanoan Rumsen Carmel Tribe of the Ohlone Nation sings while commemorating Founder’s Day at the Carmel Mission in California June  28. The mission was founded by Junípero Serra in 1771. (Newscom/Reuters/Michael Fiala)
A member of the Costanoan Rumsen Carmel Tribe of the Ohlone Nation sings while commemorating Founder’s Day at the Carmel Mission in California June 28. The mission was founded by Junípero Serra in 1771. (Newscom/Reuters/Michael Fiala)

by Vinnie Rotondaro

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Saint-making normally isn’t the backdrop for deep cultural battles. Disagreements over the official distribution of halos rarely rise to the level of wide popular interest, and the ceremonies themselves are often celebrations largely for those who have advocated and financed the new saint’s cause.

Junípero Serra, the 18th-century Franciscan friar who came from Spain to California to evangelize its indigenous population, is another case entirely. It is likely that the adjective “controversial” will long accompany any mention of his canonization, which will occur Sept. 23 at a ceremony celebrated by Pope Francis in Washington, D.C.

Strong disagreement exists between those who promote his sainthood and those who oppose it. Each side lays claim to a version of history, advanced in each case by historians of note, and each side accuses the other of failing to see the full picture. Both sides agree that a false “myth” regarding Serra’s legacy further clouds and confuses the debate.

Serra apologists acknowledge that the friar’s history has a dark side, but point to the positive, while indigenous activists say the negatives experienced by indigenous people far outweigh the good Serra may have done.

In what was then known as Alta California, Serra established a system of Catholic missions in which California Native Americans lived and were largely coerced to become Christian.

In May, Francis called Serra “one of the founding fathers of the United States.” He said that missionaries like Serra “brought the Gospel to the New World and, at the same time, defended the indigenous people against abuses by the colonizers.”

A website,, published by the Los Angeles archdiocese and the Pontifical Commission for Latin America, echoes the sentiment, calling the Franciscan a “staunch advocate for the Native Americans,” compared to his more rapacious countrymen, the conquistadors.

In the website’s Frequently Asked Questions section, one question asks, “Why is Father Serra a saint?” It is answered: “Father Junipero Serra left behind a life of academic prestige and renown to take on a life of hardship, sacrifice and toil in order to become an advocate and spiritual minister to the Native California Indians. Defying many obstacles, including, at times, members of the civil government, Serra devoted himself to attracting hearts to Christ. He exemplified heroic virtues in the California frontier, and through his grace and perseverance he brought the Gospel of Christ to many who had not heard it before.”

Indigenous objectors couldn’t disagree more with this interpretation. They point to the rampant death that occurred inside the missions -- where thousands perished, crammed into poor living quarters with disease running wild -- and say that Serra was so blinded by his belief in his faith and his people’s superiority that he focused more on baptizing Indians than tending to their suffering.

Those who object to the canonization argue that Native American culture was systematically dismantled through evangelization. Children were separated from adults, from their families; Native American languages and religion were stamped out.

California Indians essentially became prisoners, they say, held captive by the mission system, forbidden to leave and forced to do labor. Those who escaped and were recaptured were brought back and whipped as a matter of protocol.

According to indigenous objectors, this is the system that Serra set up and spread. Demographic and cultural genocide ensued. In what world is he a saint?

Lies of the missions

“They said that [we] came freely [to the missions]. They said that the missions brought God to the Indians. And yet, in our creation stories, the Creator made us to take care of those lands. That was our purpose. And we had a wonderful and very strong relationship with the Creator,” said Valentin Lopez, chair of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band of the Costanoan/Ohlone Indians.

“They said that they taught the Indians agriculture and a better lifestyle,” he said. “You know, our people survived on those lands for 10,000 years. ... We knew how to take care of the lands, the food, the wildlife.

“Those were the lies they came up with,” said Lopez, who has written an open letter to Pope Francis about the objection from his Californian tribe. “And whenever the California education system was developing, they got the history of the missions from the Franciscans, and so they perpetuated those stories and those lies of the mission period. And [young students] continue to learn that garbage today.”

For generations, fourth graders across California have been taught what almost all serious scholars agree is a myth about Serra and his missions, that Serra and California Indians got along swimmingly. It portrays missions as peaceful places where Christianity was taught.

The myth began sometime after the publication of a popular American novel by Helen Hunt Jackson from the late 1800s called Ramona, said Elias Castillo, a three-time Pulitzer Prize nominee who researched a book about the ill-treatment of Native Americans in the California mission system, A Cross of Thorns: The Enslavement of California’s Indians by the Spanish Missions.

Ramona told the story of a half-Scottish, half-Native American orphan girl, and was set in Southern California after the mission system had shut down and the territory was under Mexican rule. In one scene, Ramona visits a former mission that has been converted into a bucolic church.

“Jackson, in her book, describes the mission as beautiful with flowers and fountains and gardens, and very, very peaceful,” said Castillo.

Jackson’s memorable description was picked up and used as a kind of branding image by American developers looking to attract buyers to California, he said.

“And it worked absolutely great. The developers wanted to use the missions as tourist attractions. And so they went to people like [Henry E.] Huntington, [Charles] Crocker, [Leland] Stanford, the big wealthy entrepreneurs. And that’s how the missions got rebuilt.”

But no one knew much about the missions’ true history.

“When Ramona first came out,” Castillo said, “the missions were really nothing more than piles of eroding adobe bricks, melting adobe bricks in the rain. Nobody really knew anything about them.”

An alternative history

Castillo's research yields a shocking picture of life in the mission system. Missions were dirty, crowded places, he said. Indians came for a variety of reasons, he said. Some joined out of curiosity. Many more came out of necessity -- the presence of the Spanish wreaked havoc on their ways of life and means of subsistence.

Others still were rounded up and taken to the mission by force, he said.

Once inside, they were not allowed to leave and were treated like “children.” The squalor of mission life assisted in the spread of European disease, leading to immense loss of life and accompanying grief and stress.

“So many simply willed themselves to die, unable to stand the terrible stress,” Castillo wrote in his book. “The overall result was that nearly half of the missions’ population died each year.”

On top of it all, physical punishment was common, he said. “The statistics kept by the friars were very, very detailed. Punishment records would name the Indian and how many lashes they received, and why they were being punished. Some of them were being punished simply for asking for more food.”

In his book, Castillo includes testimony from a group of California Indians who had escaped Mission San Francisco in 1797. Recaptured by Spanish soldiers, they gave testimony, which a solider transcribed.

Tiburcio: He testified that after his wife and daughter died, on five separate occasions Father Danti ordered him whipped because he was crying. For these reasons he fled. ...
Homobono: He testified that his motive for fleeing was that his brother had died on the other shore, and when he cried for him at the mission they whipped him. Also, the alcalde Valeriano hit him with a heavy cane for having gone to look for mussels at the beach without Raymundo’s permission. ...
Patabo: He says that he fled just because his wife and children died and he had no one to take care of him. ...
Magno: He declared that he had run away because, his son being sick, he took care of him and was therefore unable to go out to work. As a result he was given no ration and his son died of hunger.
Próspero: He declared that he had gone one night to the lagoon to hunt ducks for food. For this Father Antonio Danti ordered him stretched out and beaten. Then, the following week he was whipped again for having gone out on a paseo. For these reasons he fled.

Some sainthood promoters say that Serra himself never whipped any Indians, but that misses the point, objectors say. He set up the system that allowed for whipping.

In fact, they say he explicitly condoned it: “Two or three whippings which Your Lordship may order applied to them on different days may serve, for them and for the rest, for a warning may be of spiritual benefit to all,” Serra wrote to Spanish Gov. Fernando de Rivera y Moncada, regarding four Indians who had been caught escaping from Mission Monterey. “And if your lordship does not have shackles, with your permission they may be sent from here.”

Both Lopez and Castillo said that Serra was likely an unwitting violator of human rights.

“His job was to baptize us so we could go to heaven,” Lopez said. “That’s how he was trying to save our souls. He would just go through the act of baptizing and then figure that his job was done and that nothing else mattered.”

Castillo said, “Serra really didn’t care about the Indians’ life on earth. ... He was a madman.”

Straight talk

Robert Senkewicz, a professor of history at Santa Clara University in California, believes that the controversy surrounding Serra’s canonization too frequently gets lost in the “mission myth.”

“Most of the people who are reacting so negatively about the canonization are reacting to the mission myth,” he said, “rather than to the historical situation.”

Senkewicz recently co-authored a book with his wife, Rose Marie Beebe, also a professor at Santa Clara, titled Junípero Serra: California, Indians, and the Transformation of a Missionary. This May, Senkewicz and Beebe presented the book in Rome at a conference hosted by the Los Angeles archdiocese about Serra’s life.

In an earlier interview with NCR, Senkewicz said that he doesn’t think it’s legitimate to use Serra as “a stand-in for the entire 65 years of mission experience in California. The system developed after his death [in 1784] in ways he did not plot or intend.”

Senkewicz told NCR, “In Junípero Serra’s willingness to sacrifice the comforts of a very successful career, to forego climbing the academic and ecclesiastical ladders, to travel halfway around the world in order to live the rest of his life among people he had never seen but whom he deeply and genuinely loved, and to go without many advantages he could easily have gained, one sees qualities that are very consistent with what the church has long held up as indications of sanctity.”

Others say that if any of the things researchers like Castillo and activists like Lopez point to are true, Serra can’t possibly be a saint.

“I guess you could make a column,” said Mark Day, a former Franciscan turned journalist who has been reporting on indigenous objection to Serra’s canonization, “all the good things you want to say about him and all the bad things. The good things are that typical Spanish mysticism, and self-flagellation -- which to me is just masochism -- and walking all those miles with an ulcerated leg, and sincerely being dedicated to the Indians, and calling the soldiers out on the rapes -- he did that. But on the other hand, he fostered the beatings.”

Day can’t see past that. He has no patience for rationalizations made in Serra’s defense.

Nor can he stand the use of euphemistic language. For example, does one say that Indians “ran away” from the missions, like children running away from home, or that they “escaped,” as if from prison?

“A lot of historians are saying, don’t use the word slavery,” Day said. “You have to be careful, a slave is somebody that you own, and the friars didn’t own the Indians -- but they were their wards. ... If they shirked off on their work, they were beaten. If they escaped, they were brought back and beaten!”

“It doesn’t make any difference what somebody’s intentions are, it’s what they did,” said Day. “The bottom line is that the Indian viewpoint, the Indian voice, is just as much ignored today as it was during the time of the missions.”

Cultural genocide

According to Steven Newcomb, co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute, the trauma inflicted by Serra and the missions has its deepest roots at the level of culture. One of the worst crimes of the missions was cultural genocide, he said.

“They were taking children, very young in years, and separating them out from adults, separating them from their families,” Newcomb said. “That’s been one of the prime techniques of destroying culture -- not allowing the transmission of culture.

“But see, they weren’t calling it culture,” said Newcomb, who is Shawnee and Lenape (neither tribe is from California). “They didn’t have any idea about that. They just thought it was these barbarous habits and behaviors, and there was nothing of worth that children could obtain from adults in a ‘barbarous society that’s scarcely human,’ ” in the words of Fr. Fermín Francisco de Lasuén, second president of the California mission system.

“It’s that overall arrogance, that sense of absolute superiority over an ‘inferior, barbarous people,’ ” he said. “The dehumanization involved in that type of thinking, they didn’t understand they were dehumanizing people. But that’s the effect, and everyone’s still dealing from the outcome.”

Lopez said that California Indians continue to live with this legacy.

“Our humanity has never been recognized,” he said. “Serra came here, he believed our people had no soul, and so that is why it was okay for him to do those whippings and the brutality.”

“We carry this history with us through the generations,” he said.

[Vinnie Rotondaro is NCR national correspondent. His email address is]

A version of this story appeared in the Sept 11-Sept 24, 2015 print issue under the headline: How tarnished is Serra’s halo?.

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