Skip to main content

It’s complicated: One Native Californian’s thoughts on Junipero Serra’s canonization

Olivia Chilcote, Ph.D. candidate, ethnic studies | September 22, 2015

Tomorrow Pope Francis will canonize Junípero Serra in Washington DC. I never thought this day would be upon us.

In 1988, Pope John Paul II made the first step towards canonization when he beatified Serra, or recognized his entrance to Heaven and his ability to act on behalf of those who pray to him. Besides the beatification, becoming a saint requires that the individual in question has verifiably produced two miracles. Serra only has one.

A No Sainthood for Serra rally on May 4, 2015 at Mission Dolores. Photo by Monique Sonoquie.

A “No Sainthood for Serra” rally, on May 2, 2015, at Mission Dolores in San Francisco. Photo by Monique Sonoquie

In the 1980s, much like now, there was an outcry from Native Californians over the prospect of canonization. How could Junípero Serra, the man who established the Spanish Mission system in California, be a saint? Is he not representative of the death, disease, and cultural devastation of Spanish colonization?

Scholars, historians, activists, community leaders — both Native and non-Native — actively resisted Serra’s canonization through a variety of means. The 1987 book The Missions of California: A Legacy of Genocide, edited by Rupert and Jeanette Costo, was written in an effort to bring attention to the Native perspective and to foreground the brutal realities of the missions that had been glossed over for so many years. The strategic timing of the book highlighted that Native Californians and other anti-canonization believers could rally together and work towards halting Pope John Paul II’s process to canonize Serra.

But here we are today.

I remember hearing about Pope Francis’ plans to canonize Serra, in January of this year. I thought, seriously? Again? And then I rationalized to myself, there is no way this will happen. I mean, come on, Serra doesn’t even have enough miracles for this….

But here we are today.

Since the first announcements of Pope Francis’ plans, my social media and personal circles have been inundated with anti-canonization efforts, debates, and complexities. Friends, colleagues, and family have been a part of the resistance to the memorialization of colonization and its aftermath.

Reexamining the past

The impending canonization has been one way for Native Californians to re-examine their history and to understand the factors that have contributed to the problems facing tribal communities today — like lack of federal acknowledgment, cultural damage, and high rates of incarceration and suicide. However, this has also been a time to reflect on the strength of our ancestors who survived the missions and each subsequent era of colonization thereafter.

I grew up hearing and seeing Serra’s name throughout Southern California. I’m sure I learned about him when I had to endure the controversial “mission unit” in my 4th-grade class. As a young girl, I was forced to construct a mission — just as my ancestors had done, under very different conditions of course. But this was a nod to the “mission mythology” that permeates the state of California. “Mission-style” architecture dots the landscape and is supposed to remind the public of the “historical origins” of the state, of a Spanish fantasy past — a past devoid of the contributions and lives of Native Californians who had complex societies and systems of beliefs prior to missionization.

So who was Junípero Serra? And what makes his work so deserving of sainthood? You may know that Serra was president of the Franciscan Missions and established nine of the 21 missions in Alta California. However, you may not be aware that a lesser known friar, Fermín Lasuén, also established nine missions and served as president for three years longer than Serra did in this same post. Then why not canonize Lasuén, Pope Francis? Doesn’t he deserve the same recognition as his predecessor?

I think I know the answer. And I think many others do too. Serra is not receiving sainthood because he was necessarily more saint-like than Lasuén. Serra will become a saint because he was the first to establish a mission in California and has become a symbol of what the Spanish missions represent. In other words, Pope Francis is not canonizing Serra, the individual, so much as he is canonizing the  expansion of Catholicism in the Americas and the systemic colonization that changed Indigenous peoples’ lives forever in unalterable ways.

Serra’s canonization is a strategic move in the papacy of Francis, just like the mission system was a strategic move in the imperial exploits of the Spanish crown. In the 1700s, the Spanish feared encroachment on Alta California from the east by Americans and from the north by Russians. Placing missions along the coast to convert and “hispanicize” as many Native peoples as possible solidified Spain’s claims to land.

Today the Americas far surpass even Europe in Catholic believers, and the Catholic Church has elected Francis, who is the first Pope from Latin America. Not coincidentally, this Pope will soon re-memorialize and reaffirm a hispanic Catholic legacy in and connection to California and the Americas through Serra’s canonization.

Was such a controversial figure as Serra given a pass on miracles so that the Catholic Church can appeal to its largest constituency? What role do Native Californians have in this matter?

One tribe’s journey

My ancestors lived throughout northern San Diego County prior to Spanish intrusion into our lands. The village site Quechla, where the Mission San Luis Rey now stands near the city of Oceanside, is a place where members of my tribe can trace their lineage. We were there before the mission; we are there now.

Mission San Luis Rey is a complex place for others and myself in my tribe, the San Luis Rey Band of Luiseño Mission Indians. The name of our tribe comes directly from the fact of missionization. We have names for ourselves in our Native language, but mine and many other California tribes’ official names represent just how deeply missionization has affected us. It is in the very names we call ourselves and in the way we know ourselves to be.

My grandmother in front of Mission San Luis Rey in the 1940s.

My grandmother in front of Mission San Luis Rey in the 1940s

Like many of my ancestors before me, I was also baptized at Mission San Luis Rey. My grandmother had her funeral there, and she has a headstone in the cemetery where many other Luiseño people are also buried. Other tribal members have been married there, gone to Catholic school there, and are still parishioners to this day. We even hold our annual inter-tribal pow wow on the mission grounds.

But through all of this, we have never forgotten our Native heritage. We engage with Mission San Luis Rey because if we don’t, the toil and sacrifices of our ancestors to stay connected to our ancestral lands would have been in vain.

I will be on my way to Washington D.C. tomorrow for the annual Conference of Ford Fellows; it was only last week I realized I would arrive the same day as the canonization. There will be a strong contingent of Native Californians in the area, making every last effort to voice opposition to the canonization of colonialism. A good friend of mine will translate the first Scripture reading during the canonization into the Chochenyo language of Ohlone people. I cannot think of a better way to illustrate the complicated relationship between the Catholic Church and Native Californians. It will show hundreds of millions of people across the world that though the missions were destructive and unforgivable, Native Californians have not been silenced. Our histories, cultures, and lives have survived over three centuries of colonization and genocide.

Not even a miracle could stop us now.

To hear more about the Serra debate and get a firsthand perspective on anti-canonization efforts, consider attending the 30th Annual California Indian Conference. The CIC, to be held at UC Berkeley Oct. 15-17, will feature presentations by organizers of the anti-canonization effort. Visit the CIC website for information. 

Comments to “It’s complicated: One Native Californian’s thoughts on Junipero Serra’s canonization

  1. California is represented by 2 statues in the National Statuary Hall Collection in the U.S. Capitol. One statue depicts Serra holding a cross and looking skyward.

    This is a secular issue and that Serra statue is likely inappropriate on both a modern and a historical basis. That Serra statue should be considered for replacement after full and open input from California residents followed by a debate and vote in the California legislature.

  2. The Pope”s family came to Argentina from Germany. We look at Fr. Serra’s deeds during the time he was alive not with hindsight.

  3. So I agree. Though I don’t belong to the Catholic church, because I don’t agree with many of their beliefs, the Catholic perspective must also be considered.

  4. I appreciate what current native people advocate for. I feels sorry for all the horrors the colonization of Europe did to the people. Thank you for bring this to my attention. I really mean it.

    However, I don’t like the fact that they don’t talk about how the native people would kill themselves as well for beliefs that today we would consider wrongful thinking. I yet need to hear one thing they admit where their ancestors where wrong. Nobody is perfect or has been perfect. But I feel the idea of the natives is always treated like they had it all figured out. BUT, since they in their OWN minds OF THAT TIME, they really believed in their heart that they were correct. So IN THE NATIVES EYES, that was not wrong.

    So I think we need to take in consideration that it all depends on the context of the time things happened. Because you don’t see Catholics doing the same thing they did years ago.

    Times change. And I really believe that if the natives would live now a days, they would probably think differently than what they did before. People in the name of religion as well people without religion have done HORRIFIC things as long as people have lived. But you don’t see them killing anymore. Except the radical muslims who still kill using the name of God.

    The European expeditions committed crimes. But civilization advances, and evolves. So I think we should learn from the past, but embrace change too. The tribes in the reservations ARE NOT EXACTLY THE SAME as they were in the past.

    I am not and have never been a religious person, nor have ever belonged to the Catholic church. But I do know one thing. Not all Catholic missionaries did bad things too. And also, judge according to context, just like you would like for us (who don’t associate ourselves with natives) to understand you according to your context.

  5. This post looks at a canonization, a Catholic event, through a secular lens. It is an unworkable approach as far as commentary goes.

    Catholics believe in truth. There is no value in any sort of diversity in belief regarding the truth as truth is one. To convert others to Catholicism, therefore, lets them be aware of the nature of the world and existence and to path to salvation. These are not valuable to non-Catholics, but from a Catholic perspective are all that really matters. It must be considered.

    “Then why not canonize Lasuén, Pope Francis? Doesn’t he deserve the same recognition as his predecessor?” In short, no. When Serra came from the Old World to the New World to spread the gospel he knew he wasn’t coming back and may not even make it. Thus he selflessly ordered his life towards God in the noblest sort of task. The system of Missions he founded (which people voluntarily went to) had a primarily spiritual goal, looking at him from a non-spiritual lens is absurd. Looking at him from a spiritual lens shows this act to be extraordinary.

    As a secondary task the missions taught Western systems which are quite certainly beneficial. Also founding something tends to be more significant than continuing it, that is why St. Dominic, St. Benedict, St. Scholastica, St. Francis, St. Catherine Drexel and other great founders are known more than their successors.

    To associate Serra as an individual with genocide is nonsensical; when his fellow countryman wanted to kill a Native Californian he stopped them from doing so. Many diseases were spread to the Native Californians, but it couldn’t have been predicted and he shouldn’t be seen as culpable. If problems came later in the system, it is irrelevant in the case of Serra.

    On kidnapping people back who left the missions and condoning beatings: yes, every Catholic commentator will agree that those aspects of him were bad. They will consider them in a period context, but they will still condemn them. There is not some sort of duality that a sinner cannot be a Saint. All Saints were sinners; St. Paul killed Christians but is regarded as one of the greatest saints. Just as Paul’s merits come from evangelization so do Serra’s. This is the “point” of his canonization and is his legacy. The Catholic perspective must be considered.

  6. This is an amazing article! I am looking forward to attending the CIC. Thank you for your perspective on this topic.

  7. I greatly appreciate this thoughtful and somewhat introspective look at the history of missionization in California and its ongoing impact on native peoples. I am a Euro-American living on what I consider to be Wiyot land although legally, at least for now, my home is in the jurisdiction of Humboldt County.

    Here in far northern California we think of first contact having been about 170 years ago. Although there may have been contact with Spaniards as early as the middle of the 16th century, our area apparently was completely ignored by the Russians and there was no colonozation until 1849 CE.

    I have just begun to appreciate the genocide of the peoples of what we now call the Americas within the past decade. I have read 1491. Of local interest to me I have also read Two Peoples, One Place, written by Euro-Americans who made an obvious effort to consider the pre- and peri-contact lives of the local tribespeople. I try to find concrete historical information in readable format from the Nativve perspective. If you could suggest some resources I would appreciate it.

    In the context of the canonization of Fr. Serra by Pope Francis, I am suddenly curious about Spanish Catholic colonization of what is now Argentina. I wonder which of the pope’s ancestors immigrated from Spain and elsewhere and which were native.

Comments are closed.