Why Is the Pope About to Canonize a Culture Killer?

Native Americans blame Junípero Serra’s missions for destroying their culture. Pope Francis credits him with spreading the faith. Now, with the father about to become a saint, Indians are hopping mad.

By Gary Kamiya • Illustration by Robert Babboni

Originally published in the September issue of San Francisco magazine

It’s a warm fall day outside Mission Dolores, where an Ohlone man whose baptismal name is Francisco is tied to a whipping post. A week ago he ran away to the village where he grew up, but the soldiers hunted him down and brought him back in chains. A priest has gathered the other Indians at the mission to witness Francisco’s punishment. “Remember that this is for your own good, my children,” he says as he raises the leather whip. “The devil may tempt you to run away. But you must fight off temptation to gain eternal life.” He brings down the whip on Francisco’s bare back. After applying 25 lashes, he drops the whip, bows his head, and says a prayer.

This is not a side of mission life that’s taught in the fourth grade. But scenes like this took place at every one of the 21 missions in the chain begun in 1769 by a diminutive Franciscan friar named Junípero Serra. Every schoolchild knows that California Indians at Serra’s missions were taught the Gospel, fed, and clothed; few know that many were also whipped, imprisoned, and put in stocks. Junípero Serra’s pious hope to convert pagan Indians into Catholic Spaniards resulted not only in the physical punishment of countless Indians, but in the death of tens of thousands of them — and, ultimately, in the eradication of their culture.

So it was understandable that when Pope Francis announced plans to canonize Junípero Serra in January, some California Indians felt, at least figuratively, as if they were being whipped by a priest again.

“I felt betrayed,” says Louise Miranda Ramirez, tribal chairwoman of the Ohlone Costanoan Esselen Nation, whose people occupied large parts of northern California at the time of Serra’s arrival in 1769. “The missions that Serra founded put our ancestors through things that none of us want to remember. I think about the children being locked into the missions, the whippings — and it hurts. I hurt for our ancestors. I feel the pain. That pain hasn’t gone away. And it needs to be corrected.”

“I blame the system, not the individual. Serra was a very good person operating in a very bad situation.”

But the pain is not being corrected. In fact, say many Native American leaders, it’s being exacerbated. Since the announcement of the pope’s plan, Indians across California have risen up in protest. On Easter, representatives of the Ohlone, Amah Mutsun, Chumash, and Mono peoples gathered at Serra’s home mission in Carmel, San Carlos Borromeo, to denounce the canonization. Protests have also been held at Mission Dolores in San Francisco, Mission Santa Barbara, and Mission San Juan Bautista. When Francis canonizes Serra in Washington, D.C., on September 23, more demonstrations will likely take place (though the actions of a pope — who is infallible by definition — are not subject to any trappings of democracy, least of all public protests).

The benign prerevisionist view: A Spanish padre spreading the Gospel to grateful heathen.

The conflict juxtaposes two radically different perceptions of the soon-to-be saint. In one, he is a selfless “evangelizer of the West,” as Francis called Serra when he announced the canonization: a man who forfeited his worldly possessions and traveled to the ends of the earth to save souls. In the other, he is a zealous servant of the Inquisition and agent of colonialism whose coercive missions destroyed the indigenous peoples who encountered them. These two versions of history not only force us to ponder whether a man who carries a mule train’s worth of toxic historical baggage should be declared a saint, but also raise difficult questions about Latino identity and the founding myths of the United States — because there is a political dimension to Francis’s choice: Well aware that Latinos are now the largest ethnic group in California and constitute a third of American Catholics, the Catholic church is making much of the fact that Serra will be America’s first Hispanic saint. His canonization may indeed promote greater acceptance of Latino Americans, especially immigrants, and challenge the Anglocentric creation myth that starts American history with Plymouth Rock. But it’s far from clear whether Serra can, or should, serve as an exemplar for Latinos. And the church’s attempt to weave Spain into the nation’s DNA raises as many questions as it answers.

In short, Francis kicked an enormous historical, theological, and ethical hornet’s nest when he made his announcement. Whether he did so wittingly or not, only he knows. But the dustup about Serra’s canonization gives California, and the nation, an opportunity to learn a lot more about California’s deeply tragic Spanish and colonialist origins than most ever knew before.


If any two people embody the contradictions and complexities of the Serra controversy, they’re Andrew Galvan and Vincent Medina. Galvan, 60, a curator at San Francisco’s Mission Dolores, is a descendant of Ohlone, Coast and Bay Miwok, and Patwin tribal groups; like many California Indians, he also has Mexican ancestry and is a devout Catholic, but unlike most, he emphatically supports the Serra canonization, or “cause” in church nomenclature. Medina, Galvan’s 28-year-old cousin, is a fellow curator at Mission Dolores and another devout Catholic — but also a staunch and vocal opponent of Serra’s cause.

I meet with Galvan and Medina in Fremont at Mission San Jose, which Galvan proudly tells me his ancestors helped build. A loquacious man with a neatly trimmed beard, wearing a thick necklace of Indian beads, he is as effusive as Medina is reserved and soft-spoken. Sitting on a pew inside the reconstructed mission, near a baptismal font where his great-great-great-grandmother was baptized in 1815, Galvan explains the roots of his love of Serra. “My family home is across the street. My parents were both devout Catholics, and on summer vacation, our hobby was to visit California missions. I can remember the family asking, ‘What mission haven’t we been to yet?’”

Anti-canonization protesters at Mission Dolores in spring 2015. Photograph by Alex Darocy

Paradoxically, Galvan goes on to describe the mission system as a monstrosity: “In California schools, the fourth-grade kids make papier-mâché or sugar-cube missions. But they’re never asked to build a slave plantation or a concentration camp with incinerators.” Given his equation of the missions with such hideous institutions, why does he support canonizing the Father-President of the missions, who could be seen as the Spanish colonialist equivalent of Heinrich Himmler?

“Because Junípero Serra is an evangelist,” he says. “Yes, the missions were part of colonialism, and colonialism is rotten to the core. But I blame the system, not the individual. Junípero Serra was a very good person operating in a very bad situation.”

Galvan admits that he lives with internal contradictions. “I can stand outside on the steps of this mission and say to you that because of colonial institutions like this, the traditional lifeways of my ancestors were almost eradicated. Then I can walk through those doors over to that baptismal font and say proudly, ‘Here’s where my family became Christians.’ That is the strangest juxtaposition in which a person can find himself. To do that balancing act and to be able to sleep at night is what I’ve had to do all these years.”

When Galvan excuses himself to check his email, Medina, who has been patiently waiting in an adjoining pew, comments that as a practicing Catholic, he sees nothing wrong with criticizing the church. “The traditional Ohlone world and the Catholic faith are not incompatible,” he points out. Many Ohlone attend both native dances and mass on Sundays. Medina doesn’t support Serra’s cause, he says, because he feels that “saints should be people who transcend their time, and Serra didn’t.”

“Serra had whips sent up to San Francisco, to different missions, and he would tell soldiers and priests to whip Indian people if they were acting out of line,” Medina continues. “And Indian people had never seen whips. That wasn’t part of our reality in the pre-contact world.”

For Medina, the cultural devastation caused by the missions couldn’t be any more personal. “Back in the 1930s, there were just two remaining speakers of our language, Chochenyo,” he says. “When I went to my grandfather and asked him about the language, he said, ‘We don’t know the language anymore. Why don’t you go learn it?’” Medina did, and now he teaches it. “But there’s a reason why my grandfather doesn’t speak Chochenyo,” he says. “There’s a reason why it wasn’t passed down to him from his mother. The decline started with Junípero Serra’s policies. He used to gripe about how Indians wouldn’t stop speaking their languages. He wanted them to speak Spanish.”


For most of the Golden State’s history, Serra, who headed the religious wing of Spain’s 1769 Sacred Expedition to colonize California, was considered the greatest Californian of them all. He and Ronald Reagan are the only Californians honored with a statue in the National Statuary Hall in Washington, D.C. Generations of schoolchildren were taught that Serra was a kind and beneficent figure. A 1957 state elementary school textbook, California Mission Days, managed to avoid mentioning religion altogether when introducing Serra as a boy named José: “[In] a faraway country called California lived dark-skinned Indians. They had nobody to help or teach them. This José longed to do…. He wanted to help the Indians of California.”

Streets and schools were named after Serra across the state, making him essentially a secular saint. In 1934, the Vatican began the process of declaring him an actual one by giving the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, the Vatican organization responsible for canonization, the green light to initiate the case for Serra’s sainthood. But from the very beginning, Serra’s cause faced strong criticism from scholars. Following the lead of pioneering anthropologists like UC Berkeley’s Alfred Kroeber, historians had begun to look at the Spanish colonial enterprise from the Indian point of view. From that perspective, the missions, however well-meaning they might have been, were instruments of mass death and cultural devastation. In 1946, journalist Carey McWilliams compared the missions to Nazi death camps, a trope that has remained popular in some quarters ever since.

But despite the inexorable triumph of the darker, revisionist view of the missions over the sentimental, Eurocentric one, Serra’s cause continued to advance through the slow-grinding machinery of the Vatican. In 1985, Pope John Paul II declared Serra venerable, the second of four stages required for sainthood. Indian activists exploded with outrage, but the church dismissed their objections. In 1988, the pope beatified Serra, the third stage, after the congregation approved the first of Serra’s two requisite miracles: the curing of a St. Louis nun suffering from lupus. A second miracle, however, proved elusive, leaving Serra in saintly limbo. And there matters stood until Pope Francis took the unusual step of waiving the second miracle when he made his surprise announcement in January.


Just how bad was Serra? And how much of a stretch is it to call him a saint? Leading Serra scholars say that the Franciscan’s view of Indians as childlike heathens who needed the lash for their own good was commonplace in his era. But they also acknowledge that the mission system he founded with the best of intentions had cataclysmic consequences for native peoples.

“In Serra’s day,” Hackel says, “coercion was a central component of the California mission system.”

Steven Hackel, associate professor of history at UC Riverside and author of Junípero Serra: California’s Founding Father, rejects the equation of missions with slave labor camps. “Indians came into the missions for a lot of different reasons,” he says, including hunger, the attraction of the impressive Spanish technology, and because relatives had joined. “They weren’t forced there by soldiers with guns and lances.” But he also affirms perhaps the single most damning fact about the missions: Indians, once baptized, were not permitted to leave except for brief visits home (and sometimes not at all), and they were whipped for infractions, including running away. “In Serra’s day,” Hackel says, “coercion was a central component of the California mission system.”

“You’re not going to find evidence of Father Serra himself beating up an Indian,” Hackel notes. “But it’s clear from his own words that he endorsed corporal punishment as a means of ‘correcting,’ his word, wayward Indians. He viewed them as children, and so did Spanish law. Minors were to be corrected with flogging.” Hackel’s work also challenges the image of Serra as a benign, helpful figure, a kind of ur-Unitarian in a brown robe. Pointing to Serra’s ardent work in Mexico for the Inquisition, Hackel paints him as a self-flagellating zealot who verged on medieval fanaticism.

Robert Senkewicz, professor of history at Santa Clara University (a Jesuit institution) and coauthor with Rose Marie Beebe of a new book on Serra, Junípero Serra: California, Indians, and the Transformation of a Missionary, says, “It’s not fair to say that Serra supported excessive punishment by the standards of his time. But nobody at the time argued that flogging was illegitimate. The major issue was who was going to be ordering it: soldiers or priests.” This hardly supports the notion that Serra was “an intrepid defender of the rights of native people,” as an official in the Congregation for the Causes of Saints claimed. Or, to return to Medina’s point, that Serra transcended his time.

For its part, the Catholic hierarchy seems to be speaking with two tongues about Serra. Francis’s praise of Serra as a great evangelizer, and Vatican statements such as the one by the congregation, ignore the mission system’s dark legacy and promulgate the traditional vision of Serra as a selfless servant of the Lord. But in a sign of the evolution of Catholic thinking on this issue, Sacramento’s Father Ken Laverone, one of the two American clerics most intimately involved with the Serra cause, takes a view that’s basically indistinguishable from Andrew Galvan’s: Serra and evangelizing, good; Spanish colonialism and destruction of Indians, bad.

“The critics are not going to buy this, I know, but the way we would look at the notion of sin is one’s intent,” Laverone says. “If you intend to do something evil, that’s wrong. But if you do something that you intend for good purposes, but it has evil consequences in the long run, that’s different. And Serra’s first intent was to bring the Gospel to the Americas.”

The crux for Laverone is that while Serra sparked the wildfire that immolated California’s indigenous peoples, he didn’t mean to. And besides, continues Laverone, California Indians were doomed anyway. “If it were not the Spaniards who did this in conjunction with the church, it would have been the Russians or the British, and the same thing or worse would have happened,” he says. While this might be true — many historians regard the Spanish era as less calamitous for Indians than the Mexican era or, certainly, the openly genocidal American era — being the least awful of an awful lot is hardly a ringing endorsement for anything, let alone sainthood. But Laverone is not moved by this argument. Confronted with it, he comments only that it’s “curious” that so many non-Catholics have taken an interest in what he paints as an internal Catholic matter.


Generally speaking, choices of saints are not controversial. The beatification of Salvadoran archbishop Oscar Romero, who was gunned down at the altar in 1980 by a suspected right-wing death squad, was held up for decades by conservative Latin American prelates who didn’t want to endorse liberation theology. But that was an internal church matter: Nobody protested when Francis beatified Romero in May. Given that even supporters of Serra’s canonization have been forced to introduce so many caveats that Saint Serra may ascend to a sky filled with asterisks, an obvious question arises: Why did Pope Francis, the most progressive pope since John XXIII died in 1963, choose to canonize this deeply problematic figure?

During his brief tenure, the Argentinean pope has been an outspoken advocate for the poor and the environment, a critic of global capitalism, and a defender of indigenous people. While visiting Bolivia in July, Francis said, “Many grave sins were committed against the native people of America in the name of God. I humbly ask forgiveness, not only for the offense of the church herself, but also for crimes committed against the native peoples during the so-called conquest of America.” That the man who made this statement should move to canonize Junípero Serra does not appear to make sense.

Professor Senkewicz believes that Francis “may not have been fully aware of the California controversy.” Other observers, however, are convinced that the pope knew the risks. Whatever the case, his motivations are clearly — if paradoxically — progressive. The Vatican has made it plain that it sees the canonization of Serra as a means of empowering the growing American Latino population, defending the rights of immigrants, and challenging the idea that the United States was crafted exclusively by Northern Europeans. All laudable goals — but it’s far from clear that Serra is the right instrument to achieve them.

First, while Serra was indeed Hispanic, he was certainly not Latino (the term refers to someone of Latin-American descent). About the only characteristic that he shared with the vast majority of the world’s present-day Latinos, other than Catholicism, was a common language. It’s a considerable reach to claim that a priest born on the Spanish island of Mallorca in 1713, who was part of a colonial enterprise that helped wipe out indigenous peoples across Latin America and California, is the spiritual ancestor of the mostly mixed-race Latinos of the 21st century. As for the church’s desire to revise the Anglocentric story about the creation of the United States, it’s true that Spanish missionaries and explorers were in North America long before the Puritans landed in New England. But Spanish colonialism here was a dead end, the last gasp of Spain’s expiring feudal empire, and its legacy has more in common with romantic myth than with strong founding-father material.

Whatever its effect on Latinos, immigrants, and Americans’ conceptions of their nation’s origins, the Serra controversy has already led to some commendable outreach from the Catholic church in California to native people. In the wake of Francis’s announcement, Laverone and his fellow vice-postulate told the California bishops that it created an opportunity to address the issue of church-Indian relations. The bishops agreed, and specific committees were set up to address education, curriculum, museums, missions, and liturgies. Native descendants of mission Indian peoples have been invited to visit the missions, and the whitewashed history presented in many mission museums is being revisited. Most important, Laverone hopes that his order will soon issue an apology. He sees these steps as the “silver lining” of the controversy.

Even so, Deborah Miranda, a professor of English at Washington and Lee University who is of Ohlone, Esselen, and Chumash tribal descent (and is Louise Ramirez’s sister), is wary. “Apologies that aren’t followed by a change of behavior, in general, don’t carry a lot of weight,” she warns.
Only one consequence of l’affaire Serra is agreed upon by all parties as a positive: It has opened up discussion of a tragic chapter in California history, one of which even many educated people are ignorant. “I think it would be good for all of us to tell the whole truth about the missions,” Father Laverone says. “Let’s get it out on the table and deal with it, and move forward.”

Knowledge is surely a good thing. But for many natives, the church’s hope that canonizing the author (albeit well-intentioned) of their forebears’ destruction will help atone for that destruction is as fruitless as its search for Serra’s elusive second miracle. Some things simply cannot be undone.
“I really don’t give a hoot whether Serra is canonized or not,” says Jonathan Cordero, a sociology professor at California Lutheran University who is descended from the only surviving lineage of Ohlone people from the San Francisco peninsula. Cordero opposes the canonization and regrets the pain that it has caused many native people. And yet, “it’s not going to make one bit of difference in my life, or, I believe, in the lives of California Indians from this point forward. The damage done to California Indians was done a long time ago.”

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