At 4 p.m. ET today, during his first visit to the United States, Pope Francis will make Junípero Serra—a Spanish Franciscan friar who served as a missionary for the Catholic church—a saint. Between 1769 and 1782, Serra founded nine of the eventual 21 missions that dot the coast of California. But some Native Americans are urging the pope not to commemorate the work of the man whose mission system forcibly converted 81,000 Natives to Christianity two centuries ago.
Historians reportedly say that 60,000 indigenous Californians died in those missions, and the violence and disease the church brought with it caused the local Native population to dwindle from more than 300,000 to just 30,000 over the course of a century.
“I believe that Junípero Serra actually created and brought genocide to the California Indian people,” Corrina Gould, co-founder of Indian People Organizing for Change and an Ohlone tribal member, told The Huffington Post. “In less than 100 years, our way of life, our language, our foods—everything—was destroyed.”
Susan Shown Harjo, who is president of Native American advocacy organization Morning Star Institute and has Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee heritage, wrote an open letter to Pope Francis— published via Indian Country Today Media Network—that sums up the pushback against Serra’s sainthood. In it, she said:
Father Serra embodied the Catholic Church’s institutional disrespect for Native Peoples’ religions, sovereignty, families, languages, laws, treaties, boundaries, ways and lives, and should not be elevated to sainthood for his actions. …
Father Serra’s canonization is a symbol that reverberates through time as anti-Indian. Pope Francis recently asked Native Peoples in Bolivia for forgiveness, “not only for the offenses of the Church herself, but also for the crimes committed against the Native Peoples during the so-called conquest of America.” It is incomprehensible that the Pope could apologize for such crimes, yet confer sainthood on a leading perpetrator of those very crimes.
Earlier this month, church leaders in California announced that they will work with local Native Americans to update church curriculum and museum programs regarding the mission system to accurately reflect the impact the system had on the indigenous people. There is also a movement underway in the California state legislature to replace a statue of Serra that is currently on display at the U.S. Capitol. The senate has already voted to remove it, but the other chamber is waiting to vote until after the pope concludes his visit. Meanwhile, the governor has repeated said that the statue will not be removed.