Junipero Serra: Saint Or Sinner? Native American Groups Protest Planned Canonization Of Missionary

SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO, Calif. (AP) — California’s history can’t be told without Junipero Serra, the 18th-century Franciscan missionary who introduced Christianity and established settlements as he marched north with Spanish conquistadores. Boulevards, public squares, freeways and elementary schools bear his name. A 26-foot statue of the priest looms over Interstate 280 in San Francisco.

He is revered within the Catholic Church, and Pope Francis announced recently that he will canonize Serra, likely during a trip to Washington, D.C., this fall. That pronouncement has opened old wounds for many Native Americans in California and beyond. They say Serra wiped out native populations, enslaved converts and spread disease.

Since Francis’ announcement, Indian groups have staged weekly protests, posted YouTube videos and started an online petition demanding the pope rethink his decision. At rallies outside Our Lady of the Angels Cathedral in downtown Los Angeles, about a dozen protesters wore black T-shirts and beat drums while chanting “Serra was no saint! Serra was the devil!” and holding signs that compared the missionary’s actions to genocide.

“I’m outraged,” said Olin Tezcatlipoca, director of the Mexica Movement, an organization that educates the public about indigenous rights. “This is sad because supposedly this pope is more enlightened and more progressive. This came as really shocking.”

Serra, a theology professor by training, was tasked in 1767 with expanding the Catholic mission system from Mexico’s Baja California into what is now the state of California and converting the Indians he encountered. In 1769, he established his first mission in San Diego and ultimately founded eight of California’s 21 missions — from San Juan Capistrano to San Francisco — before his death in 1784.

In the ensuing decades, diseases brought by Europeans and their livestock ravaged native populations. Indians who converted, often just to get access to food or shelter, were not allowed to leave mission grounds and were flogged and shackled as punishment. Within 50 years, the Indian population dropped from 300,000 to 200,000 and fragmented tribes lost touch with their traditional languages, beliefs and way of life.

About 5,000 Indians were baptized during Serra’s lifetime and tens of thousands more would be before the end of the mission era in the 1830s.

junipero serra
Wooden Carving Of Father Junipero Serra, The Founder Of The Carmel Mission, California.

To Ron Andrade, a member of the La Jolla Indian Reservation, what Serra’s work wrought makes him unworthy of sainthood.

“We have lost translations of our historical songs,”…

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