Pope Francis's thorniest point in his U.S. agenda: Making Junipero Serra a saint

A Junipero Serra statue at the Capitol's Statuary Hall.

A Junipero Serra statue at the Capitol's Statuary Hall.  (2015 Getty Images)

Louise J. Miranda Ramirez, an Ohlone Indian, will be at the grounds of the Carmel Mission in Monterrey, California on the day that Pope Francis canonizes Spanish missionary Junipero Serra in Washington D.C.

On Sept. 23, Miranda Ramirez and others will pay a visit to the historic mission that holds Serra's remains to invoke her ancestors and “let them know we did everything we could" to stop him from being canonized.

“He was not the saint they talk about,” said Miranda Ramirez, who is tribal chairwoman of the Ohlone/Costanoan-Esselen nation.

The Franciscan friar is credited with founding the first of 21 Roman Catholic missions in California in the mid-18th century.

While Pope Francis has hailed Serra as “one of the founding fathers of the United States,” scholars and descendants of tribes converted by Franciscan missionaries argue that the Mallorca-born priest oversaw a brutal mission system that ultimately led to the deaths of tens of thousands of Native Americans.

In spite of the controversy sparked by the canonization, Serra, who died at age 70 in 1784, will become America’s first Hispanic saint next week in the largest Catholic church in the Americas, the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C.

The canonization of Serra is the centerpiece of Pope Francis’ first visit to the United States as pontiff, in a gesture that is seen by the Catholic Church as key to strengthening ties with U.S. Latinos.

“Blessed Junipero Serra was a holy man who brought the good news of God’s love and mercy to the Americas,” reads a statement from the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. Archbishop Jose H. Gomez declined a request to be interviewed for this story.

“He was also a strong protector of the Native peoples, securing a bill of rights to defend them against colonial exploitation and violence,” the statement adds.

But Miranda Ramirez says that the Franciscan missionary did exactly the opposite.

“As the president of the missions, Serra had the authority to stop the destruction of our people and stop any of the Spanish soldiers from raping our women and our children,” she told Fox News Latino.

After he arrived in what was Alta California, Serra founded the Mission of San Diego in 1769. As the Spanish army built and settled in fortresses nearby, he kept moving north, creating eight other missions all the way up to the San Francisco Bay.

Tribes were pushed to convert to the Catholic faith and to live in the missions' sites, where they were taught to farm.

By the time of Serra’s death 15 years later, the missions he founded had baptized about 6,000 Indians, rising to 80,000 before the missions were secularized in the 1830s.

But the evangelization of the natives was done at a very high price, according to author Elias Castillo, who describes it as enslavement in his book “A Cross of Thorns.”

“[Serra] disobeyed orders from the Spanish Crown that Indians should be released after 10 years, once they were educated enough, so they could be full-fledge Spanish citizens,” he said in an interview with Fox News Latino.

“Instead, he used Indians as slave labor and kept them in the missions until they died,” he added.

Castillo recounts how natives would be whipped and beaten if they tried to escape, refused to work, or spoke their language. Serra created a harsh and unforgiving regimen, Castillo says, that would ultimately claim the lives of 62,000 Indians and devastate their civilization, including the extinction of a number of small tribes.

“Serra started a cultural genocide,” he says.

With reference to charges that Serra used corporal punishment on Native Americans, a Vatican official told reporters in April that “it was not [something] to be excluded, but it wasn't genocide.”

Ruben Mendoza, coordinator of California mission archaeology at California State University in Monterey Bay, told FNL the abuses “did not happen by virtue of the system Serra set up.”

“He never killed anybody or condoned it, and the physical punishments were not limited to natives, but a common method of discipline in the Spanish empire,” he said.

Mendoza argued that those who oppose the canonization of Serra are not directly descendants of the natives baptized by the missionary.

“Individuals in the Esselen community have taken anti-Catholic and anti-Hispanic views,” he said.
The professor believes that the soon-to-be saint is more of a symbol of Hispanic tradition than the extermination of Native Americans.

“Franciscans did not mean to harm the native people. The natives called him a “Padre Santo” (Holy Father) and now descendants are attributing to him the death toll,” he explained.

Ruddy Rosales is an Ohlone Indian like Miranda Ramirez, but he remains indifferent to the upcoming canonization.

“People have to get a thicker skin. They have to let things go. All this stuff happened in the 1700s,” he said.

According to him, the Franciscan missionary was actually very friendly with the Indians, and friars took care of the natives who worked at the missions.

While he is not planning to attend an official ceremony to be held at Carmel Mission on the day of his canonization, he says the Catholic Church is free to do whatever they want to do.

“It is indifferent to me," he said, "but protesting is actually dishonoring our ancestors.”

Marcia Facundo is a freelance journalist who currently reports from Los Angeles, California. She has worked for El Nuevo Herald and as Hispanic Affairs Correspondent for the BBC World Service.

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