Serra’s legacy complicated by practices, conflicts of his time

Father Ken Laverone, vice postulator for the sainthood cause of Blessed Junipero Serra, is pictured at St. Francis of Assisi Church in Sacramento, where he is pastor. (CNS/Nancy Wiechec)

Father Ken Laverone, vice postulator for the sainthood cause of Blessed Junipero Serra, is pictured at St. Francis of Assisi Church in Sacramento, where he is pastor. (CNS/Nancy Wiechec)

By Nancy Wiechec and Patricia Zapor
Catholic News Service

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CNS) — People with ties to the California mission system see the canonization of its founder as a moment for reflection and reconciliation with native people.

“The canonization of (Blessed Junipero) Serra has really encouraged us, as well as the diocesan bishops, to seriously look at the place of the California mission Indians and our history and heritage,” said Franciscan Father Ken Laverone, co-postulator in Blessed Serra’s cause. He’s a California-born descendant of Spanish colonizers.

“It’s getting us to look at our relationships with the Native Americans and to reopen the doors of our mission in a greater sense.”

The mission system, Spanish colonial rule and the settlers who came later had profound and lasting effects on native life across the region. Blessed Serra was a highly visible figure inextricably linked to societal changes that led to a 90 percent decrease in the native Indian population in California, even though those effects didn’t fully play out until well after his death in 1784.

Before Spanish colonization, Indians in California numbered more than 300,000. By 1860 there were just 30,000, a consequence of diseases that had been unknown there before Europeans arrived, assimilation, the influx of gold miners and other factors.

Mission Indians were very near extinction by the early 1900s, according to California Lutheran University sociologist Jonathan Cordero, a California Indian who traces his family back to the missions. Cordero’s research has focused on Indian social structures within the missions.

He said mission priests baptized about 80,000 Indians. By 1834, 60,000 had died. By 1900, the number of Indians who had been associated with missions was down to about 800 people, or 1 percent of the number before colonization. Cordero said it would be difficult to pinpoint the number of descendants of mission Indians today.

“Who’s left? We don’t really know. No one’s done a census,” he said.

Spanish explorers were the first Europeans known to reach what they called Alta California. Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, on a quest for the legendary Northwest Passage, sailed along the coast from Mexico into San Diego Bay in 1542 and then to San Francisco Bay later the same year.

Spain did little to sustain its claim to the region until the late 18th century, when British, French and Russians were colonizing in the North Pacific.

“In 1765 Visitor General Jose de Galvez arrived in Mexico, and three years later with Viceroy Carlos Francisco de Croix, submitted a plan for the colonization of California,” said a 1978 article in the San Diego Historical Society Quarterly by Robert Heizer, an archaeologist who studied Native American people of the Southwestern U.S. “This in turn was presented to (Blessed) Serra, president of the declining Franciscan missions of Baja California which recently been taken over from the expelled Jesuit order.”

Relatively quickly, Heizer wrote, military expeditions from Mexico, which included Blessed Serra and other Franciscans, left for Alta California. By July 16, 1769, they had founded the first of the California missions, at San Diego.

The missions had a twofold objective, to bring Christianity to the native people and to assimilate them into Spanish culture as citizens of New Spain. The Spanish erected presidios (walled forts) in San Diego, Santa Barbara, Monterey and San Francisco to protect their interests

Although the number of coastal Indian Catholics today are few, Father Laverone said the faith Serra and his friars instilled is still being lived out in the missions, 19 of which are active churches.

“Lives have been changed in these missions, lives have been healed in these missions, lives have been hurt in these missions. … But faith is alive in these places.”

Andrew Galvan, a descendant of mission Indians and curator of Old Mission Dolores in San Francisco, agrees, but said more needs to be done to invite Indians back to the missions and include their voices in mission affairs.

“This is the opportunity for the Roman Catholic Church in the United States of America and the state of California … to reach out to Serra’s Indians and to bring them into the missions, to open the doors wide, to sing that song that we sing everywhere — all are welcome.”

He said he would like to stand on the steps of Mission Dolores, “open the doors and ring the bells like Junipero Serra … and cry out, ‘Love God, my children. Love God. Amor a Dios!”

The difficulty he said is that native people today are saying, “We’re not welcome. We don’t like what we see. We’re uncomfortable.”

Critics charge that the missions were places of forced labor, that Indians were whipped and shackled, and that baptisms and confirmations were coerced.

University of California at Riverside history professor Steven Hackel, who has written a biography of Blessed Serra, told Catholic News Service that the friar was very much a product of his times.

“In his world almost certainly a good father would have punished him with spankings or with blows if he got out of line,” Hackel said. “A good husband punished a wayward spouse. …That was the way in which he believed he should behave with Indians in the missions. The missionaries believe they are the spiritual fathers of Indians, so they take on the responsibility for punishment, with corporal punishment, with blows and various types of beatings.”

One problem was “this was entirely alien to California Indians,” Hackel explained. “It’s not how they lived. It isn’t something they fully understood. So that creates tension in the missions.”

There also was tension between the friars and the soldiers, who believed it was up to them, and only them, Hackel said, to “correct Indians with blows. … But Serra believed he was an apostolic missionary and he and his other Franciscans were somehow exempt from this kind of military oversight.”

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