Why is Junípero Serra’s canonisation so controversial?

A commemorative stamp of Junípero Serra. Credit: US Embassy Madrid

Over the summer, Pope Francis apologised for the “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,” the pope said.

But his decision to canonise Father Junípero Serra, on his first visit to the United States next week, has angered many groups.

An online petition against the canonisation has gained over 10,000 signatures. Many of the counter voices are descendants of those colonised. For Ron Andrade, executive director of the Los Angeles City/County Native American Indian Commission, and of the Luiseño tribe, said Serra “decimated 90% of the Indian population”.

Serra (1713-1784), was an ordained Franciscan priest and professor of theology by the age of 24. By 1749, Serra accompanied other Franciscans dedicated to missionary work in Mexico. He also preached, heard confessions, and assisted at Mexico City’s College of San Fernando.

In 1767, Spain founded the first mission in California. Estimates put the Native American population at about 310,000; yet in under a century, that figure declined at a rapid rate, alongside cultural shifts.

Spain’s colonial policies fused political, social, economic and religious motives. One historian argued that “Missionization required a brutal lifestyle akin in several respects to the forced movement of black people from Africa to the American South”.

Others argued that the missions were not simple religious functions – but rather served to eradicate native cultures in a short amount of time.

To ensure survival, many tribes used partial integration with each other and Spanish culture. Others fled inland or lost their culture. Within a month of their arrival, the Spanish crushed a rebellion with guns, and it took a further two years for San Diego to witness its first baptism. Colonial authorities took a zero tolerance approach to resistance – either violent or non-violent. Upon entry to the boundaries of the mission, native Americans could not leave. Spain would send armed parties to capture runaways, and punish the recaptured.

In a legal sense, all baptised Native Americans were subject to the authority of the Franciscans. Disobedience brought public flogging, shackling or imprisonment. Religious conversion often took place at gunpoint.

Life expectancy in the Californian missions could last only for a decade. As one Friar noted, the Indians “live well free but as soon as we reduce them to a Christian and community life… they fatten, sicken, and die”.

During the Second World War, Physiologist Sherburne F. Cook studied the human cost of Spanish settlement: “From the available data we find from 1779 to 1833 there were 29,100 births and 62,600 deaths”. This indicated an ‘extremely rapid population decline‘.

Others found that: “After the missions were built, beginning in 1769, the Indians were forbidden to leave the mission boundaries. It is estimated that California’s Indian population was about 310,000 at the beginning of Spanish rule. At the close of the 19th century, their population shrunk to approximately 100,000, largely due to the inhumane conditions under which the Indians were forced to live while serving as slaves”.

The inhumane and cramped living arrangements helped turn flu and measels into epidemics. Spanish soldiers introduced syphilis to a population already weakened due to a change of diet. Though Cook avoided singling out Serra for criticism, as founder of the mission system, he bore responsibility.

Professor Deborah Miranda, at Washington and Lee University, and an Ohlone Costanoan Esselen Indian, does not consider Serra ‘evil’.  For Miranda, his complicity outweighs any positives, and for that, that is undeserving of reward.

Professor Steven Hackel of the University of California, Riverside, and the author of Junípero Serra: California’s Founding Father took a more nuanced approach. Hackel argued that Serra used corporal punishment in the context of the period – noting that Serra remained paternalistic.

Serra was not a monster,” said Robert M. Senkewicz, a professor of history at Santa Clara University.

Serra wore his contradictions like the scars of his mortifications – from whipping himself until he bled, and using a candle to scar his chest. He believed in total authority over the Native American tribes but also defended them in disputes with the Spanish military and government officials.

Others voice their opposition with monthly protests outside the Cathedral of Los Angeles.

The canonisation Mass, which will be in Spanish, at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington on September 23. Serra’s canonisation process began in 1934.