California’s Saint, and a Church’s Sins

18 Aug

On his trip to the United States next month, Pope Francis is going to canonize the Rev. Junipero Serra, the great Spanish missionary of 18th-century California. As fourth graders from Chico to Chula Vista have been taught for generations, Father Serra founded the first of the 21 Catholic missions that stretch along the coast like rosary beads. He laid the foundation of California as we know it: the tile-and-adobe wonderland of vineyards, citrus, olives, wheat and cattle.

That story has a dark side, as even the most sympathetic Serra biographers admit. Father Serra had soldiers with him. The civil and religious conquest of Alta California was accompanied by brutality, coercion and vast death. As the missions grew, California’s native population of Indians began a catastrophic decline.

I do not know who Lawrence Downes is, but his op-ed in the New York Times (which begins above) highlights the tension I feel as a historian of California and a Christian as the canonization of Fr. Juniero Serra draws near. (The best historical analysis I’ve read about the Franciscan mission effort in California is James Sandos’ Converting California.) For the entire Downes op-ed, see here: California’s Saint, and a Church’s Sins – The New York Times.

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