The Vatican’s newest saint lived in my neighborhood

He did–some of the time! He was responsible for the founding of Mission San Gabriel Arcángel, the fourth of the California Missions, although he didn’t see the mission until 1772, a year after its founding.

Given my avid interest in mission-era California I am enjoying the spotlight on Father Junipero Serra, canonized last month by Pope Francis during a Mass outside the basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, the largest Catholic church in North America.

Junipero Serra

Every California fourth grader knows the 18th century Franciscan Spanish missionary responsible for bringing Catholicism to Alta California through the establishment of nine of the 21 missions built along “El Camino Real,” or “The King’s Highway,” running the entire length of the state.

It is a complex story.

Perhaps questioning the Pope’s decision is best left to others. I’m not a Catholic, so I don’t know that I have a stake in the outcome of the decision, but I do study California’s early history and it  unsettles me that the historical record isn’t being recited with complete candor.

When I was in the 4th grade, back when dinosaurs roamed the earth, the version of the native peoples’ story included the fable of the “kindly” fathers looking out for them, sharing the benefits of civilization.

Currently, fifty different California Indian tribes condemned Serra’s sainthood , objecting because the missions were responsible for what has been asserted as the beginning of the near-extermination of the Native tribes.



The missionary zeal of Father Serra certainly contributed to a dark story that placed baptism of the Indians above their freedom–once baptized they were not allowed to leave the missions.

At the time of the Spanish colonization in the late 18th century, there were more than 300,000 native people in California, representing more than 200 tribes. By 1860, the state’s native population was reduced to 30,000 by poverty and disease. It would eventually dip much, much lower.


I don’t know how the world’s Catholic community feels about the decision to confer sainthood after only one recognized miracle, instead of two, and I don’t know if there is any issue with what has been suggested as a fast-tracked decision made so the first Hispanic Pope would confer sainthood on the first Spanish saint AND the first conferred on American soil.

All that I know about the road leading to the eventual Papal decision I’ve learned from the newspaper over the last two weeks. That doesn’t make me an expert, so I would say that I am honestly more curious than critical.

Still, I am very sad that the native people continue to feel overlooked with feelings disregarded in the re-telling of history.



Father Serra was not a one-dimensional character. He was a complex human being with many good intentions, some of which when examined through a modern-day lens appear deeply flawed. Conversely, there are many reports that upon his death he was mourned by the same indigenous people who had lived their lives in servitude to the church. He was not without kindness.

Perhaps the controversy surrounding Father Serra will stimulate curiosity and a sincere interest in an era of California history I find complex and a very compelling study.  And anyway, I think history is so much more interesting when we can acknowledge the shadows!

“Time’s glory is to calm contending kings, to unmask falsehood, and to bring truth to light.”     Oedipus Rex

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25 thoughts on “The Vatican’s newest saint lived in my neighborhood

  1. Saints and Sinners – most people are both and that certainly applies to those who are cannonized. The old Saints were not in the spotlight of a global press and the Roman Catholic Church being the main version of Christianity could carefully sanitize anything unsavoury. In any case a lot of the early Saints, along with contemporary witnesses, had long since been dead by the time the Pope suggested their canonization to the committee! More modern Saints are in the public eye or have living comtemporaries who may dispute their role in the circumstances leading to their Sainthood. One modern Saint whose story you might find interesting is Maximilian Kolbe.

    Another slice of fascinating Californian history Debra – thanks for a good read 🙂

    • Thank you for such a wonderful response, Martin. I always value your ability to share on such a variety of topic. And thank you for the link to Kolbe. I was not familiar with this remarkable man. I love “Patron Saint of This Difficult Century.” I will make a point of learning more about him and his very compelling story. I do not think that Father Serra is necessarily unworthy, even though I don’t really understand how he merits the high honors. I do think some good can come out of the controversy if people show greater interest in learning more about the history of Alta California. I think I will enjoy learning more about “the road to sainthood” and perhaps how this particular decision was made. Maybe more tourists will visit the missions. They could use the donations. 🙂

  2. Looking at someone who lived in a different time and culture is difficult. If he was a kind man (and I really don’t know) his kindness was tempered by the times in which he lived and the belief system. I don’t know if he deserved sainthood or not. There was most likely a political aspect to the whole thing. Explorers brought disease and tragedy in many parts of the world and many tribes and species are extinct as a result. It’s very sad but its life.

    • All you’ve said is surely true, Kate. He lived 300 years ago, and that says a lot about perspectives. But the outcry from the California Indian tribes has been strong for quite a while and the claims are certainly undisputed. For that reason alone I find Serra a very odd choice. A lot of attention is being focused on the missions right now and I think at the sites themselves there is a lot of honest scrutiny of Spanish colonialism. And of course, what the Spanish started, the Americans finished off. Hopefully people who visit the missions will be interested in asking some good questions. 🙂

  3. Debra I absolutely love the last line about history being interesting when we acknowledge its shadows. Beautiful piece of writing. How fascinating that this history is in your neighborhood too. Proximity always makes things all the more interesting as well I think. I have no knowledge of how the papal system works, but it’s certainly not unique that treatment of native/indigenous groups is often overlooked, or at least downplayed, in modern history.

    • You’re right about proximity, Kristy. I have never paid this much attention to Vatican decisions and I couldn’t name any modern-day saints, I don’t think. Serra is a fixture around here! Streets are named after him and museums and the missions themselves have frequently highlighted different aspects of his life. And the missions have been holding celebrations this month in his honor. There is no shortage of stories we could tell that speak directly to the devastating consequences to Native Peoples with the expansion of the American frontier, so Serra doesn’t have to take all the blame for that! The good thing about the decision is that more people may show interest, and that is always hopeful. Thank you for stopping by, my friend.

    • Thanks, Jim. I wasn’t all that interested in history as a school subject, perhaps because so much of it was bland! When we get older and start reading the controversies and discovering some of the unanticipated consequences of decisions and actions it starts to come alive. I haven’t completely turned on poor old Father Serra. I just feel badly for the tribes who have once again dismissed. Stories of colonialism are never easy, are they!

  4. Having grown up in Southern California, I too was entranced by the romanticized history we were taught in school. San Gabriel was the nearest mission to me, and I have wonderful memories of my visits there as a child.

    However, the Native American culture has been so near-totally wiped out in California that I never grasped their perspective until I moved to Washington state. Here, the tribes (or the remnants thereof) are in close proximity to my community, and even among my circle of friends, so I see and hear the other side of the story.

    In that light, I suspect that Serra was no saint in the “gentle, kind, good, humane” sense that, as a non-Catholic, I would hope that sainthood entails. But again, as a non-Catholic, I can’t comment on church decisions or church history. But I do hope that someday, as a society, we recognize (it’s too late to fix) the enormity of the wrong that was done to those who were here before us.

    • Thank you so much for sharing, Lori. You have expressed so clearly what I have been debating in my mind. I also don’t know enough about the criteria established for sainthood, but I have my own list of what I would expect–it’s an irrelevant list, but it’s a perspective! I certainly understand that 300 years ago the native people weren’t considered equal with “civilized” people and therefore, all sorts of atrocities took place. I think the mission fathers were probably more respectful and generally kinder than the Americans that flocked into California sometime later. But even with good motives, harm was done, and this would have been such a good time to have said to the representatives of the dissenting California tribes that their voices were strong enough to change a decision. It would have been a very meaningful gesture. It’s interesting having such a close local relationship with this story. That doesn’t happen very often! I hope that perhaps more people will visit the missions and learn a little more about mission life. 🙂

  5. Something was tickling my memories at the canonization of Father Junipero Serra, and here you are, Debra, scratching that itch :). History is so complex, isn’t it, with saints and sinners all tied up in one? So many of those who reach levels of fame, who become honored and revered are complex individuals, rising above the rest in times they live or lived in.
    We do so little, in my opinion, to honor and recognize the Native tribes and people, and much of what they endured as the Americas were colonized. Your post quietly draws attention to this, my friend, and to California’s rich and textured history.

    Fourth grade was the year in school we here in Illinois study Illinois history. At least we used to. I hope it is still part of the curriculum. It is a perfect age for learning about one’s state. It is where I first became interested in Abraham Lincoln, the prairie, the farmland and the city of Chicago. I know if I were a child of California, I would have been as fascinated with California.

    As always, fascinating, Debra. Thank you for acknowledging the shadows.

    • You probably saw that very same statue of Serra, Penny! I’m glad you had the chance to visit San Gabriel Mission. I know so little about how Serra was chosen for this special designation, and perhaps if I knew the criteria I’d be less critical. I don’t even know that I’m all that critical, except that I do think this would have been a wonderful time to acknowledge the hurt and suffering that came to the native people through Spanish colonialism…and then continued for the next 150 years with a lethal American blow. I’m looking forward to Sophia being in 4th grade next year and seeing what she does with the social studies curriculum. I hope that as the girls get older and do some traveling they develop an interest in the varied stories that come from every state. I have actually learned a lot about other states from the blogs I read. I sometimes feel like I know more than I do because of those introductions. Thank you for your thoughtful response, Penny. I’ve been “visiting” Father Serra for years. I won’t be giving up on him entirely. 🙂

  6. The photos are gorgeous, Debra, but what a history. I didn’t know anything about this part of CA’s history. And how terrible that after being baptised they lost all of their freedom. It’s very true that when we look back at what some of these people did, it does seem their very best intentions were deeply flawed. I didn’t know there was a new American saint! xx

    • Father Serra was from Spain before the territory was part of the United States, but on the Pope’s recent visit to the U.S. he canonize Serra. It was the first time to have the conferral on American soil. Sadly, under Spanish rule, then Mexican rule and then later the Americans–all were responsible for the mistreatment (an understatement) of the indigenous tribes. Three hundred years later there is still great sensitivity. Sometimes we can’t undo a wrong, but I think we need to continue to acknowledge the harms done in the past. It sure can be complicated! I’m glad you enjoyed the photos, my friend.

  7. The power of story: propagandists since time immemorial have used it to their advantage, Debra, haven’t they? You can scoop a human being up and involve them in a powerful tale, and the Catholic church is expert after 2000 years of storytelling. Its early stories are of impossible martyrdom and rescues by the Virgin, or angels; these days they tailor their stories for a 21st century audience. I suppose the important thing is never to take a story at face value: always to question it and ask what lies behind and what it might not be saying.

    • You know, Kate, I really hadn’t considered the “story factor” involved in the canonization process. It would make sense to me that the decision by committee is at least affected, if not determined by acceptance of the 21st century audience, and in that sense I can understand that Junipero Serra is probably reasonably fitting. My critical thinking is less connected to the story, and more invested in a stab at justice. Most of the time it doesn’t all balance that well. Thank you for your very thoughtful response. You provided a framework to my questions that I hadn’t realized myself.

  8. Lovely reflections, Debra.

    The pope’s decision to label someone a “saint” or a “sinner” has no impact on how I view the world ~> his decision is irrelevant since I can’t imagine using the Roman Catholic Church or its edicts as a yardstick for my life. 🙄

    That said, I feel for the indigenous plants, animals, and people who were decimated and relocated as a result of the greed of power hungry Churches, explorers, and monarchs.

    Too bad life doesn’t come with a REWIND button so we could undo some of our mistakes.

    • I have never previously paid much attention to any Papal decisions, quite honestly. I really don’t have any knowledge of the process, but it simply seemed to me that with so many of the California Indian Tribes appealing the decision it would have been a wonderful opportunity to have created a step towards atonement for the past. There really isn’t a rewind button, sadly, but even token actions could make a difference. I think an opportunity was lost. 😦

  9. You have created the most interesting discussion…very thought provoking for those of us who are not familiar with the history of the area or man. I must come back to continue reading everyone’s thoughts. 🙂

    • Thank you, Karen. I appreciate your interest. I had definitely hoped to stimulate a little discussion because so much of what I am thinking is primarily an emotional reaction and I really don’t have a deep knowledge of how the Papal decision is made. I don’t know the criteria. I have also been very interested in how others have commented. I hope there will be a few more who will read and leave their thoughts. 🙂

  10. Aren’t most interesting people not one-dimensional? Whether anyone is a saint or not, is totally irrelevant for me. I don’t think a pope’s decision much matters, but I still think it’s cool you have had a saint in your neighbourhood. Great discussion you have started here, Debra.

  11. I unfortunately know very little of Christianity in total, I’m afraid. While I did, of course, read about the Crusades and Father Serra as part of required reading but that is as far as it got. But one thought I wish to express concerning one the things you write about: the inability to raise up the past for the sake of race. Many things occurred in our past, yes, but I sincerely doubt anyone is still alive from “those times”. Why is society so intent on regurgitating the past when it concerns race yet our textbooks essentially avoid valor during WWII, I ask? Many vets are still around from that time… Anyways, just mouthing off… Hope you’ll forgive me!

    • I am sorry it took me a few days to get back to you on this very thoughtful response, Koji. The flu “flew” through our household and knocked us out one by one. I don’t completely disagree with you at all on your concerns that race often becomes the arbiter of national (or international) apologies and that recent history, our WWII vets, are often not given the attention they deserve, especially in the history textbooks. In my mind, the two issues are not in opposition to each other. I continue to admit that I really don’t know that much, if anything of substance, about the criteria that qualifies a person for sainthood. It is absolutely irrefutable, however, that the Spanish missionaries that came to Alta California started a wave of destruction that never did abate for the Native Americans. Knowing that, it seemed a really insensitive decision that if altered, could have gone a long way with validating the experience of people who have never recovered from what was basically stolen from them. I don’t think it goes much beyond that–a missed opportunity. As for our veterans, from WWII and going forward to the young men and women today, I have no idea why respect is doled out in such small measurements. I think it’s the culture we are living in that doesn’t see their sacrifice as real, but instead makes idols out of the false, plastic and inane. I don’t have any thought that the past can be atoned for, when, as you say, the people who were directly harmed are no longer living, but I do believe that consequences are often unending. If I were in a classroom teaching highschoolers about American history there would be a way to weave the distant past with more current history and raise an empathetic awareness that might pull at least a few kids away from thinking that nothing matters unless they’ve seen it on youtube or the web. I think we’re closer to each other in our thoughts on this than might have at first appeared, my friend. I really appreciate the passion you continue to communicate in advocacy of our WWII vets. It’s an important reality check!

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