Father Serra: Saint to Some, Unworthy to Others

12 September, 2015

Pope Francis is making final preparations for his visit to the United States. During the trip, the Pope will officially recognize an 18th century religious worker as a saint.

Junipero Serra served as a Catholic missionary priest more than 200 years ago in what was then called Spanish California. Not everyone agrees that Father Serra should be recognized for his work. Among his biggest critics are Native Americans.

On September 23rd in Washington DC., Pope Francis will complete a years-long process and recognize Junipero Serra as a saint. Father Serra helped create the Spanish colonial system of California missions.

Spain had claimed most of California in the 16th century. But there were no Spanish settlements in the territory for nearly 200 years. In 1768, Spain's King, Charles the Third, decided the best way to keep the Spanish claim to California was to build settlements there. He ordered the creation of a series of small farming communities along the Pacific Ocean coast. But there was no one on the coast to begin the work.

King Charles and his advisors decided that the farming settlements would begin with Roman Catholic churches called missions. The missions were places where Catholic clergymen taught the Christian religion to people who wanted to join the church.

The king decided Catholic priests would build the missions and settlements with the help of Native Americans. The clergymen would teach the native people Christianity, the Spanish language and how to farm.

A religious group within the Catholic Church called the Franciscans would build the settlements. The Franciscans chose a young priest named Junipero Serra to begin the work. Many historians say the Spanish government and the Catholic Church could not have chosen a better person than Father Serra. He had always wanted to tell others about Christianity.

In 1749, he sailed to Mexico to begin his life as a missionary. He spent several years studying the languages and customs of Mexico's native people.

In 1768, Father Serra was given the job of building the first of the California missions near the present day city of San Diego. But before the settlement was completed, Father Serra decided to move it. He did not like the way Spanish soldiers mistreated the Native Americans. He wanted to keep them separate. So he moved the mission to an area that is still called Mission Valley.

Many people have criticized the mission system of settlements because it changed the way of life for the Native Americans in California. Critics say many Native Americans were forced to work at the missions. They say many were forced to become Christians. And many were badly treated by Spanish soldiers and died because of mistreatment or disease.

Andrew Galvan is an American Indian and the head of the Mission Dolores museum in San Francisco. Mr. Galvan admits that the mission system was not perfect. But he says he has respected the work of Father Serra since the 1970s.

"I have worked along with the friars (priests) since that time promoting Father Serra's cause."

Vincent Medina also works at Mission Dolores museum. But he says Father Serra should not be recognized as a holy man.

"It's documented that he wanted the Indian languages suppressed. It's documented that he sent for whips for Indian people to be whipped."

Mr. Medina says the Spanish brought disease to the native peoples and destroyed their culture.

Father Serra worked at the Carmel Mission on the California coast, among other places. He is buried there. He is remembered there as a strong defender of the native Californians against the Spanish forces.

Ruben Mendoza is an archeologist at California State University, Monterey Bay. He has been studying Father Serra's life for 20 years. He was once a critic of the clergyman, but he has come to respect him.

"And being of, of, of Native American ancestry myself -- Yaqui Indian -- I don't give a pass to colonialism. On the other hand, when you look at the life of Serra very specifically, you will see that he was not only a man of his time, but he was a man well ahead of his time in that he was an advocate for native peoples."

The Fernandeno Tataviam Band of Mission Indians is made up of tribes that lived near the California coast. Like many other Native Americans, they say Father Serra harmed native peoples. But some of the tribe's Catholic members have defended him. Rudy Ortega, Jr. is the chairman of the tribe. He says he believes the decision to make Father Serra a saint will hurt the Roman Catholic Church.

"More people are gonna understand what Father Serra did. I think more evidence is gonna come through. The indigenous people of California, all the Mission Indians of California, are gonna read more about it, they're gonna study harder, they're gonna find more research and they're gonna learn and they're gonna expose more of the truth."

Pope Francis has apologized for the way members of the church treated Native Americans. But he says some in the church worked to help them.

I'm Christopher Jones-Cruise.

Mike O'Sullivan reported this story from California. Christopher Jones-Cruise adapted his report for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.


Words in This Story

missionary priest – n. a Catholic clergyman whose job is persuade others to accept Christianity

promote – v. to make people aware of something; to make (something) more popular or well-known

whip – n. a long, thin piece of leather or similar material that is attached to a handle and that is used for hitting a person as punishment

give a pass to expression to stop oneself from doing something

specifically – adj. to be exact or clear

a man of his time expression to be a product of one's environment

well ahead of his time expression having futuristic ideas

advocate – n. a person who works for a cause or group

indigenous – adj. native; produced, living, or existing naturally in a particular region or environment

expose – v. to make public; to reveal the crimes or mistakes of (someone)

Do you believe Junipero Serra should be named a saint? We want to hear from you. Write your thoughts in the comments section.