Pope Francis Courts Controversy Over Junipero Serra Sainthood

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A statue of Father Junipero Serra outside the San Gabriel Mission. (George Lavender/KQED)

When Norma Flores first heard about Pope Francis’ plans to canonize Father Junipero Serra, she cut her hair. Standing outside San Gabriel Mission in Los Angeles, she explains it’s a sign of mourning. Flores is outraged that the person she sees as responsible for the destruction of indigenous culture in California is being made a saint.

Outside San Gabriel Mission is a bronze statue of Serra himself. He holds a staff in one hand and a crucifix in the other. San Gabriel is among the nine first missions founded during Serra’s time as father-president.

Flores works with the Kizh Nation/Gabrieleño Band of Mission Indians, and authored a petition, which currently has more than 10,000 signatures, opposing the pope’s plans to canonize Serra in Washington, D.C., this week. In recent months, indigenous people have also protested outside San Francisco’s Mission Dolores, Mission Carmel and Mission San Juan Bautista.

The Pope’s decision to canonize Serra took some by surprise, as the church has validated only one miracle attributed to him after his death: a St Louis nun who claimed she was cured of lupus after praying to him in 1960. Normally, people need two miracles confirmed before they can be canonized.

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Andrew Salas, chair of the Kizh Nation, says the canonization is “a slap in the face of us natives.” He says he grew up hearing stories about the way in which Catholicism was imposed on his ancestors, “the brutal beatings, rape, slavery, genocide.” For Salas, Serra “does not deserve to be a saint."

Pope Francis plans to canonize Junipero Serra in Washington, D.C. next week.
Pope Francis plans to canonize Junipero Serra in Washington, D.C., this week. (TIZIANA FABI/AFP/Getty Images)

But the Rev. Tony Diaz says that there’s “a tremendous misconception” that, when someone is canonized, it means they are perfect.

“That’s a distortion,” he says. “That perfection does not exist. It exists only in the humanity of the men and women who are recognized. That humanity is always tainted by imperfections, by sin.”

As a missionary himself, Diaz says he is inspired by Serra’s “heroic life.” He says it is possible to celebrate the man the pope has called “the Evangelizer of the West,” while still acknowledging the “mistakes” that were made.

San Gabriel has a particular place in Los Angeles history. Around this time each year, a crowd of people gathers outside the mission’s sandy-colored walls to re-enact the journey made by the Pobladores, the families who left this mission 234 years ago to found the city of Los Angeles. Some wear green and red sashes to show they trace their ancestry back to those first settlers.

Joining them this year was Los Angeles County Supervisor Michael Antonovich. He says he plans to travel to Washington, D.C., for the canonization of Serra, a man he says should be recognized because he “brought the good news to the Indians, the Native Americans, and his life was one of spreading the Gospel, as our life should be.”

For others, though, Serra’s sainthood does raise mixed feelings. John Macias, a history instructor at Chaffey College and member of the San Gabriel Mission’s museum board, says he “sees it from two viewpoints.”

He was baptized in the church and says that as a lifelong parishioner, “having someone who is part of this area” is significant to him. But on the other hand, he says, “we have to recognize the plight of the indigenous.”

Earlier this summer, the pope apologized for the church’s role in what he called “the grave sins” committed against native people. Flores says that apology is meaningless if he goes ahead and makes Serra a saint.

"Junipero Serra is being canonized for being an evangelist of the native peoples in California,” she says. "Why do we not have an active say in this?”