Junípero Serra (1713-1784), a Spanish priest, founded nine of the 21 Spanish missions of California, set up to bring Native Americans to Christ. He has been called the last conquistador, a destroyer of cultures. Next week when Pope Francis visits the US, he will make Serra an official saint of the Catholic Church.
Serra was born Miquel Joseph Serre (Miguel José Sierra in Castilian Spanish) on the island of Majorca. He became a Franciscan brother and took the name of Junípero, after Brother Juniper, a follower of St Francis of Assisi. Serra later became a priest and a philosophy professor.
In 1749, he was sent to Mexico City. He walked from the coast to the city. Along the way he injured his foot, maybe a snake bit him. He had a bad foot for the rest of his life.
Throughout the 1750s and 1760s he was a missionary in what is now Mexico, particularly among the Pame Indians and in Baja (Lower) California.
In 1769, Spain feared that Russia would claim Alta (Upper) California (now just called California). So it set up presidios (forts), pueblos (settlements) and missions along the coast. Serra helped to set up and run the missions.
Pope John Paul II:
“Relying on the divine power of the message he proclaimed, Father Serra led the native peoples to Christ.”
In fact, Serra went with soldiers to round up people, forcing them to stay and work at the missions. Each mission had a church, a school – and a whipping post. Those who would not work were whipped. As you can imagine, there were uprisings at the missions and attempts by Native Americans to free their people from them.
Serra wanted to change not just their religion, but their names, their languages and their way of life.
The missions were, in effect, re-education camps. They turned the Native Americans who lived along the coast of California – the Kumeyaay, Tongva, Juaneño, Chumash and Ohlone peoples – into labourers for the gente de razón, the “people of reason” – aka, the Spanish and their hangers-on.
Serra converted thousands – yet tens of thousands died. When he arrived in California there were 65,000 Native Americans. By 1832, only a fourth were left: 17,000.
His defenders say that Serra stood up for Native Americans. He did complain to the authorities that he would have more success if soldiers stopped raping Native women and children, both at the missions and beyond. There was an official policy against rape, but official policy was carried out by soldiers. Little changed. Soldiers regularly got away with rape and murder.
At the National Statuary Hall at the Capitol Building in Washington, DC, the state of California is represented by a statue of Serra (pictured above). Some in California want it changed to a statue of astronaut Sally Ride.
As to Pope Francis, he has apologized to Native Americans about the way the Catholic Church has treated them. But making Serra into Saint Junípero makes that apology ring hollow.
Feast day: July 1st.
– Abagond, 2015.
- Jesus Christ
- White paternalism