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Sainthood for Junipero Serra, California’s controversial founding father

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One of the acts on Pope Francis’ agenda important act on his agenda while he’s here is to bestow sainthood on Father Junipero Serra, the Spanish priest who founded California’s mission system in the 18th Century.

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A courtyard at Mission San Juan Capistrano. The missions founded by Serra are some of the oldest structures in California. They were built to both spread the religious message of Christian missionaries and as a symbol of Spain’s control of California, known in the 18th Century as Alta California. (Photo: Saul Gonzalez)

Orange County’s Mission San Juan Capistrano is a reminder of the time of Juniper Serra. The ten acre site includes manicured gardens, gracious stone arcades, and atmospheric 18th Century chapels (ancient by Southern California standards) with religious music echoing softly off dimly lit walls.

In 1776, Mission San Juan Capistrano was also one of the California missions that was personally founded by soon-to-be-sainted Father Serra.

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A statue of Father Junipero Serra embracing a Native American placed at Mission San Juan Capistrano in 1914. Serra’s treatment of California indigenous inhabitants has been a topic of debate for decades. (Photo: Saul Gonzalez)

“We are number 7 of the 9 that he founded himself, and so we have a very special place in the 21 California missions of being one of the first ones that were founded here in California,” says Monsignor J. Michael McKiernan, the pastor of Mission San Juan Capistrano, which along with being a place of worship is also a California historical landmark operated by a nonprofit.

Monsignor McKiernan supports the canonization of Father Serra by Pope Francis for both spiritual reasons and because he thinks it will boost public interest in California’s missions, especially Mission San Juan Capistrano.

“I think it will bring more attention to this mission, and therefore bring more visitors,” says Monsignor McKiernan. He also thinks Serra’s canonization will spark a renewed public interest in early California history.

But Father’s Serra’s place in that history has long been a controversial one, and the controversy has been renewed by the impending canonization.

His supporters say Serra was a pious man whose missions helped to spread the Christian gospel. They also say Serra’s missions helped to protect California’s Native American population from the worst abuses of imperial Spain, then in control of 18th Century California.

But Serra’s critics say that view cuts him way too much slack.

“I think the notion that Junipero Serra is a protector of California Indians is a little overblown,” says U.C. Riverside professor Steven Hackel, an expert on Spanish colonial California and the author of a biography of Father Serra.

Hackel says Serra founded the mission not just to spread his faith, but to dominate the lives of California’s native Americans in just about every way possible.

“Basically what Serra does is he works very hard to amass for himself and other missionaries the power to control California Indian peoples,” says Hackel. “He wants exclusive control. He wants to be able to say when Indians should be punished. How they should be punished. Where they should live. How they should work. Who they should marry. How they should live their lives. He viewed this as protecting Indians from their worst impulses. But I think, from our perspective today, we see a man who really wanted Franciscan control over native peoples.”

But Monisgnor McKiernan at Mission San Juan Capistrano echoes other defenders of Father Serra when he says the actions of an 18th Century shouldn’t be completely judged by 21st Century standards of right and wrong. “We live in a different time and to hold people to a standard of today to something that happened a long time ago isn’t always recognizing that times are different and things have changed,” says Monsignor McKiernan.

But Serra still remains a powerful and much honored symbol of early California history. Schools, roads and government buildings are named after him. There are statues of Serra in communities across the state and in the U.S. Capitol building. And if you grew up in California, you likely remember building a model of one of Serra’s missions in 4th grade California history class. That particualr exercise is just about an educational rite of passage in the Golden State.

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State of Father Junipero Serra in front of Ventura’s City Hall. Over the centuries Father Serra has morphed from a purely religious figure to founding father figure for California. (Photo: Saul Gonzalez)

Even Hackel says that despite his shortcomings, Serra might be the closest thing California has to a founding father figure. “Serra is the first European who comes to California and imagines a region where people spoke a common language, where they are connected by a series of roads and networks,” says Hackel. “So we can really point to Serra as having the first vision of a place like California that exists today as a state that functions, more or less, as a single entity.”

But Hackel says Serra doesn’t fit into modern day California. “He’s a very awkward figure in terms of California today because we represent a sort of hyper-materialism, an interest in the body and pleasures,” says Hackel. “He would have preached until he was hoarse trying to prevent the kind of California that we have today, which is very hedonistic and very materialistic.”