Dropping one of his classic impromptu bombshells, Pope Francis announced Thursday evening that he intends to declare Father Junipero Serra, the 18th century Franciscan friar who started nine of California’s 21 missions and begat what would become El Camino Real, a saint come this September. The Pope described Serra as “great evangelist,” and waived the requirement that all saints be responsible for at least two documented miracles. In Serra’s case, there’s only one, involving a nun who was cured of lupus by praying to him.
Serra’s canonization will reignite the long running debate over the treatment of Native Americans by Spanish missionaries who proved so pivotal in the initial colonization of California. Historian and writer Greg Orfalea, author of the recent biography on Serra, Journey to the Sun: Junipero Serra’s Dream and the Founding of California, said he’s hoisting a glass of beer in celebration of the news. Despite the decimating impact of the Spanish colonial system on Indian populations, Orfalea argued that Serra was a man of remarkable mercy.
He cited Serra’s intervention to spare the lives of 12 Indians who participated in an uprising against the Spanish near San Diego in 1775. Serra intervened all the way up to the viceroy, travelling to Mexico City to make his case. In the end, he prevailed. Not only that, Serra succeeded in getting a previous governor fired over the mistreatment of Indians at the hands of colonial soldiers. “Pope Francis is all about serving the poor,” said Orfalea, “and Serra gave up a life as a highly respected intellectual heavyweight in Spain to come here to work directly with the Indians.”
John Johnson, historian and anthropologist with the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, acknowledged that the Franciscan approach to missionary work — bringing the converted into the missions rather than serving them in their own villages — contributed enormously to their sudden demise. “But that happened 20 years after Serra died in 1784,” he said. “You don’t have the first wave of epidemics hit until 1803. While Serra was here, the Indians still lived in their own communities and villages. It was only later that some were missionized.” That being said, Johnson added, Serra fought with several Spanish governors of California over the missionization of native populations. He supported it, and they opposed it.
Serra presided over the founding of Santa Barbara’s Presidio in 1782, and he had hoped to preside over the founding of the Santa Barbara Mission as well. But he died four years before it could be established. According to UC Riverside historian Steven Hackel, Governor Felipe de Neve forbade Serra from starting a mission in Santa Barbara because he believed the missionaries had amassed too much power. In fact, de Neve wrote scoldingly to Serra that the soldiers would do a better job teaching the Indians how to be Christians than the missionaries. Serra was known for feuding with the governors appointed to administer California, and de Neve, said Hackal, was one of the few ever to get the better of him.
Hackal argued that as a historical figure, Serra has had a profound impact both on native populations and on the introduction of European culture into what was then the New World. “Serra has few peers in his ability to marshal resources under difficult circumstances,” Hackal said. “He was a leader of men. He was tough as nails. He had an undying spirit.” Hackel added that the mission system took a huge toll not just on Indian populations; under Serra’s administration, native culture — diet, clothes, marriage patterns, and sex practices — were systematically eradicated. Even so, Hackel said, many descendants of those native people remain practicing Catholics who have embraced and developed a blending of the two traditions.
Serra will hold the distinction of becoming the first American saint from the western United States and — however ambiguous his historical impact on native populations — has been popularly portrayed as an appropriate candidate to reflect the American, and especially Latin American, congregations. For Pope Francis, an Argentine with a decidedly populist message, it was a natural fit.
Serra’s appointment will no doubt lend greater urgency to the major symposium taking place in Berkeley next month on the consequences of missionization. Ernestine De Soto of Santa Barbara will be attending. De Soto is the daughter of the last native Chumash speaker in Santa Barbara and a devout Catholic. As to the impact of missionization, DeSoto said, “I’m an Indian on the fence, which means I will probably be shot at with both bullets and arrows.”
De Soto acknowledged the Franciscan missionaries flogged upstart Chumash; but, she said, Serra — a flagellant — didn’t do anything to the Chumash that he didn’t do to himself. DeSoto found herself praying to Serra when her daughter became gravely ill. She was joined in her prayers by many priests, and her daughter got better. Does this qualify as the second miracle Serra would need under ordinary circumstances for canonization? “I don’t know,” said De Soto. “I was desperate. I was praying to everything and anyone.”
Noting that the mission system was initiated by the Spanish crown as a strategy to pre-empt Russian colonization of the Pacific Coast, De Soto concluded, “If it wasn’t for Father Serra, we’d probably all be speaking Russian right now. And be better looking, too.”