Don’t Slander St. Junípero Serra

California lawmakers sully the good name of a Catholic saint.

By Salvatore J. Cordileone and José H. Gomez

California lawmakers have passed legislation to replace a statue of St. Junípero Serra at the Capitol in Sacramento with a new monument honoring the state’s native peoples. The Serra statue has been in storage since it was torn down by protesters in July 2020. A humble 18th-century Franciscan priest, Serra would surely approve of a new monument honoring the indigenous Californians he spent his life serving. Unfortunately, the legislature has gone further, slandering his name and pushing a false narrative about the mission period in California.

“Enslavement of both adults and children, mutilation, genocide, and assault on women were all part of the mission period initiated and overseen by Father Serra,” declares Assembly Bill 338, which passed both chambers by wide margins and now awaits Gov. Gavin Newsom’s signature. None of that is true. While there is much to criticize from this period, no serious historian has ever made such outrageous claims about Serra or the mission system, the network of 21 communities that Franciscans established along the California coast to evangelize native people. The lawmakers behind the bill drew their ideas from a single tendentious book written by journalist Elias Castillo.

As leaders of the state’s two largest Catholic communities, we serve thousands of native Californians who trace their faith to ancestors who helped build the missions. We understand the bitter history of native exploitation. But history can be complicated and facts matter.

In the definitive history, “Junípero Serra: California, Indians, and the Transformation of a Missionary,” Santa Clara University scholars Robert Senkewicz and Rose Marie Beebe point out deep cultural misunderstandings that resulted in cruelties for some natives living in the missions, but nothing resembling what the legislature claims.
Serra was a complex character, but he defended indigenous people’s humanity, decried the abuse of indigenous women, and argued against imposing the death penalty on natives who had burned down a mission and murdered one of his friends. At age 60, ill and with a chronically sore leg, Serra traveled 2,000 miles to Mexico City to demand that authorities adopt a native bill of rights he had written. As Pope Francis said when he canonized him in 2015, Serra is not only the country’s first Hispanic saint, but should be considered “one of the founding fathers of the United States.”

Mr. Newsom knows California history well enough to see that the claims against Serra aren’t true. In 2019 he apologized for the state’s history of injustice against native people, acknowledging that it was California’s first governor, Peter Burnett, who launched what Burnett called “a war of extermination.”
That was in 1851. Serra died in 1784. The destruction of the state’s native people happened long after he was gone and many of the missions had been taken over by the government.

How we choose to remember the past shapes the people we hope to be in the future. We can think of no better symbol for this multiethnic state committed to human dignity and equality than to place two statues at the California Capitol—one celebrating the living heritage of California’s indigenous peoples, another reflecting the faith and leadership of their defender St. Junípero Serra.

Archbishop Cordileone leads the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of San Francisco. Archbishop Gomez leads the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.