‘A Beautiful Day in the Life of Our Nation’

News of Blessed Junípero Serra’s canonization later this year stirs excitement, debate.

Blessed Junípero Serra founded his first mission, the Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo, in 1769.
Blessed Junípero Serra founded his first mission, the Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo, in 1769. (photo: Shutterstock/Mariusz S. Jurgielewicz)

LOS ANGELES — In January, Pope Francis confirmed that he would canonize Blessed Junípero Serra, the 18th-century Franciscan missionary celebrated for his outreach to native peoples in California and for founding its mission system.

“In September, God willing, I will canonize Junípero Serra in the United States,” Pope Francis told reporters during a Jan. 15 in-flight press conference during his Asia trip, describing the Spanish friar as the “evangelizer of the West in the United States.”

The news sparked excitement from Catholics who have long advocated for the canonization of the Franciscan, who established the first California missions and is viewed as the founder of modern California.

“Padre Serra’s canonization will be a beautiful day in the life of our nation. It will be a day to remember that our state and our country — and all of the nations of the Americas — are born from the Christian mission and built on Christian foundations,” said Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles in a Jan. 23 column in The Tidings, the newspaper for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, marking the news.

“It will also be a time to reflect on the close spiritual ties that bind Mexico, the Hispanic people and the United States. When Padre Serra came from Spain to Mexico in December 1749, he walked nearly 300 miles to consecrate his mission at the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe before coming to California.”


Simmering Debate

But the announcement also revived a simmering debate among some historians and American Indians in the Golden State about Father Serra’s legacy.

Some scholars contend that Father Serra ordered the forcible return of Indian converts and permitted whippings for corporal punishment. Meanwhile, there are members of local tribes who view the Franciscans as the handmaids of European colonization, which imposed foreign values and practices on native peoples, destroying their way of life and sowing death by spreading foreign diseases.

“There are plenty of things about his mission policies we find troubling today,” Steven Hackel, the author of Junípero Serra: California’s Founding Father and a historian based at the University of California-Riverside, told the Register.

“The California Indians were doing fine before the Spaniards arrived. They were exceptionally sophisticated, with large populations, and they had governed themselves for many centuries.”

Born in 1713 on the Spanish island of Majorca, Junípero Serra spent the first part of his priestly vocation as a theology professor at Lullian University in Palma de Mallorca, considered at that time to be a leading institution of higher education in Europe. But the theologian discerned God’s call to advance the Gospel in the New World and finally secured his superiors’ agreement to leave his post.

Father Serra began his missionary work in Mexico and Baja California, where he remained for 18 years before arriving in San Diego in 1769. He died in 1784 at the Carmel mission.


String of Missions

Part of his plan was to extend the string of missions, where native peoples were catechized, educated and trained for practical work, north of Baja California. The first of what would finally total 21 California missions was founded in San Diego.

“He was teaching aboriginal peoples about Christianity,” Msgr. Francis Weber, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles’ archivist and an authority on Serra and the controversies surrounding his legacy, told the Register.

Msgr. Weber has written three books on the Franciscan missionary, including The Life and Times of Fray Junípero Serra.

He noted that saints are found to practice the virtues, which all Christians are called to live, in a “heroic” way and how Father Serra exemplified this in his life, before and after he reached California.

“He was a full professor at one of the finest universities in all of Europe, and midway through his career, after he had won all the plaudits, he decided to become a missionary, which wasn’t easy,” Msgr. Weber said.

“You can imagine how this college professor had to adapt himself to these new surroundings, where the people had no formal education at all,” added the priest, who is an academic heir of Franciscan Father Maynard Geiger (1901-1977), who wrote what U.S. Catholic history specialists view as the definitive biography of Serra.

“He has always been the model of what a missionary would do in California,” said Msgr. Weber. “He had a lot of wrangles with the military, because he didn’t think the military treated the Native Americans the way they should be treated.”

Father Serra was deeply concerned about the well-being of the native people, Msgr. Weber noted, and he embarked on a long trip, most of it by foot, to advocate on their behalf before the viceroy in Mexico, who governed the territory.


Appeal to the Viceroy

“At Serra’s behest, the viceroy issued a bill of rights for Native Americans.” And on that trip, Serra walked from Carmel to Mexico City with a cancerous leg.

“When we were exhuming his remains, which happened in 1984, you could see on the leg bone that there had been a cancer,” Msgr. Weber said. “It is amazing that he did so much.”

The archivist and author strongly disputed allegations that the Franciscan friar brutalized indigenous people. He suggested that opposition to Father Serra’s beatification was “not related to Serra as much as the whole process of evangelization.”

“There are people who would say, ‘The Europeans should stay home,’” Msgr. Weber said. “But the idea of missionaries [and their purpose] was to come here and give the benefits of knowledge of the Lord” to those they encountered.

Steven Hackel agreed that Blessed Junípero’s policies were inspired by the passionate conviction that religious conversion would offer the native people eternal life and also bring them out of poverty and ignorance.

“Father Serra believed that Indian people were his spiritual children: They accepted Catholicism, and he had the responsibility to make sure they lived as Catholics,” said Hackel.

However, Hackel also noted that migrants arriving in California during the subsequent “American” period of expansion marked by the Gold Rush treated the indigenous people much more harshly.


Defender of Indigenous

Gregory Orfalea, the author of Journey to the Sun: Junípero Serra’s Dream and the Founding of California, said he was impressed with the Franciscan missionary’s legacy of “defending the Indians against Spanish comandantes and governors, both in Mexico and in California.”

In a Jan. 25 column for the Los Angeles Times, Orfalea cited documents confirming Serra’s opposition to the execution of native people held responsible for the destruction by fire of the San Diego mission and the murder of a priest in 1775.

“As to the killer,” Serra wrote in a letter to the viceroy, “let him live, so that he can be saved, for that is the purpose of our coming here and its sole justification.”

Wrote Orfalea: “For me, that ‘sole’ burns a hole in any argument that tars Serra with genocide. Time and again, Serra insisted the Spanish were not in California for gold or land, but the good of the indigenous people.”


‘One-Way Street’

Robert Senkewicz, the co-author with Rose Marie Beebe of Junípero Serra: California, Indians and the Transformation of a Missionary, acknowledged that the new converts did not usually understand that conversion was “a one-way street” and that they were required to stay at the mission after baptism.

But Senkewicz also observed that Father Serra and his fellow Franciscans offered a far more protective environment for the indigenous peoples.

The priest’s critics “say the Spanish should not have come. But the Spanish were going to come — it was a 300-year-old empire that was expanding,” Senkewicz said.

Without the missionaries, “life in California would have been dominated by ranchers and the military, and they would have forced Indians to work in a brutal fashion, which is precisely what happened in many areas of Mexico.”

Archbishop Gomez, for his part, did not dismiss critics who challenge the missionaries’ legacy.

“The Church has acknowledged and asked pardon for the cruelty and abuses of colonial leaders and even some missionaries,” he noted in his column, which cited an address by St. John Paul II during his 1987 trip to the region.

But the Los Angeles archbishop, who expressed regret that the canonization could not take place in his city, also cited historical accounts that presented the friar and his fellow Franciscans as “protectors and defenders of the native peoples against colonial exploitation and violence.”

He concluded: The historical record confirms what Pope Francis believes: that Blessed Junípero Serra was a man of heroic virtue and holiness who had only one burning ambition — to bring the Good News of Jesus Christ to the peoples of the New World.

“Whatever human faults he may have had and whatever mistakes he may have made, there is no questioning that he lived a life of sacrifice and self-denial. And he died here in California, having given his life out of love for the Gospel and the people he came to serve.”

Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.