The Vatican is mounting a campaign to defend an 18th century Franciscan missionary who will be canonized by Pope Francis in the U.S. against protests from Native Americans.

The Vatican is teaming up with the archdiocese of Los Angeles to host a daylong celebration May 2 at the main U.S. seminary in Rome to honor the Rev. Junipero Serra, who introduced Christianity to much of California as he marched north with Spanish conquistadors.

For the church, Serra was a great evangelizer and a model for today's Hispanics. Many Native Americans, though, say Serra helped wipe out native populations, enslaved converts and spread disease as he brutally imposed Christianity.

Vatican officials on Monday denounced moves to remove Serra's statue from Congress, saying the historic record shows he defended Native Americans.