Aleteia logoAleteia logoAleteia
Saturday 25 May |
Saint of the Day: St. Mary Magdalene de Pazzi
Aleteia logo
Voices & Views
separateurCreated with Sketch.

In defense of St. Junípero Serra, the Apostle of California


Philip Bird LRPS CPAGB | Shutterstock

Christian Clifford - published on 10/28/21

Though it may seem unpopular to do so today, Serra is worth defending.

In 1986, Thaddeus Shubsda, Bishop of Monterey in California, drew a line in the sand with the release of his Serra Report. To those who questioned the holiness of Junípero Serra, O.F.M. (1713-1784), he wrote, “What we have here is an extraordinary man being defamed more than 200 years after he died. He cannot defend himself. So we will.” 

In the same vein, Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles said on May 2, 2015, “Sometimes it seems like scholars and activists have made Father Serra a symbol for everything they believe was wrong with the mission era.” And on September 23, 2015, Pope Francis canonized Junípero Serra at The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C.

Attacks on Serra have resurfaced of late. A recent Los Angeles Times editorial, applauding changing the name of Serra Park, repeats the claims that Bishop Shubsda and the best minds on California mission history refuted.  

“California should not erase Junípero Serra. But it doesn’t need to honor him,” reads the editorial. It includes egregious statements regarding St. Junípero Serra that have been repeated so often that they seem to have become truth to some. Pope Francis speaks to this when, during his October 16 video message on the occasion of the Fourth World Meeting of Popular Movements asking the media to “stop the logic of post-truth, disinformation, defamation, [and] slander.” 

Though it may seem unpopular to do so today, Serra is worth defending.

Labor, treatment, and culture

The Los Angeles Times Editorial Board asserts California’s mission history was “replete with forced labor of the state’s Native Americans, mistreatment and the loss or near-loss of their cultures.”

Jim Downs, author of The Real World of Mission San Luis Rey (Old Mission San Luis Rey Historica Foundation, 2014), challenges the “replete” characterization. He references a presentation  to the California Missions Foundation by Dr. Marie Duggan, an economic historian at Keene State University in New Hampshire. Downs shares, “Her discoveries [on labor] led Duggan to reject the ‘exploitation thesis’ used by a number of historians,” calling the relationship between Franciscan and Mission Indian a “negotiated relationship.” 

Next, the accusation that Mission Indians were mistreated does not mesh with what Dr. Robert L. Hoover, an archaeologist, shared in 2004 with ¡Siempre Adelante! The Newsletter for the Cause of Blessed Junípero Serra on what he called “. . . Serra’s remarkable efforts with the California Indians.” He shared,

“Joining a mission community freely and for whatever reason, the neophytes were protected from the labor demands of the military and civilian settlers. In exchange, they were expected to stay and contribute to the support of their own community. Mission production was communal property, and most of it was redistributed back into the mission community. When work was not required, neophytes were allowed to travel back to their home villages or hunt and gather in traditional ways. Labor requirements were reasonable, spread over a large number of people, and conducted according to a flexibleschedule. Mission neophytes were not starved. Historical records and archaeological evidence of thousands of butchered and cooked animal bones indicate that three balanced meals were provided each day, there was plenty of protein, and native foods continued to be eaten as snacks.”

Lastly, regarding the loss or near-loss of California Indian cultures, Serra and the Franciscans found it practical to use Spanish as the mode of instruction. They often found themselves with natives from multiple language groups living at the same mission. This blending of cultures and ensuing change is not relegated to the past. Raveena Aulakh reported in a 2013 Toronto Star article, that every 14 days a language disappears. 

Pablo Tac (1822-1841) makes one think twice about the Board’s accusation. Tac’s writings are the earliest from a California Indian and include a vocabulary and dictionary of the Luiseño language, completed while studying to be a Catholic priest in Rome. 

Death rates

The Los Angeles Times Editorial Board also claims the California missions were responsible for “[the deaths of] 90% of its native population, much of that to diseases brought in by white men.” 

There is no denying that cultural exchange came at a cost. The area of influence for the Spanish missions was from San Diego to Sonoma and about 50 miles inland from the coast. Therefore, most California Indians never interacted with the missions. 

It is estimated that the California Indian population under Spanish rule dropped from 300,000 prior to 1769, the year Mission San Diego de Alcalá was founded, to 250,000 in 1834. After Mexico won its independence from Spain in 1834, the California Indian population suffered a much more drastic decrease in population to 150,000 (there were three province-wide pandemics in 1806, 1828, and 1838). According to Benjamin Madley, associate professor of history at UCLA, under U.S. sovereignty, after 1848, the California Indian population plunged from perhaps 150,000 to 30,000 in 1870.

The Editorial Board rightly blames disease as the main culprit. Death seemed around every corner for everyone. Between the years 1347 and 1653, multiple waves of disease swept through Europe, including Mallorca, the land of Serra’s birth. Serra was concerned and reached out to the medical experts of the day. Andrew Galvan, Ohlone Indian and curator at Mission San Francisco de Asís, stated in a 2011 article on the Serra sainthood cause: “Serra’s papers show he asked what was done in Spain when children were not thriving. Give them more milk, the answer came. Still, children died. Later, science would show that the native coastal people were lactose-intolerant, something Serra could hardly have known three centuries ago.” 

Serra as defender

The Editorial Board states that Serra sought to protect Native Americans “from the worst mistreatment at the hands of the military.” This is true. For example, after a long arduous journey from Mission Carmel to Mexico City, on June 11, 1773, Fray Junípero Serra pleaded with Viceroy Antonio Maria de Bucareli y Ursua, the King’s representative in New Spain: “That at the first request of the Missionary Father . . . he [Commandant of the Presidio] should remove the soldier or soldiers who may have given bad example [to the Mission Indians], especially in matters of incontinence [sexual abuse], and that they be withdrawn to the presidio and another or others be sent in their place who are not known as indecorous and scandalous.” 

Yet the Board continues, “Serra reportedly loved the Native Americans he encountered, but he also saw them as inferior.”  Serra can respond to that accusation best. On February 26, 1777, he wrote to Father Francisco Pangua, his guardian in Mexico City, describing the native peoples: “They [gentiles] are in places one cannot visit without walking a long distance and sometimes going on hands and feet, but I put my trust in the Lord, who created them.”

Ever forward

St. Junípero Serra wrote a letter to his parents on August 20, 1749, from Cadiz, Spain, while waiting for the ship to take him to New Spain. He listened to God’s call to evangelize those who never heard the Gospel and prayed that his parents would encourage him “to move forward and not turn back” (¡Siempre adelante! ¡Nunca para atrás!). These words should inspire one to take up the challenges of today. Californians will not erase Junípero Serra, but continue to revere him for his resoluteness, and many of us will continue to ask for his intercession because of his holiness. 

St. Junípero Serra and Pablo Tac—Mission Indian, seminarian, scholar—pray for us!

Enjoying your time on Aleteia?

Articles like these are sponsored free for every Catholic through the support of generous readers just like you.

Help us continue to bring the Gospel to people everywhere through uplifting Catholic news, stories, spirituality, and more.

Daily prayer
And today we celebrate...

Top 10
See More
Get Aleteia delivered to your inbox. Subscribe here.