John Garvey
Intellect and Virtue
September 21, 2021 // Perspective

St. Junipero Serra, California’s fall guy

John Garvey
Intellect and Virtue

California’s legislature now has it in for St. Junípero Serra, who has long been considered the founding father of the Golden State.

Authorities let an angry mob tear down the Franciscan missionary’s statue in Los Angeles. Now they aim to lay at his feet all the offenses of the Spanish Empire and its Anglo successor.

Assembly Bill 338 would repeal a legal requirement for a state monument to America’s first Hispanic saint. The bill offers this explanation: “Enslavement of both adults and children, mutilation, genocide, and assault on women were all part of the mission period initiated and overseen by Father Serra.”

Note the careful wording. The resolution tries, without actually saying so, to leave the impression that Father Serra personally committed these atrocities. In fact, the phrase “part of the mission period” is also intentionally vague. It avoids saying even that the mission system caused these atrocities.

The bill recites that in the 1530s, Pope Paul III and the king of Spain inveighed against the massacre and enslavement of native peoples. This was more than two centuries before Father Serra came to the New World. These edicts, the bill says, were “ignored.”

No doubt they were, at various times and places in the 300-year history of New Spain. But the bill makes no specific claims about St. Junípero’s actions, nor about anything done specifically in his time.

Los Angeles Archbishop José H. Gomez and San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore J. Cordileone recently wrote in the Wall Street Journal on the legislature’s implied slander that St. Serra enslaved and massacred natives.

They wrote that “no serious historian has ever made such outrageous claims about Serra or the mission system, the network of 21 communities that Franciscans established along the California coast to evangelize native people. The lawmakers behind the bill drew their ideas from a single tendentious book,” — “A Cross of Thorns,” by the late journalist Elias Castillo, which was published in February 2015. It is the only source of information mentioned in the bill.

Six years ago this week — seven months after the publication of Castillo’s book — Pope Francis canonized St. Junípero here at The Catholic University of America. Pope Francis holds little sympathy for the abuse of native peoples or colonial triumphalism.

But he had this to say about Father Serra’s life: “He learned how to bring to birth and nurture God’s life in the faces of everyone he met; he made them his brothers and sisters. Junípero sought to defend the dignity of the native community, to protect it from those who had mistreated and abused it.”

This is a far more plausible account of Father Serra’s life. We know that he was an outspoken advocate for the native peoples of Alta California, that he drafted a bill of rights for them and that he complained loudly about their treatment by Spanish authorities — especially about the treatment of women.

It is true, as historian Kevin Starr wrote in an essay for America magazine, that the Franciscan mission system was not a success even by its own standards. By the mid-1830s, 50 years after Father Serra’s death, the missions had resulted not in the flourishing Latinized native Catholic communities they aspired to create, but in a dwindling native population.

The original populations of
California, ground down by European diseases and disruptive changes to their way of life, were ill-prepared for the ethnic cleansing by Anglo-American authorities that was to come still later, in the 1850s.

But for all his failings — and all saints have them — Father Serra cannot be condemned for events that occurred centuries before his birth, or decades after his death; nor for his failure to prefigure 21st century liberal democracy in 1784.

But nowadays he probably can be unfairly scapegoated by California politicians who resent the Catholic Church’s teachings that have relatively little to do with the man himself.

John Garvey is president of The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.

* * *

The best news. Delivered to your inbox.

Subscribe to our mailing list today.