Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Serra: Saint or Sinner? Canonization Has Foes in California; Religion

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Serra: Saint or Sinner? Canonization Has Foes in California; Religion

Article excerpt

SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO, Calif. * California's history can't be told without Junipero Serra, the 18th-century Franciscan missionary who introduced Christianity and established settlements as he marched north with Spanish conquistadores. Boulevards, public squares, freeways and elementary schools bear his name. A 26-foot statue of the priest looms over Interstate 280 in San Francisco.

He is revered within the Roman Catholic Church, and Pope Francis announced recently that he will canonize Serra, probably during a trip to Washington, this fall.

That pronouncement has opened old wounds for many Native Americans in California and beyond. They say Serra wiped out native populations, enslaved converts and spread disease.

Since Francis' announcement, Indian groups have staged weekly protests, posted YouTube videos and started an online petition demanding the pope rethink his decision.

At rallies outside Our Lady of the Angels Cathedral in downtown Los Angeles, about a dozen protesters wore black T-shirts and beat drums while chanting "Serra was no saint! Serra was the devil!" and holding signs that compared the missionary's actions to genocide.

"I'm outraged," said Olin Tezcatlipoca, director of the Mexica Movement, an organization that educates the public about indigenous rights. "This is sad because supposedly this pope is more enlightened and more progressive. This came as really shocking."

Serra, a theology professor by training, was tasked in 1767 with expanding the Catholic mission system from Mexico's Baja California into what is now the state of California and converting the Indians he encountered. In 1769, he established his first mission in San Diego and ultimately founded eight of California's 21 missions from San Juan Capistrano to San Francisco before his death in 1784.

In the ensuing decades, diseases brought by Europeans and their livestock ravaged native populations. Indians who converted, often just to get access to food or shelter, were not allowed to leave mission grounds and were flogged and shackled as punishment.

Within 50 years, the Indian population dropped to 200,000 from 300,000, and fragmented tribes lost touch with their traditional languages, beliefs and way of life.

Serra believed he was a more moderate version of the missionaries he saw in Mexico. He thought of the missions as refuges that could protect Indian converts from unscrupulous miners, ranchers and soldiers who roamed what was then Spanish territory.

He supported flogging converts who tried to escape the mission, but he meted out the same punishment to Spanish soldiers and practiced self-mutilation in the name of penance.

"History is always a kind of a dialogue between the past and the present, and from the point of view of Serra in his own time, what he genuinely thought he was doing was providing the native populations with a kind of protection," said Robert Senkewicz, a history professor at Santa Clara University who co-authored a book based on translations of Serra's writings. …

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