LOS ANGELES— Pope Francis will canonize an 18th century missionary to Spanish California during a papal visit to the United States this month. But, some Native Americans have criticized the elevation to sainthood of the missionary priest, Junipero Serra.
On September 23, in Washington D.C., Pope Francis will complete the process of recognizing Serra as a saint.
The founder of the Spanish colonial system of California missions, Serra is a towering figure for Andrew Galvan, curator of Mission Dolores museum in San Francisco. Galvan is an American Indian, and one of his 18th century ancestors was baptized and is buried at this mission. He has complaints about the mission system, but has admired Serra since the 1970s.
"I have worked along with the friars [priests] since that time promoting Father Serra's cause,” he said.
Galvan's cousin, Vincent Medina, also works at Mission Dolores museum and says that Serra should not be canonized.
“It's documented that he wanted the Indian languages suppressed. It's documented that he sent for whips for Indian people to be whipped,” he said.
Medina says the Spanish brought disease and cultural destruction.
At the Carmel Mission on the California coast, where Serra worked and is buried, he is remembered as a vigorous defender of indigenous peoples against their Spanish conquerors.
Archeologist Ruben Mendoza of California State University, Monterey Bay, has come to admire him. He has studied Serra for 20 years and started as a critic.
“Being of Native American ancestry myself, Yaqui Indian, I don't give a pass to [disregard] colonialism," he said. "On the other hand, when you look at the life of Serra very specifically, you will see that he is not only a man of his time, but he was well ahead of his time in that he was an advocate for native peoples.”
Leaders of the Fernandeno Tataviam Band of Mission Indians, near Los Angeles, like many other native spokesmen, say Serra hurt indigenous peoples, although some Catholic tribal members have defended Serra.
Tribal chairman Rudy Ortega, Jr., says the church's move will backfire.
“The indigenous people of California, all the Mission Indians of California, are going to read more about it, they're going to study harder, they're going to find more research and they're going to learn and they're going to expose more of the truth," he said.
Francis has apologized for the church's treatment of indigenous peoples, but says some inside the church were their champions, and that Father Serra, as a man of heroic virtue, will be acknowledged as a saint.