On Wednesday, Pope Francis officially canonized Junipero Serra making him a Catholic saint. Serra founded several Catholic missions to convert Native Americans in the 18 –century California and he’s the first saint to be canonized in the US. The pope actually fast-tracked his confirmation- skipping a couple of traditionally required steps to make sure he could grant the sainthood to Serra during his visit to the States.
But for many Native Americans, Latinos and others, Serra was no saint, and his canonization makes an old wound bleed again.
“We’re stunned and we’re in disbelief,” said Valentin Lopez, 63, chairman of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band located along Monterrey Bay. Lopez has campaigned against the sainthood for Serra.
“We believe saints are supposed to be people who followed in the life of Jesus Christ and the words of Jesus Christ. There was no Jesus Christ lifestyle at the missions,” Lopez said, “The mission period was brutal on our people,” he said. “There can be no doubt that Junipero Serra is personally responsible for destroying our culture.”
“We were raised not to say anything bad about the Catholic religion, but at the same time, we can’t stay quiet about this. It’s like the altar boy scandal. All the people who stayed quiet about the altar boy scandal, how do they feel now?” he continued.
“It seems like the church is doing all it can to separate Serra from the atrocities and deaths and what happened to the Indians, but that does not work,” Lopez said.
Serra made an official request that the Spanish Inquisition be introduced to his region of work, and the Inquisition responded by appointing him director of the inquisition in that territory. In fact, they allowed him to carry out the functions of the inquisition anywhere in New Spain that there was not already a functioning inquisitor.
The life of Serra remains as controversial as any of the so-called conquistadors of Spain who ravaged their way through much of the Americas with crosses and swords while contending they were servants of Christ.
Even the official California school curriculum states bluntly:
“The historical record of this era remains incomplete due to the relative absence of native testimony, but it is clear that while missionaries brought agriculture, the Spanish language and culture, and Christianity to the native population, American Indians suffered in many California missions.”
“The death rate was extremely high. Contributing factors included the hardships of forced labor and, primarily, the introduction of diseases for which the native population did not have immunity. Moreover, the imposition of forced labor and highly structured living arrangements degraded individuals, constrained families, circumscribed native culture, and negatively impacted scores of communities.”