Last week, a few hours after publishing an essay about American Catholics’ reaction to the Black Lives Matter movement, I received a flood of ill tidings via email. My correspondents’ anger was unrelated to the subject of my article, but was instead inflamed by a mention of Junipero Serra, a canonized Franciscan friar who founded Spanish missions throughout California in the 18th century.
I had referred to him to explain one factor behind Catholic outrage over the anti-racist protests after the murder of George Floyd. Namely, some protesters have attacked statues of the saint because they believed he “eagerly participated in the conquest of North America, including the torture, enslavement and murder of some of the Native Americans he intended to convert.”
Many of my interlocutors identified themselves as Catholic, and argued that, since the canonization process involves consultation with historians, it wasn’t possible — or at least likely — that such horrors could rightly be ascribed to Father Serra.
Because Father Serra has become a contested property in the culture wars, and thus been declared either flawless or irredeemable for reasons that have more to do with current events than colonial history, I thought the issue they raised was worth addressing.
As Pope Francis wrote in 2018, saints are not generally thought to have lived perfect lives. “Yet,” he wrote, “even amid their faults and failings they kept moving forward and proved pleasing to the Lord.” People are canonized, in other words, not for what is widely agreed to be good in a liberal democracy, but for a kind of goodness less evident to the modern eye. (“A fornicator I always was, but a heretic I never was,” went the legendary last words of the promiscuous Dutch priest Andreas Wouters; that and a Calvinist’s noose made him a saint.)
Father Serra’s story is thornier.
Beginning in 1749, Father Serra served the Roman Catholic Church and Spain as a gifted evangelist and capable administrator of a Franciscan seminary in Mexico City and, later, of the missions he led throughout California. For clergy members like Father Serra, the missions were places to save the souls of Native Americans and educate them in what the Spaniards believed was a more civilized way of life.
The Spanish colonists “wanted to change the culture from hunter-gatherers to agricultural cultivators, and that was going to mean a huge transformation in the way Native Americans in Southern California lived their lives,” James Sandos, a historian of California at the University of Redlands, told me.
In a 2015 interview with the National Catholic Reporter, Robert Senkewicz, a Santa Clara University historian and biographer of Father Serra, noted that the Spanish military and missionaries introduced animals that destroyed the plants the Native Americans relied upon to sustain themselves, and quickly drove out the wild game Native peoples hunted. Thus, Mr. Senkewicz observed, “the presence of the Spanish colonial enterprise very quickly rendered it almost impossible for the traditional native ways of life to be maintained.”
And so many Native Americans found their way to the missions, where they were offered food and, more important from the missionaries’ perspective, the sacrament of baptism. Once on the grounds of the missions, the Native people were not permitted to leave freely. They were made to cultivate crops considered valuable by the Spanish and were instructed, often brutally, in the ways of European Christian life.
“Father Serra believed very strongly that corporal punishment was an integral part of the California mission system and the discipline and control of Native peoples,” the historian Steven Hackel of the University of California Riverside told me. “In the matter of correcting the Indians,” Father Serra wrote to the governor of California in 1780, “when it appeared to us that punishment was deserved, they were flogged, or put into the stocks, according to the gravity of their offense.”
But Father Serra believed the clergy, not the secular Spanish authorities, should administer these punishments, in part because he felt the Spanish soldiers were too brutal. Leaving such things to the soldiers and other secular powers had led to “the worst of evils,” he told royal authorities in a long list of demands on behalf of his missions and their residents in 1773. It is implied in his letter that those abuses included sexual assault, which clearly horrified him.
In the close quarters of missions, Native Americans were rapidly infected with lethal European diseases, and they died by the thousands. “What happened in California had happened dozens of times, scores of times in other places in the Americas,” Mr. Hackel said. “We can’t hold the California missionaries blameless for what they did. They had every reason to know what would happen when you brought Native peoples together in these small, compressed places. So in that sense, I think we can rightly point to them as culpable.”
Mr. Sandos disagreed. “The priests thought they knew what they were doing, but they didn’t. Serra wasn’t a genocidal maniac,” he said, “They didn’t know what they were unleashing. And the deaths appalled them.”
The campaign for Father Serra’s canonization began in the 1930s, and quickly became a subject of controversy. Father Serra had his fervent backers — one California real estate developer had 100 statues of him cast from a single mold, and sent the monuments to Catholic schools and missions throughout the state, praising the friar as “the first developer of California.”
He also had his furious detractors, among them Native Americans, Catholic and non-Catholic, who attempted to offer historical and anthropological evidence that Father Serra’s missions had been calamitous for their people. Yet, as Dr. Sandos wrote in a 1988 issue of The American Historical Review, while church officials had solicited the input of professional historians, they disregarded research on the physical toll the mission system had taken on Native populations as well as “Serra’s own words, the growing body of evidence from Indians, and the insights available from anthropology, all of which would have contributed to a balanced view of the past.”
It’s not possible to say whether Father Serra would have been canonized had a fuller historical picture been presented. But for Ernestine de Soto, an 82-year-old member of the Barbareño Band of Chumash Indians, there is no question that he is a true saint.
“We’ve been Catholic since the Franciscans’ arrival,” Ms. de Soto, whose mother, Mary, was the last fluent speaker of the Chumash language, told me.
She believes her prayers to Father Serra saved her adult daughter, who was hospitalized with severe pneumonia and little hope. “I begged Father Serra to give my daughter back to me,” she said. “And I said I would be forever devoted to him, and I am.”
Ms. de Soto is devastated by attacks on Father Serra’s statues. She does not dispute what the historical record says about life in the mission system, but thinks Father Serra has received an unfair share of blame. “Why are we dumping everything on him when there were all these Spanish soldiers everywhere?,” she asked pointedly, “why isn’t anyone burning the Presidios?”
Vincent Medina, a Muwekma Ohlone Native American from the San Francisco Bay Area, views Father Serra with a more critical eye. “These statues bring up a lot of feelings: Feelings of invisibility, and the feelings brought up by the crimes, the sins they committed against us, against our ancestors,” he told me. Mr. Medina, whose work ranges from preserving (and serving) Ohlone cuisine to teaching and sharing the Chochenyo language, was baptized Catholic, and worked at the Mission Dolores for several years as a curator.
When Pope Francis canonized Father Serra in 2015, Mr. Medina said, he traveled to Washington D.C. with the blessing of his elders to read a Bible verse in the ceremony — but not to praise what Father Serra had done. “I wanted there to be an Ohlone person there,” he explained, “and to remind people by reading a Biblical verse in our language he failed in taking away our culture and our people.”
As for the statues, Mr. Medina went on, “it’s good to see the public saying: What he did was wrong. And the fact that people are acknowledging that wrong, for me, personally, that’s something that gives me hope.” Still, “in our community, there’s space for people who have different views,” he said.
Eva Walters, a founder and executive director of the City of the Angels Kateri Circle, an organization of Native American Catholics, expressed similarly complicated feelings. She was unhappy with Father Serra’s canonization, and does not doubt that what went on in his missions was atrocious. “We know our people, our ancestors, went through that,” she told me. “We know the horrors that happened. We know that.”
And yet Ms. Walters, who comes from the Quechan people of Southern California, was angered by the attacks on Father Serra’s statues. “We were very unhappy about the statues being desecrated, even though we weren’t happy about him being canonized,” she said. “It was not the American Indian Catholics who did that.”
I asked her how she had made such peace with Father Serra’s legacy. “Being Catholic,” she said, “we tend to forgive and pray over these awful things that have happened. We don’t condemn anyone.”
Father Serra would have been among the first to admit he had sinned, having had, according to Dr. Hackel, a routine of frequent self-flagellation. And yet he is still a saint. If conservatives can find some place for the moral complexity of a man like Father Serra, then I hope they can do the same for the racial justice movement that has been associated in some cases with attacks on his image. Catholics should know better than to let imperfections harden their hearts.
Elizabeth Bruenig (@ebruenig) is an Opinion writer.
The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are some tips. And here’s our email: [email protected].