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The following article was posted on September 5th, 2015, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 16, Issue 26 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [] - Volume 16, Issue 26

Mission to sainthood: Father Junipero Serra helped establish the California mission system, but is he saint material?


Washington, D.C., stands some 3,000 miles from the site of Mission Carmel, once the home base of Father Junipero Serra, an evangelist Franciscan from the island of Mallorca. 

With a bum leg and a handful of starving Spaniards, that tiny priest founded a backbone of missions in what was then called Alta California—a massive hinterland of shrubs, oak, and sun—to stake out a distant colony on the remote edges of a dying empire.


And now, roughly 250 years later, Pope Francis will most likely canonize Father Serra in Washington on Sept. 23. He’s avoiding Carmel, some have told the Sun, because there are plenty in California who don’t think the church should recognize Serra as a saint. It seems like there are two sides to this saint debate: On one side we’ve got people who think he was a fervent believer, driven to accomplish things for his faith at a great cost to himself, and that he demonstrated extraordinary compassion. On the other are folks who believe he was a sadist, a zealot, and party to genocide.

Serra’s from another time, a period that’s alien to contemporary society and hard to understand. When he became a priest, he took the name of an early Franciscan—an order of priests founded by St. Francis—who would give away all his clothes and walk naked in public. Serra’s a strange dude. He prayed to a flying blue nun, miraculously able to be in two places at once, whose likeness was carved above the altar of his childhood church. The priest traversed much of Mexico and California on a festering leg that never healed.

His canonization raises questions that look at more than the time he spent on this earth—questions that stem from the legacy of the mission system and what it did to California’s native populations. 

The Adolf Hitler of California?

One of Serra’s loudest critics is Norma Flores of the Gabrilleño band of Mission Indians in the Los Angeles Basin. She’s been the public face for a group of people leading the charge against Serra. 

He was, she said, the “Adolf Hitler of California.”

Spain, Flores said, had “a fine-tuned extermination machine under the guise of evangelism”—meaning she’s accusing the Spanish of willfully decimating native populations to colonize with priests at the helm.

“This is deep,” she said. “It’s not just one Spanish guy.”

Her list of grievances is long. She said soldiers were sent out to rope native women like cattle and take them back to the missions; that they separated men, women, and children and interred them; and, at the hands of the Spanish, the natives were raped, whipped, and forced to work. 

Eventually, as Flores tells it: After being robbed of their culture, riddled with European diseases, stripped of their lands and their sources of food, crushed under the heel of the invaders, the native population of California fell to 10 percent of what it once was.

“If the Confederate flag can be taken down, then statues of Junipero Serra can be taken down also,” she said. “What’s innovative about slavery? Junipero Serra brought slavery to California. He did not treat our people in a loving, compassionate manner that was in line with the teaching of Jesus Christ.”

Flores was raised in a Catholic family. She was baptized and raised in the church. “But my mother, who is native, did not want me confirmed,” she said. Why? She didn’t want her daughter to be slapped by a Catholic priest, Flores explained.

La Purisima Mission demonstrates what life was like on the mission with examples like this hut.

And she adds that the canonization of Serra, like the rites of confirmation, would be “a final slap in the face for native people.”

She points to a letter written by a French sea captain who visited Mission Carmel as an example of how poorly native Californians were treated. The captain compared what he saw to slavery in the Caribbean.

“We have seen both men and women in irons, and others in the stocks. Lastly, the noise of the whip might have struck our ears, this punishment also being administered, though with little severity,” he wrote. 

“If he escapes to reside with his relations in the independent villages, he is summoned three times to return,” the letter continues. “If he refuses, the missionaries apply to the governor, who sends soldiers to seize him in the midst of his family and conduct him to the mission, where he is condemned to receive a certain number of lashes with the whip.”

Flores wants that whip to descend on Serra’s legacy.

“We seek justice,” Flores said. “Justice has no time limit.”

The Sun reached out to the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians, but spokesperson Hildy Medina said the tribe declined to comment.

The church

A phone call to Mission Santa Barbara—the only California mission to be continually occupied by Franciscan friars—yielded no comments to questions about Juniperro Serra’s upcoming canonization, but the Sun was directed to speak with Franciscan Father Ken Laverone of Mission San Juan Bautista.

Laverone said Serra saw himself as a father to the native Californians—and saw whipping as acceptable discipline.

“By today’s standards, you don’t do that. Serra was a man of his time, and he brought means of fatherhood, of parenting, with him. Was his intention to hurt the Indians? No. It was to teach them God’s love. But from the perspective of the 18th century, he did,” Laverone explained.

Still, he said, Serra saw Indians not just as children, but as human beings, sometimes where other Franciscans didn’t. 

“I think the church sees him as a great evangelizer, as someone who left everything he knew,” Laverone said. “He had terrible physical problems, and he still carried on, he never stopped. Not for his own good, but for what he believed was the good of people, was the good of souls.” 

The force with which Serra pushed through those setbacks opened up the door for the Spanish colonization of California. 

“You could not separate the evangelization from the colonization,” Laverone said.


That colonization made the California we know today, and SLO’s Dan Krieger knows how that went. Krieger’s Catholic, an active part of Mission San Luis Obispo, and also a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly who’s studied the mission system “since I was 8,” he said.

Krieger recognizes that colonialism is deplorable. His historical understanding is that political turmoil in Europe had the Spaniards looking to expand to California. He thinks Father Serra and his Franciscan brothers, while complicit in colonization, did their best to protect and minister to a native population caught between the ravages of disease and the brutality of Spanish military.

Although Father Serra died before the founding of the missions at Santa Ines and La Purisima, he is considered a founder of the mission system in California.

He sees Serra as a compassionate man. In one incident, Krieger recounts a story about a high-ranking Spanish official—Fages, the military governor of California—who wanted his soldiers at the Spanish fort in Monterey to have access to native women. 

Serra responded by moving the mission 9 miles south, away from Monterey’s Presidio, so the soldiers wouldn’t get that access. He went over the heads of his superiors, pushing back hard against Fages, writing directly to the viceroy of New Spain (now known as Mexico) that “I am bringing your military governor down and he will be tried in court, and if necessary, punished by civilian authorities.”

Krieger also points to an incident in 1775. A man was accused of killing a priest and good friend of Serra’s in San Diego. Serra, once again going above the heads of his superiors, demanded that the accused not be put to death.

“Saints are people of their time and have to be judged in the context of their era. How did they behave? What qualities did they exemplify? Their purpose is to set examples in empathy, charity, and the crusading spirit of trying to change the world for what it is,” Krieger said.

  He sees the idea, in Serra, of “never giving up. He may have had a misapprehension of God’s cause.”

Chuckling, Krieger added, “Most of us do.”


In the debate over canonization, whipping is a sticking point. Most of us don’t think new converts to a church should be whipped, but many converts to the mission system were. One neophyte (a new religious convert) named Francisco was tied to a whipping post in front of Dolores Mission—where, according to Krieger, the unlucky spectators “had to watch as [the priest] gave 25 strokes to poor Francisco.”

It should be kept in mind that the fathers used thick whips of cord, which does not generally break the skin, not leather, which does. The soldiers were also whipped as punishment. 

Krieger emphasized that the historical record shows no Indian beaten to death or flayed under the Franciscans. And, he added, common punishments at the time were horrific by comparison—like keelhauling, where sailors were dragged along the barnacles under a ship so that their flesh was torn to pieces.

Serra, like many Catholics of the time, mortified his flesh—he did the whipping himself, with chains or a leather cord, until his skin broke open and bled. The Vatican didn’t turn away from mortification of the flesh as penance until the late 1960s.

The San Diego History Center’s account of a sermon in Mexico describes Serra drawing out a chain, asking his audience for penance. He “began to beat himself so cruelly that all the spectators were moved to tears.” One spectator came up to the altar, took the chain from the father, stripped to the waste, and beat himself while sobbing and asking for penance.

“So cruel and pitiless were the blows,” it reads, that the man fell down. His last rites were administered and he died on the spot.


It was the staying power of disease, not the lashes of a whip, that devastated the native population. John Johnson, an anthropologist at the Museum of Natural History in Santa Barbara, said the tragedy of the mission period is not how the Catholic priests treated the native Californians. 

“No punishment was given to them that was not given to the soldiers,” Johnson said. “Colonization introduced diseases that were devastating to the native peoples that had no natural immunity.”

These shackles were excavated from Mission San Gabriel.

By the end of the mission period in 1833—70 years after Serra’s arrival in California—Johnson estimates that the native population had shrunk to a tenth of its pre-contact numbers.

“Most of that mortality was not major epidemics but childhood diseases,” Johnson explained. “Four out of five children born at the missions died before they reached adulthood.”

The Franciscans knew a little bit about medicine, but what they didn’t know was deadly. Krieger, the historian, said that they understood that quarantine worked against spread of diseases like the plague. But they believed that other illnesses were caused by vapors in the night air. So, they shuttered the Indians in small rooms with the windows closed, where bacteria festered.

Priests grew medicinal herb gardens and learned cures from indigenous peoples to stave off sickness. This was some help. But they fed them beef, which led to osteoporosis, and had them drink milk, despite their lactose intolerance. Meanwhile, Spanish cattle chomped through the seeds that native Californians foraged for food, devastating their ability to live off the land.

Scholar Barry Pritzer writes that in the early 19th century, when the mission period began, there were 200,000 indigenous people living in California. 

Then, in 1834, the priests were kicked out and the Mexican rancheros came in; then the Americans from eastern states, seeking gold. Each group, according to Krieger, brought disease, racist ideologies, and a greater propensity to take what remianing resources the mission Indians had.

By the end of the 19th century, according to Pritzer, only 15,000 indigenous peoples were left in California.

Serra didn’t live to see it. “He was dead before any of that, before the high mortality began to take its toll,” Johnson said.

The Chumash

Ernestine de Soto, an elderly nurse in Santa Barbara, knew the last living speaker of the Chumash language more intimately than anyone else. It was Ernestine’s mother, who would speak it with her great uncle and the ethnologist John Peabody Harrington.

“That wasn’t a big deal like everybody makes it out like today,” Soto said dryly. “It was just an everyday thing in our household. We know what we were and that was the end of that. It was a natural occurrence to us.”

Father Serra was an agent of the Spanish Inquisition, a power he used mostly to coerce the soldiers he worked with.

De Soto grew up in Watsonville, where there weren’t many Chumash around. “Frankly, I have to tell you, I thought we were the only ones in the world,” she recalled. Once, there were thousands, with Spanish explorers describing the shores of what is now Santa Barbara as thronging with Chumash.

De Soto is very Catholic—“they did their work well with us,” she said—and she heard that Serra would be canonized while she was working at Mission Santa Barbara.

“My first impulse was—‘Oh, my God.’ I have nothing against Father Serra, but it only meant that what happened to us was more or less justified, or OK. It was not closure,” she said.

De Soto was caught between her ancestry and her faith when her daughter ended up in the hospital. “She had a very bizarre cyptogenic pneumonia,” de Soto said. It wouldn’t respond to treatment, and her daughter wasn’t getting enough oxygen to her brain.

So de Soto did what a faithful person does: She prayed. And she prayed with a piece of Serra’s bone—a relic. As she tells it, Father Serra granted her the miracle that hundreds of doctors, nurses, hospital staff, and clergy couldn’t.

“She’s sitting in front of me, she should not be here—she’s a product of his miracle,” de Soto said.

Then, sounding weary, she paused. “I don’t think that everything would be rosy,” she said. “All conquering of civilizations—you must understand how it works. We’re doing it right now to other people. But it’s not something that I’m bitter about.

“I’m grateful for what we have left,” she added.

Staff Writer Sean McNulty can be reached at

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