Only five years after St. Junípero Serra was canonized, statues of the Franciscan missionary have fallen like dominoes in the state of California. Protestors toppled Serra statues in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Sacramento in June, and more were removed in July.
Serra was a philosophy professor in Spain when he felt called at age 35 to evangelize in the Americas. He worked in Mexico and Baja California for 20 years before he was sent north in 1769. He then founded the first nine of 21 missions in present-day California, spanning from San Diego to San Francisco, before his death in 1784. This year marks the 250th anniversary of his mission headquarters, San Carlos de Borroméo in Carmel, where he is buried.
In St. Junípero’s time, the area was part of the Spanish empire, but modern-day protestors who view him as a symbol of colonial oppression of Native Americans are misreading and distorting history, explain the bishops of California.
“The historical truth is that Serra repeatedly pressed the Spanish authorities for better treatment of the Native American communities,” the California Catholic Conference of Bishops affirmed in a June 22 statement. “Serra was not simply a man of his times. In working with Native Americans, he was a man ahead of his times who made great sacrifices to defend and serve the Indigenous population and work against an oppression that extends far beyond the mission era.”
Several bishops further addressed St. Junípero’s life and legacy — and the movement to remove his statues — in articles and letters. The following are excerpts from three of their responses.
From “Statues of St. Junípero Serra Deserve to Stay” — The Washington Post, June 30:
TO THE PROTESTERS who tore down his statue in Los Angeles this month, the priest, friar and saint Junípero Serra represents “hate, bigotry and colonization,” as one activist put it. Nothing would have made Serra sadder, for the real man was a profound lover of all people and especially of the Indigenous peoples he came to serve.
Who, then, is Junípero Serra after all?
First and foremost, Serra represents the true spirit of a Church identified with the poor and outcast. He left his home, his family, his sinecure as a philosophy professor to offer the very best thing he had to the California people: the news that God himself loved them enough to send his only Son to die on a cross to redeem them. St. Junípero Serra is “the Apostle of California.” Serra repeatedly intervened for mercy on behalf of Indigenous rebels against Spanish authorities. He famously walked to Mexico City with a painful ulcerated leg to obtain the authority to discipline the military who were abusing the Indigenous people. Then he walked back. …
There is no denying that Native Americans in California endured grave human rights abuses. They suffered wrongs during all three eras: the Spanish colonization (known as the Mission era), the Mexican secularization and the American era. But Serra should not bear the weight of all that went wrong and all who did wrong. If we looked at him with clear eyes, we would see Serra as one of the first American champions of the human rights of Indigenous peoples, a man who protested abusive police powers by government authorities.
— Archbishop Salvatore J. Cordileone of San Francisco
From “Letter to the faithful for the memorial of St. Junípero Serra” — June 29:
I UNDERSTAND the deep pain being expressed by some native peoples in California. But I also believe Fray Junípero is a saint for our times, the spiritual founder of Los Angeles, a champion of human rights, and this country’s first Hispanic saint. …
The sad truth is that, beginning decades ago, activists started “revising” history to make St. Junípero the focus of all the abuses committed against California’s Indigenous peoples. … It was California’s first governor who called for “a war of extermination” against the Indians and called in the U.S. Cavalry to help carry out his genocidal plans. That was in 1851. St. Junípero died in 1784.
The real St. Junípero fought a colonial system where natives were regarded as “barbarians” and “savages,” whose only value was to serve the appetites of the white man. For St. Junípero, this colonial ideology was a blasphemy against the God who has “created (all men and women) and redeemed them with the most precious blood of his Son.” …
St. Junípero came not to conquer; he came to be a brother. “We have all come here and remained here for the sole purpose of their well-being and salvation,” he once wrote. “And I believe everyone realizes we love them.” … St. Junípero was 60 years old when he traveled 2,000 miles from Carmel to Mexico City to protest the injustices of the colonial system and demand that authorities adopt a “bill of rights” that he had written for the native peoples. That was in 1773, three years before America’s founders declared this nation’s independence with those beautiful words: “all men are created equal … endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.”
Pope Francis called St. Junípero “one of the founding fathers of the United States.” He recognized that the saint’s witness anticipated the great spirit of human equality and liberty under God that has come to define the American pr oject.
Yet in online petitions today we find St. Junípero compared to Adolf Hitler, his missions compared to concentration camps. No serious historian would accept this, and we should not allow these libels to be made in public arguments about our great saint.
— Archbishop José H. Gomez of Los Angeles, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops
From “Canceling Padre Serra” — Word on Fire article, July 20:
WHEN I SAW the videos of Serra statues being torn down, burned, spat upon, trampled and desecrated in San Francisco and Los Angeles, I shuddered — not only because such behavior was boorish and unjustified, but also because it called to mind very similar activities at earlier stages of American history.
In the mid-to-late 19th century, anti-Catholicism was rampant in the United States, due in part to prejudices inherited from Protestantism but also due to the arrival of large groups of immigrants from Catholic countries, who were considered inferior. A powerful political party, the Know-Nothings, was organized precisely around the theme of opposing Catholicism, and in many of the major cities of our country, Catholic convents, parishes, cathedrals, statues and churches were burned to the ground by unruly mobs. Moreover, in that same period, the Ku Klux Klan, which was active not just in the South but in many northern cities as well, endeavored to terrorize blacks and Jews, of course, but also, it is easy to forget, Catholics.
If you doubt that this sort of knee-jerk opposition to Catholicism endured well into the 20th century, I would recommend you consult some of the histrionic rhetoric used by the opponents of John F. Kennedy during the presidential campaign of 1960. …
So when I see mobs of people tearing down and desecrating statues of a great Catholic saint, canonized just five years ago by Pope Francis, how can I not see the ugly specter of anti- Catholicism raising its head?
We are passing through a Jacobin moment in our cultural history, and such periods are dangerous indeed, for there is no clear indication what can stop their momentum. …
One can only hope that cooler heads will prevail and that responsible people might bring to an end this ridiculous and dangerous attempt to erase Padre Serra.
— Auxiliary Bishop Robert Barron of Los Angeles, founder of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries
Junípero Serra did not become a saint because he founded missions in California. He was named a saint because he lived a holy life, and he did so while stuck in a corrupt institution known as Spanish colonialism.
To get a true sense of Father Serra, I always tell people to go back to his writings and see how he described the Indians. He was in love with the native peoples; there’s no other way to put it. And he saw the faith as the greatest good he could give them.
Serra fought to protect my ancestors from the military governors. Four military presidios had missions attached to them — Santa Barbara, San Diego, Monterey and San Francisco — and if you look at the map, the presidios are 4 or 5 miles away from the missions. That was by Serra’s design to protect the native women from the military men who were violating them.
Father Serra also advocated for self-rule at the missions. He established what was known as the alcalde role: He would have the native peoples select their own mayor from among their population, to negotiate with the padres and with the military leaders what would happen to the native peoples as a community. That was unheard of in other parts of the continent at that time. At the time of Serra’s death, the Carmel Indians were weeping because they knew they were losing their protector, and he was remembered as “el santo” — the saint.
So, when people accuse Father Serra of all kinds of horrors, I ask them, “What are your sources? Have you read how he described the Indians of California?” Some wonderful biographies were written just before Father Serra’s canonization based on new scholarship, which is not romantic but simply tells the truth about Junípero Serra.
If Father Serra could visit the missions today, he would be out there ringing that same old bell, begging the Indians to come to receive the message of Jesus Christ. This is the opportunity of every California mission today — to ring the bells and invite the native people in.
— Andrew A. Galvan, a descendant of the Ohlone, Bay Miwok, Plains Miwok and Patwin Indians, is curator at Mission Dolores in San Francisco. He also served on the board of directors of Serra’s cause for canonization.
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