Last week, a few hours after publishing an essay about American Catholics’ reaction to the Black Lives Matter movement, I received a flood of ill tidings via email. My correspondents’ anger was unrelated to the subject of my article, but was instead inflamed by a mention of Junipero Serra, a canonized Franciscan friar who founded Spanish missions throughout California in the 18th century.
I had referred to him to explain one factor behind Catholic outrage over the anti-racist protests after the murder of George Floyd. Namely, some protesters have attacked statues of the saint because they believed he “eagerly participated in the conquest of North America, including the torture, enslavement and murder of some of the Native Americans he intended to convert.”
Many of my interlocutors identified themselves as Catholic, and argued that, since the canonization process involves consultation with historians, it wasn’t possible — or at least likely — that such horrors could rightly be ascribed to Father Serra.
Because Father Serra has become a contested property in the culture wars, and thus been declared either flawless or irredeemable for reasons that have more to do with current events than colonial history, I thought the issue they raised was worth addressing.
As Pope Francis wrote in 2018, saints are not generally thought to have lived perfect lives. “Yet,” he wrote, “even amid their faults and failings they kept moving forward and proved pleasing to the Lord.” People are canonized, in other words, not for what is widely agreed to be good in a liberal democracy, but for a kind of goodness less evident to the modern eye. (“A fornicator I always was, but a heretic I never was,” went the legendary last words of the promiscuous Dutch priest Andreas Wouters; that and a Calvinist’s noose made him a saint.)
Father Serra’s story is thornier.
Beginning in 1749, Father Serra served the Roman Catholic Church and Spain as a gifted evangelist and capable administrator of a Franciscan seminary in Mexico City and, later, of the missions he led throughout California. For clergy members like Father Serra, the missions were places to save the souls of Native Americans and educate them in what the Spaniards believed was a more civilized way of life.
The Spanish colonists “wanted to change the culture from hunter-gatherers to agricultural cultivators, and that was going to mean a huge transformation in the way Native Americans in Southern California lived their lives,” James Sandos, a historian of California at the University of Redlands, told me.