St. Junípero Serra protested colonial oppression and abuses, says USCCB president

Demonstrators tore down this statue of St. Junípero Serra sculpted by Douglas Tilden (1860-1935) June 19 in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. (Creative Commons)

(CNA) — Those who “slander” the legacy of St. Junípero Serra ignore his history of opposing colonial oppression and abuses of indigenous Americans, said Archbishop José H. Gomez of Los Angeles, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, praising the saint, whom he called the “spiritual founder” of Los Angeles.

“The real St. Junípero fought a colonial system where natives were regarded as ‘barbarians’ and ‘savages,’ whose only value was to serve the appetites of the white man,” Archbishop Gomez wrote in his June 29 column for Angelus News. For St. Junípero, this colonial ideology was a blasphemy against the God who has ‘created (all men and women) and redeemed them with the most Precious Blood of His Son.’”

Archbishop Gomez called for the observance of St. Junípero Serra’s July 1 feast day as “a day of prayer, fasting and charity.”

“He lived and worked alongside native peoples and spent his whole career defending their humanity and protesting crimes and indignities committed against them,” he said. “Among the injustices he struggled against, we find heartbreaking passages in his letters where he decries the daily sexual abuse of indigenous women by colonial soldiers.”

Numerous statues of historic figures have been pulled down in recent weeks amid ongoing protests and riots throughout the country. While some protests have torn down the statues of Confederate figures as part of a call to end systemic racism, other statues have also been torn down from prominent locations, including one of George Washington.

In San Francisco’s Golden Gate State Park on June 19, a mob tore down statues of St. Junípero Serra, as well as National Anthem author Francis Scott Key and U.S. President and Union general Ulysses S. Grant, who defeated the Confderacy. In Los Angeles the same day, rioters pulled down a statue of Serra in the city’s downtown area.

His statue in Golden Gate Park was first placed there in 1907. It was crafted by well-known American sculptor Douglas Tilden. Statues at Catholic churches and missions, including Southern California’s famous Mission San Juan Capistrano, have been relocated for fear of vandals.

Proposing, not imposing, Christianity

Archbishop Gomez voiced understanding for “the deep pain being expressed by some native peoples in California.”

“The exploitation of America’s first peoples, the destruction of their ancient civilizations, is a historic tragedy,” he said. “Crimes committed against their ancestors continue to shape the lives and futures of native peoples today. Generations have passed and our country still has not done enough to make things right.”

Archbishop Gomez said he believes protests over California history are important. He praised the city of Ventura’s model of respectful debate over the Serra monument with both indigenous leaders and Catholic representatives.

In other cases, he said, “it is clear that those attacking St. Junípero’s good name and vandalizing his memorials do not know his true character or the actual historical record.”

This April 16, 2018 photograph shows the view of the “Father Serra Statue” — sculpted in 1935 by Uno John Palo Kangas (1904–1957) — from the steps of Ventura City Hall. (Creative Commons)

“He learned their languages and their ancient customs and ways,” Archbishop Gomez said. “St. Junípero came not to conquer, he came to be a brother. ‘We have all come here and remained here for the sole purpose of their well-being and salvation,’ he once wrote. ‘And I believe everyone realizes we love them.’”

“Serious scholars conclude that St. Junípero himself was a gentle man and there were no physical abuses or forced conversions while he was president of the mission system,” said the prelate. “St. Junípero did not impose Christianity, he proposed it. For him, the greatest gift he could offer was to bring people to the encounter with Jesus Christ.”

“The sad truth is that, beginning decades ago, activists started ‘revising’ history to make St. Junípero the focus of all the abuses committed against California’s indigenous peoples,” said Archbishop Gomez. “But the crimes and abuses that our saint is blamed for — slanders that are spread widely today over the internet and sometimes repeated by public figures — actually happened long after his death.”

At the time of St. Serra’s arrival in California, it was voluntary to live in the missions and only 10-20 percent of California’s native community joined St. Serra in these missions. St. Junípero died in 1784, but it wasn’t until 1851 when California’s first governor called for “a war of extermination” against the Native Americans and called in the U.S. Cavalry, claimed the archbishop.

“It is sadly true that corporal punishment was sometimes used in the missions, as it was practiced throughout late 18th-century society. It is also true that some natives died of diseases in the missions,” he said.

Archbishop Gomez said the saint understood that “the souls of indigenous Americans had been darkened with bitterness and rage at their historic mistreatment and the atrocities committed against them.” He cited St. Serra’s defense of Kumeyaay attackers who, in 1775, burned down the San Diego mission and tortured and murdered a priest who was a friend of St. Serra.

“St. Junípero was not outraged. He was concerned for the killers’ souls. He pleaded with authorities to have mercy,” said Archbishop Gomez. St. Serra urged forgiveness of the killers after “some slight punishment.”

This would help teach the Christian rule “to return good for evil and to pardon our enemies,” St. Serra wrote.

“This may be the first moral argument against the use of the death penalty in American history,” said Archbishop Gomez. “And St. Junípero was arguing against its imposition on an oppressed minority.”

About St. Serra

During the 18th century, the saint founded nine Catholic missions in the area that would later become California. Many of those missions would go on to become the centers of major California cities. Serra helped to convert thousands of native Californians to Christianity and taught them new agricultural technologies.

In one letter urging fair treatment of native people, St. Serra wrote that “if the Indians were to kill me…they should be forgiven.”

Pope Francis canonized the Franciscan missionary Sept. 23, 2015 in Washington.

“Junípero sought to defend the dignity of the native community, to protect it from those who had mistreated and abused it,” the pope said in his homily at the Mass of canonization. “Mistreatment and wrongs which today still trouble us, especially because of the hurt which they cause in the lives of many people.”

Some critics have lambasted St. Serra as a symbol of European colonialism and said the missions engaged in the forced labor of Native Americans, sometimes claiming St. Serra himself was abusive.

But St. Serra’s defenders say that St. Serra was actually an advocate for native people and a champion of human rights. They note the many native people he helped during his life, and their outpouring of grief at his death.

Archbishop Gomez rejected online petitions which compare the saint to Adolf Hitler and the missions to concentration camps.

“No serious historian would accept this, and we should not allow these libels to be made in public arguments about our great saint,” he said. While the missions had “many flaws,” he compared them to other communes and communitarian efforts of early American history.

“The missions were multicultural communities of worship and work, with their own governments and a self-sustaining economy based on agriculture and handicrafts,” said Archbishop Gomez. “Living and working together, Natives and Spaniards created a new, mestizo (‘mixed’) culture reflected in the distinctive art, architecture, music, poetry and prayers that came out of the missions.”

While society could eventually agree not to honor St. Junípero Serra or other figures in the past, said Archbishop Gomez, “elected officials cannot abdicate their responsibilities by turning these decisions over to small groups of protesters, allowing them to vandalize public monuments. This is not how a great democracy should function.”

San Francisco Exorcism

Earlier in the week, Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco was joined by several dozen Catholics June 27 in prayer and acts of spiritual reparation at the park where the statue was torn down.

“Evil has made itself present here. So we have gathered together to pray for God, to ask the saints … for their intercession, above all our Blessed Mother, in an act of reparation, asking God’s mercy on us and on the whole city, that we might turn our hearts back towards him,” Cordileone said in a video.

“The presence of so many wonderful people here was of great comfort for me,” said Archbishop Cordileone. “I feel such a great wound in my soul when I see these horrendous acts of blasphemy disparaging the memory of St. Serra who was such a great hero, such a great defender of the indigenous people of this land.”

Archbishop Cordileone led the gathered crowed in a Rosary and the prayer of exorcism — the St. Michael Prayer, saying the toppling of the statue was “an activity of the evil one.” He also blessed the ground with holy water and encouraged Catholics to pray, fast and inform themselves. “An act of sacrilege occurred here. That is an act of the Evil One,” he said in the video.

“There’s a lot that people don’t know. There’s a lot of ignorance of the real history. I’d ask our people to learn about the history of Fr. Serra, of the missions, of the whole history of the Church, so that they can appreciate the great legacy the Church has given us.”

Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone during a June 27 prayer service in Golden Gate Park. (Dennis Callahan/Archdiocese of San Francisco)

Personal Devotion

Archbishop Cordileone said St. Serra had a personal importance for him.

“He was someone who was very much a part of my life growing up,” said Archbishop Cordileone. “I grew up very close to the first mission he founded, in San Diego.”

The toppling of the statue made him “very distressed” and “inflicted a great wound in my soul.”

“The presence of so many people here was of great support to me,” he said.

In a June 20 statement, Archbishop Cordileone said that important protests over racial injustice have been “hijacked” by a mob bent on violence.

“St. Serra made heroic sacrifices to protect the indigenous people of California from their Spanish conquerors, especially the soldiers,” he said. “Even with his infirm leg, which caused him such pain, he walked all the way to Mexico City to obtain special faculties of governance from the Viceroy of Spain in order to discipline the military who were abusing the Indians. And then he walked back to California.”

Archbishop Cordileone said he did not want to “deny that historical wrongs have occurred, even by people of good will, and healing of memories and reparation is much needed. But just as historical wrongs cannot be righted by keeping them hidden, neither can they be righted by re-writing the history.”

In 2018, San Francisco’s city government removed a statue of the saint from a prominent location outside City Hall. Stanford University’s Board of Trustees recommended to rename some, but not all, features on campus named for the priest. The student government had said the Catholic missions had a harmful impact on Native Americans. A statue of the saint remains displayed in the U.S. Capitol.

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