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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