National Statuary Hall in the United States Capitol in Washington DC displays portrait sculptures of favourite sons and daughters from each of the 50 states. One statue that takes many visitors by surprise is the lifesize bronze sculpture of a Franciscan friar holding a small model of a church in one hand and bearing aloft a large cross with the other.
The friar is Fr Junípero Serra, a missionary from Spain who in the last decades of the 18th century founded a string of nine missions in California. Some of those developed into great cities, including San Diego and San Francisco.
On September 23, during his visit to Washington, Pope Francis will lead a canonisation ceremony and declare Fr Serra a saint. So there will be a statue of a Catholic holy man in National Statuary Hall. (In fact, Junípero will be the second Catholic saint in the Capitol: the first was St Damien de Veuster, the Belgian missionary priest who cared for lepers on the Hawaiian island of Molokai).
A canonisation is a joyful event, but in some quarters controversy is swirling around Fr Serra. Some Native American activists and their supporters charge him with flogging Indian converts who tried to leave the missions, and of damaging the ecosystem of California by introducing European livestock that destroyed much of the plant life and drove off the wild game the Indians depended on for food. Some even see him as an agent of Spanish imperialism who abused the Indians he converted to the Catholic faith. Furthermore, Indians who became part of the mission system eventually lost their culture and even forgot their tribe’s language.
Earlier this year a dozen protesters gathered outside the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles chanting: “Serra was no saint! Serra was the Devil!”
But if Fr Serra has his detractors, he also has defenders. Perhaps foremost among them is Robert Senkewicz, a professor of history at Santa Clara University, where he specialises in the history of California. Recently he and his wife, Rose Marie Beebe, co-authored a book entitled Junípero Serra: California, Indians and the Transformation of a Missionary.
In an interview with the National Catholic Register, Senkewicz explained how the mission system in California worked and Fr Serra’s role in it. According to Senkewicz, the missions were Church facilities, of course, but they were also a kind of advance guard for the Spanish Empire. Fr Serra and his fellow friars taught the Indians the Catholic faith, but they also brought them on to the mission grounds, where they lived in European-style villages and were taught new skills, such as European methods of agriculture.
Senkewicz and Beebe found that the Indians came to the missions for a variety of reasons. Some were genuinely interested in the Catholic faith. Others thought the priests had magical powers – that baptism, for example, would cure diseases. And as traditional sources of food became ever more scarce, some Indians entered the missions because it was the one place they knew they could get regular meals. Asked if Fr Serra was aware of the Indians’ mixed motives, Senkewicz replied: “Probably not.”
According to Senkewicz, the missionaries thought that by keeping the Indians in the missions, they were protecting them from exploitation by Spanish and Mexican soldiers and settlers. Indians who ran off and were caught were punished with flogging, but so were Spanish soldiers who violated army regulations. And as penance, Serra flogged himself.
Senkewicz argues that “Serra himself was personally a much more complex individual than either his proponents or his detractors have acknowledged.” He genuinely loved the Indians and loved his work as a missionary. And he was protective of his converts. He had nothing but trouble with colonial governors (he endured three of them in his lifetime), and he didn’t trust soldiers to treat the Indians justly or humanely. Even his religious superiors back in Mexico irritated him: they didn’t understand the circumstances under which he and his fellow missionaries were working, and they didn’t appreciate his zeal for founding new missions.
Ultimately, this period in California’s history is a complicated one, and Serra was a complicated man. His canonisation does not declare all of his actions and opinions to be saintly. But an examination of his life, intentions and motives reveals a man who deserves the title “saint” – and who definitely was not a devil.
Thomas J Craughwell is the author of Saints Behaving Badly: The Cutthroats, Crooks, Trollops, Con Men and Devil Worshippers Who Became Saints. He writes from his home in Bethel, Connecticut
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