Fact or fiction? Historians weigh in on Serra

Pope Francis’ decision to canonize Blessed Junipero Serra, calling him the “evangelizer of the western United States,” shocked those who view Serra as a symbol of oppression of the California native peoples and who blame Christian conversion for their virtual extinction.

The controversy has grown over recent months, including calls by California lawmakers for the removal of Serra’s statue from the U.S. Capitol. Proposed legislation was tabled, however, out of deference to Pope Francis ahead of his September visit to the United States. And California Gov. Jerry Brown promised in mid-July that statue of Serra, one of two statues representing the state, would stay in the U.S. Capitol “until the end of time.”

Pope Francis is scheduled to canonize Serra, the father of the California missions, on Sept. 23 in Washington, D.C.

Statue controversy aside, what exactly was the role of Serra and his missions when it came to Native Americans? Many historians are striving to answer the question — not the least of whom are a group of secular experts who gathered in Rome in the spring. There, they presented documentation of Serra as the “tireless missionary” devoted to Our Lady of Guadalupe and to the California Native Americans.

‘The ultimate martyrdom’

Ruben Mendoza, an archaeology professor at California State University in Monterey Bay, called the association of Serra with the crimes and abuses of the latter half of the 19th century “the ultimate martyrdom Serra has suffered.”

While not a descendent of the coastal California Mission Indians, Mendoza is Yaqui Indian and Hispanic Catholic. He testified in July before a California state assembly committee in favor of keeping Serra’s statue in the Capitol.

Mendoza, along with other historians, agree that although colonization eventually brought an end to the hunter-gatherer way of life of California’s native peoples, their great decimation occurred 100 years later as Americans settled the territory of California during the Gold Rush and afterward.

In fact, said Robert Senkewicz, Santa Clara University history professor and author of a new heavily documented biography of Serra, the Franciscan sacrificed and fought for the native peoples against the Spanish military, who accompanied the missionaries to California.

“(Serra) constantly ended up at odds with a whole series of military leaders on how the Indians should be treated,” said Senkewicz, who co-wrote with his wife, Santa Clara professor Rose Marie Beebe, “Junipero Serra: California, Indians and the Transformation of a Missionary” (University of Oklahoma Press, $34.95).

Despite being near death due to illness, Serra completed an agonizing, months-long journey from San Diego to Mexico City to push for the replacement of the military governor of what is now California because of the abuses suffered by the California Native Americans, including the rape of a Native American woman by a Spanish soldier, said Senkewicz.

“Given the extent of the sacrifice he made on behalf of the native peoples, I think it is iconic and symbolic of what Serra’s commitments were,” Mendoza added. “In that regard, we can say Serra was ahead of his time. He was proactive for the civil rights of native peoples.”

Understanding Serra

One of the key ways to tease out this history is to get to know what made Serra tick, the historians said.

“In our book we try to understand Father Serra in his own time and from his own values and from his own identity as a Catholic missionary priest,” Senkewicz said. “We think that is the most important aspect of his life. Junipero Serra left a ‘cushy’ job as a theology professor on (the island of) Mallorca, never to return, living a hard life on the frontier.”

Serra’s commitment to evangelize rather than destroy the native peoples was evident from the beginning of his life as a missionary, according to Senkewicz.

“When he landed in Mexico in December of 1749, he walked a couple hundred miles from Vera Cruz to Mexico City with one other friar,” he said. “Most rode (but Serra) wanted to walk as a form of penance to prepare for missionary life.”

The friars came as part of the colonial expedition, and Spain’s strategy was that by bringing the native peoples into its settlements and way of life, it would cement its hold on the California territory. However, the objective of Serra and the Franciscan missionaries was evangelization, Mendoza and Senkewicz said.

“Serra spent the final half of his life, from the moment he arrived in Mexico City on Jan. 1, 1750, until his death at Carmel on Aug. 28, 1784, struggling to live out his own beliefs in the midst of that complex and bloody reality,” Senkewicz and Beebe write in their 2015 biography. “The manner in which he did so was controversial in his own day and remains no less controversial today.”

The worst abuses of the California Indians, however, came much later, said Mendoza, who believes the antagonism of Serra is based on the fact that many of Serra’s critics confuse the impact of Spanish colonizing and missionary activity on the native communities with the decimation of the native peoples after California became a U.S. territory in 1848.

The California legislature over time appropriated more than $1 million to pay for bounties for killing California Indians and paid $5 a scalp, said Mendoza, citing “Murder State: California’s Native American Genocide 1846-1873,” by Brendan C. Lindsay (University of Nebraska Press, $35).

Another objection to Serra’s canonization involves reports that California Indians at the missions were beaten, but Mendoza said there is no documentation that Serra abused anyone.

Serra as scapegoat?

Andrew Galvan, who is descended from an Ohlone Indian and is curator of the old Mission San Francisco de Asis, or Mission Dolores, in San Francisco, said Pope Francis’ decision to canonize Blessed Junipero Serra without the standard second miracle is because Serra “lived the life of a miracle.”

However, Galvan, who worked for decades on Serra’s sainthood cause, hopes that the pontiff will apologize in the U.S. for the Catholic Church’s involvement in colonialism as he did July 9 in Bolivia.

Jeffrey Burns, director of the American Academy of Franciscan History in San Diego, said the Spanish destroyed the native peoples’ hunter-gather way of life by establishing farms and cattle ranches.

“Blessed Junipero Serra clearly had a tremendous love for the Native American people. From the Native American perspective, that is not really the issue,” said Burns.. “The ones who oppose canonization, it is more a symbol than the real Serra. Serra becomes responsible for everything that happened during the mission era.”

But Serra is worth more than that. “He was the first missionary to come to California. He is the one who brought the Faith to California. That is the primary reason he is being put forward,” Burns said. “And he was a good and holy man.”

Valerie Schmalz writes from California.