Oil painting of Father Junípero Serra from the 1700s.

Some see Junipero Serra, Pope Francis' next American saint, as less than holy

(RNS) When Pope Francis unexpectedly announced last month that he would canonize the Rev. Junipero Serra during his visit to the U.S. in September, he thrilled the many fans of the legendary 18th-century Spanish Franciscan who spread the Catholic faith across what is now California.

But the pontiff who has decried the “ideological colonization” of the developing world by the secular West is now facing criticism from those who say Serra -- called “the Columbus of California” -- abused Native Americans and pressured them to convert, aiding in the devastation of the indigenous culture on behalf of the Spanish crown.

Oil painting of Father Junípero Serra from the 1700's.

Oil painting of Father Junípero Serra from the 1700s.

 This image is available for web publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

“Serra was no saint to us,” Ron Andrade, executive director of the Los Angeles City/County Native American Indian Commission, told the Los Angeles Times.

Some of Serra’s sharpest critics say he was part of an imperial conquest that beat and enslaved Native Americans, raped their women, and destroyed their culture by forcing them to abandon their traditional language, diet, dress and other customs and rites.

Add in the diseases introduced by these Old World invaders, and the original indigenous population of perhaps 300,000 was decimated by as much as 90 percent.

“If (Serra) is elevated to sainthood,” Nicole Lim, the executive director of the California Indian Museum and Cultural Center in Santa Rosa, told The New York Times, “then (Serra) should be held responsible for the brutal and deadly treatment of native people.”

Serra’s defenders acknowledge the dark side of his legacy but argue that it’s not fair to judge this 18th-century missionary by 21st-century standards. They argue that he was a moderating influence on his fellow Spaniards, and frequently pleaded for more merciful treatment for the Native Americans under their control.

“He lived in a very difficult time and he did the best he could under very difficult circumstances,” the Rev. Edward Benioff, who oversees evangelism for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, told the local NBC affiliate.

For Francis -- who once again dispensed with the usual protocols of Vatican saint-making and stunned even Serra’s official advocates with the canonization announcement -- the main reason for honoring the Spaniard seems to be that he underscores what Francis says should be the church’s missionary focus.

But Serra was a missionary of a different era. Born on the Spanish island of Majorca in 1713, he joined the Franciscans at 16 and quickly gained a reputation for his preaching and theological expertise. He arrived in Mexico City in 1750 to fulfill his dream of being a missionary, and in 1769 he established his first mission at San Diego as head of a group of Franciscans tasked with evangelizing California, then part of New Spain.

He would go on to help found another eight missions up the coast through the San Francisco Bay Area, a network that would eventually grow to 21 missions all together.

Despite ill health, Serra worked tirelessly to make the missions self-sufficient. He eventually succumbed to his ailments and died in 1784, at the age of 70, near Monterey.

Of the 80,000 Native Americans baptized by the end of the mission era in the 1830s, according to the Los Angeles Times, some 60,000 had died, including 25,000 children under 10 years old.

How far this controversy will resonate during Francis’ U.S. visit is unclear.

The pope remains enormously popular among American Catholics, and the wider public. And Francis said that as much as he would have liked to go to California to canonize Serra, he will have to keep his itinerary to the East Coast cities of Philadelphia, New York and Washington.

That means he will canonize Serra at a Mass in the nation’s capital, far from the West Coast epicenter of the controversy, and near the U.S. Capitol building, where a statue of Serra is one of two California monuments to state heroes.

Between now and the pope's arrival in September, the arguments surrounding Serra’s legacy are also likely to get a wide airing, and maybe a greater consensus.

Serra “was uncompromising,” Steven Hackel, a history professor at University of California, Riverside and author of a biography of Serra, told Catholic News Service. But Hackel said that working through the controversies “will be a good thing.”

“It can lead to reconciliation and mutual understanding,” he said.



  1. Some of Serra’s sharpest critics say he was part of an imperial conquest that beat and enslaved Native Americans, raped their women, and destroyed their culture by forcing them to abandon their traditional language, diet, dress and other customs and rites.

    And we’re compelled to listen to malicious cranks just why?

  2. All of the critics are correct. Its just annoying to be reminded of it. Right?

    “Serra’s defenders acknowledge the dark side of his legacy but argue that it’s not fair to judge this 18th century missionary by 21st century standards. ”

    But technically since he is evaluated for sainthood in the 21st Century, he IS being judged by 21st Century standards. The Catholic Church possesses many things, but a time machine is not one of them. They had 3 centuries to evaluate him by much looser standards of their eras.

  3. What is wrong with you, Art? Why do you post such slander against people who are rightfully dismayed by Pope Francis canonizing another religious fascist overseerer of slavery. Yes, Mission Indians worked as slaves for Father Serra and the rest of the padres use slave labor to build their missions. I was born in one of Father Serra’s mission towns, Santa Barbara and fondly remember going to my favorite triangle of Santa Barbara Mission-Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History-and the Mission Indian site next to them. But later, as an adult I learned how these missions were built on slave labor. And later still I started working for Native Americans and still do. It’s really past time that comments like Art’s are exposed as racism against N.A’s. Lay off criticizing critics of slave labor,Art, you need to get some ethical training.

  4. My son-in-law and his family are genuine American Indians (Penobscots)– They loathe the activist–media creation “Native Americans.” He tells me that some of these activists really want American Indians to go back to wearing only bear fat for covering. He and my daughter proudly named one of their 4 children Kateri for St. Kateri Tekakwitha.
    Many of the modern complaints against Serra are bogus or
    twisted out of context they tell me. And I trust their witness more than that of some self-styled experts who got
    their information from a museum which may or may not present things accurately. (Museums can be very much pushing a point of view).

  5. Oh, that Francis! He’s so ahead of the curve and progressive that he has looped back around and become a retro slavery enthusiast. Hip! Edgy! A modern Pope for the Millennials to relate to! Such a breath of fresh air! Something something social justice!

  6. All of the critics are correct. Its just annoying to be reminded of it. Right?

    It’s annoying for Larry to be reminded that he has no opinions that are not stereotyped and his only signature is his callow bad manners.


    A little critical intelligence applied to the original remark might help you

    Some of Serra’s sharpest critics say he was part of an imperial conquest that beat and enslaved Native Americans, raped their women, and destroyed their culture by forcing them to abandon their traditional language, diet, dress and other customs and rites.

    Any society has a certain amount of crime. Was violent crime more or less severe in 18th c. Spanish America than elsewhere? Did it have certain signatures as regards perpetrator and victim? These are difficult questions for a historical sociologist to answer (and they may be unanswerable). That does not bother people who talk like this.

    Go to the Andes, Larry, or to Guatemala or to Paraguay. Seven digit populations there are yakking to each other in Indian dialects (while bilingualism is common), often in quaint and colorful panchos. Now go to Europe or Asia Minor and see if you can locate examples of linguistic change over periods of 500 years. One language replacing another is not terribly remarkable and ‘force’ really is not much of an explanation for the dominant vectors at work. Now, do you think maize has ceased to be a staple crop in Latin America?

    As for ‘traditional rites’, well some could be interesting (see the Aztecs). Ideas often fall to more compelling ideas. Nothing stopping aboriginal types from reviving them. However, antiquarianism is something distinct from tradition.

  7. What is wrong with you, Art?

    From your perspective, what’s wrong with me is that I’m not a raving anti-Semite. I take it you’d like to add to the bill of particulars in this thread.

  8. Note: it is the witness of my son-in-law and his family which I trust–not that of museums or anti-Serra cranks.

  9. I hate to just pile on but “what is wrong with you Art”?
    “One language replacing another is not terribly remarkable and ‘force’ really is not much of an explanation for the dominant vectors at work.”
    Ask the Welch, or the Celts. They were forced to give up their language, but at least they did not have a 90% morality rate.
    Before I went to Peru, I read William Prescott’s History. I was stunned to discover that the Spanish burned the native villages and forced the inhabitants to move to new sites where they had to build and then occupy Spanish style towns. In short, the policy was to eradicate the native culture. How can you ignore all the evidence?

  10. Genocide was not a crime against humanity in the 18th Century. But what does it tell about us here and now to be extolling someone 3 centuries later involved in such acts? It speaks badly of the modern judges.

    What does it say of the church to be elevating someone like that to the path of sainthood, in the modern era. When genocide is considered the worst act imaginable to society? A desire not to address the bad parts of its own history. Behavior which has come back to bite them after the fact on many occasions.

    So why did the church wait so long to consider elevating Serra?

    “As for ‘traditional rites’, well some could be interesting (see the Aztecs). Ideas often fall to more compelling ideas.”

    “Ideas” being a euphemism for losing most of their population to disease and the rest through conquest and strategic alliances.

    Wiping out nearly 90% of a given population is very remarkable. Even back then. When Genghis Khan did it to the Khwarezmian empire, he was vilified in his own time and centuries later.

    However, when Europeans committed genocide from the 17th Century through 1945, it got swept under the rug. (Who remembers the Armenians, Hereros, Tasmanians, or Circassians?)

  11. Way to give a strawman position. Activism or not, genocide of indigenous peoples in the Americas is not a point of debate. It is a clearly documented fact.

    Fact of the matter is, Serra has to be judged by 21st century standards because of the times his sainthood is being considered in. How the church handles him now tells us what they think of their own history. What they are willing to consider holy above others and what they are willing to ignore.

  12. Nice going there, Deacon, you and your son-in-law trashing Penobscot real history:

    “Contact with Europeans was not uncommon during the 16th century because the fur trade was lucrative and the Penobscots were willing to trade pelts for European goods like metal axes, guns, and copper or iron cookware. However, the abundance that had existed in Penobscot territory quickly disappeared as demand for the resources in the Penobscot homelands rose. This trade also brought alcohol to Penobscot communities for the first time. The presence of alcohol brought alcoholism, which Europeans frequently tried to exploit in dealings and trade. The Europeans also brought foreign diseases to which the Penobscots had no defenses. The population was also depleted during this time because of ongoing battles between the Wabanaki Federation and the Mohawk nation. This catastrophic population depletion may have also led to Christian conversion (amongst other factors) because the European priests who had not suffered from the pandemics explained that the Penobscot ancestors had died because they did not believe in Jesus Christ.”–Wikipedia

    I guess you guys are happy Christians and don’t give a rat’s behind about tribal ways that never did fit in with European ideas of religion. Father Serra needs to be exposed as a racist slaver no matter how benign he accomplished that role, it is still part and parcel of European genocide of Native Americans, much of it done in the name of Christ.

    And Art, the next time you piss on Palestinians, dozens of which are friends of mine and for whom I work as an anti-Zionist activist running a blog to that effect for almost a decade now, I will personally send you an invitation to visit some Palestinians in your area to tell them to their faces what you think is “anti-Semitism”, these Semitic peoples I do my best to help stay alive while your type wants to reenact all the genocidal crap of European colonization.

  13. You may think that you “working for the Palestinians”, but you’re not. Anti-Zionism is not helpful to the Palestinians. Pretending that Jews are all European is not helpful either. Israel exists and Israelis and Palestinians need to accept each other’s existence. That is the way to peace.

    I largely agree with the critics of Serra, but there is no comparison between the European Christians and Jewish Zionists who were trying to save an endangered people and not in conquest.

  14. If Zionists want to reenact all genocidal crap of European civilization, why is the population of Gaza and the West Bank increasing steadily every year?

  15. Funny, reading a lecture from a presumably North American on American Indian issues. For it was not the Spanish who came up with the slogan: :” The only good Indian is a dead Indian.” It was the Anglo North Americans who used that as their motto.
    One does get tired of reading what some historians call “The Black Legend.” (Lies about the Spanish–especially Spanish Catholics–to salve over the genocide of the American Indian by white North Americans chasing “Manifest Destiny.”
    And you can see for yourself the results of the overall better treatment of Indians by the Spanish written in the faces of the millions upon millions of Latin Americans who are clearly of Indian or mixed race. How many people of Indian roots do you pass on a street in Boston??? How many in Mexico City???

  16. All please try to remember, that the Catholic Church back in the time of Serra was conducted by Spanish authority,…. as much as the Pope and faithful were in faith, the merchant and military of Spain set out to colonize or seize territory, and the Priests went with them not as a controlling force, but one tolerated by the governments. Thus, if guilt by association is implied, then who is to judge us today? Who might judge all Americans centuries from now about Vietnam, Central America death squads, and invasion/occupy of middle east Iraq? Would we be to blame for what others do in our name? Should we be held responsible too?

  17. I am a Chumash native and I was a catholic. I will accept your position of “not fair to judge this 18th century missionary by 21st century standards. ” so let judge him on the standards of his time. Where is the Old Testament or New Testament during “his time” does it say that murder, rape, slavery, and near-genocide of a people was Ok? If the church looks to the scriptures as the basis of its religion and as the word of Christ, then should it not follow the scriptures no matter what era we are in? The “sign of the times” defense is not now nor ever be a legitimate argument. If you ask yourself if Jesus himself would condone the actions of Fr. Serra and the church during that time or any other time, it would be a most definite No. If he would, then he is not the Savior I believe him to be. I love being a Christian but my Christ would never condone this action

  18. Was the Great Fr Serra slave owner and rapist as you agree he was? Or was he, as some historians claim, a protector to the natives against the soldados
    (soldiers) of the Crown of Spain? I agree that a large number of natives were killed mostly by diseases brought in by the Europeans. As a Polynesian from Hawaii, we had the same problem. The European sailors and other travelers managed to kill off nearly 80% of the natives. The Catholics were barred initially from doing missionary work in Hawaii. So they cannot be blamed for the tremondous loss of life in the Islands. I believe the high rate of death amongs the native people were not do to actual murder or through battles, but a large part from diseases.

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