Serra Smile: Do Critics of St. Junipero’s Canonization Have a Strong Point?

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A Man on a Mission: Did St. Junipero's Means and Ends Undermine His Claim to Sainthood?

A Man on a Mission: Did Santo Junipero’s Means and Ends Undermine His Claim to Sainthood?

It’s a great day — or a horrific day, or perhaps a bit of both — for Alta California (aka “California.”)  The founding figure (Non-Explorer Division) of our state’s starting down the path to becoming a part of Christendom (and subsequently the United States) — the man whose missionary project launched more than a million elementary school art-and-report projects (the art portion of which was largely done by our mothers, if my own experience is any guide) — has been canonized.

Serra is a towering figure in our state’s history — and, having lived in a dozen other states over a couple of decades, I can tell you that he doesn’t seem to be considered one elsewhere.  (Seriously, you probably know the names of the some of the Massachusetts Pilgrims and maybe a bit about the Roanoke Colony in Virginia, but unless you’re from Florida do you have any idea who founded the first successful colony there in St. Augustine?  Serra is much like that unknown guy — Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, if you want to know, and yes I absolutely did have to look it up — in much of the rest of the country.  Except a little better-known — and now a headline-making saint. )

I had been thinking about writing about Serra this week, given his canonization, but I’ve been on the busy side and hadn’t gotten around for it.  Luckily for us all, The Smithsonian came out with an excellent article yesterday on what it calls the “West Coast incarnation of some of the founding myths of the United States”: Serra’s missions and his role in them.  I can’t recommend it highly enough!  I’m just going to give you a smattering of paragraphs from it, including some from clashing scholars — enough, I hope, to convince you to click that link and come back her to talk about it.

(The magazine also apparently has this to say to all of you: “Give the gift of Smithsonian magazine for only $12! http://bit.ly/1cGUiGv   Follow us: @SmithsonianMag on Twitter”.  Sound good to me!)

The setting:

The mission system lasted over 60 years and was integral to Spain’s colonization of the recently conquered California land mass. Serra’s canonization, meanwhile, is stirring up controversy about whether the system he founded was holy or horrible. Between 1769 and 1784, Serra formed nine Spanish missions. Many were massive in size; Mission San Luis Rey had 60,000 head of cattle at one point. Each mission was a closed Catholic community that offered native nations, like the Kumeyaay, Chumash and Cahuilla, Spanish citizenship and education in exchange for their conversion, labor and permanent residency.

A critic:

Mission life exacted a high cost from native peoples, Serra biographer and University of Riverside history professor Steven W. Hackel says. As they farmed, labored and went to church, “Indians were expected to give up most of the important aspects of their culture in return for what the missionaries promised them was salvation,” says Hackel. Confined inside the missions among a diverse group of mission-bound Native Americans, says Hackel, indigenous people were encouraged to abandon both their cultural practices and traditional farming techniques.

“Indians who challenged the mission’s authority were flogged,” says Hackel. The Indians’ “spiritual fathers,” he continues, “punished them as children even when they were adults.” Those who tried to escape were hunted down by Spanish soldiers and forced to return. Crowded missions were also hot spots for diseases like pneumonia and diphtheria. One missionary wrote that an epidemic of measles “has cleaned out the missions and filled the cemeteries.” According to the Huntington Library’s Early California Population Project, 71,000 burials were performed in California’s missions between 1769 and 1850. And the University of California’s Calisphere notes that though there were an estimated 300,000 native people living in the area before Spanish colonization, only 30,000 remained by 1860.

A defender:

Jeffrey M. Burns, a Serra scholar who directs the University of San Diego’s Frances G. Harpst Center for Catholic Thought and Culture, says that Serra and his fellow missionaries measured success in terms of souls saved. “Serra offered the native people membership in the missions in exchange for eternal life,” says Burns. “He would have seen everything at the mission as the native people’s property, something he was holding in trust for them. It may not have worked out that way, but that’s how he understood it.”

Both sides agree that, especially after Mexican independence from Spain, whatever positive vision Serra had had for the native peoples who built the missions was abandoned; they were “secularized” and given away to private interests — more or less as spoils.  Catholics eventually regained control of the missions, but that control did not devolve to the native peoples who had been promised eventual control.  For the church, though, the prominence of Catholicism among natives (and within what would ultimately become California itself) was its own reward.

On one other point, people on both sides of the question of the appropriateness of Father Serra’s canonization agree: it is a great chance to return our attention to the fates — and the continuing rights — of our regions native peoples.  In his historic address to Congress this morning, Pope Francis departed from what seemed to promise a discussion on immigrant rights and prior to a call to action regarding refugees and for a time threaded the needle between acknowledgment of his church having caused insult and pain and trying to put the unpleasantness behind us:

In recent centuries, millions of people came to this land to pursue their dream of building a future in freedom. We, the people of this continent, are not fearful of foreigners, because most of us were once foreigners. I say this to you as the son of immigrants, knowing that so many of you are also descended from immigrants. Tragically, the rights of those who were here long before us were not always respected. For those peoples and their nations, from the heart of American democracy, I wish to reaffirm my highest esteem and appreciation. Those first contacts were often turbulent and violent, but it is difficult to judge the past by the criteria of the present. Nonetheless, when the stranger in our midst appeals to us, we must not repeat the sins and the errors of the past. We must resolve now to live as nobly and as justly as possible, as we educate new generations not to turn their back on our “neighbors” and everything around us. Building a nation calls us to recognize that we must constantly relate to others, rejecting a mindset of hostility in order to adopt one of reciprocal subsidiarity, in a constant effort to do our best. I am confident that we can do this.

I truly do love the man, but I’m not sure that I agree about the difficulty of judging the past.  And yet I appreciate his inviting discussion of the issue, an invitation now conveyed to all of you.

(And for you young ones: the first part of the title of this post may seem both completely inappropriate and mystifying.  I can at least do something about the latter problem!

No, this song has absolutely nothing to do with Fr. St. Junipero Serra.)


About Greg Diamond

Somewhat verbose attorney, semi-retired due to disability, residing in northwest Brea. Occasionally runs for office against bad people who would otherwise go unopposed. Got 45% of the vote against Bob Huff for State Senate in 2012; Josh Newman then won the seat in 2016. In 2014 became the first attorney to challenge OCDA Tony Rackauckas since 2002; Todd Spitzer then won that seat in 2018. Every time he's run against some rotten incumbent, the *next* person to challenge them wins! He's OK with that. Corrupt party hacks hate him. He's OK with that too. He does advise some local campaigns informally and (so far) without compensation. (If that last bit changes, he will declare the interest.)