In Los Angeles and San Francisco over the weekend, protestors tore down two statues of St. Junipero Serra, an 18th-century Franciscan priest and missionary who they accused of contributing to the destruction of Native American culture through his founding of the first nine of California’s mission churches.
Who is Junipero Serra, and why has he become such a lightning rod for controversy?
Born on the island of Petra Mallorca in Spain in 1713, Serra joined the Franciscans and quickly gained prominence as a scholar and professor.
He chose to give up his academic career to become a missionary in the territory of New Spain, in which Spanish colonizers had already been active for over two centuries.
A California archeologist, who has studied the missions for over 25 years, told CNA earlier this year that it is clear from Serra’s own writings that he was motivated by a missionary zeal to bring salvation to the Native people through the Catholic faith, rather than by genocidal, racist, or opportunistic motivations.
“Serra writes excitedly about how he had finally found his life’s calling, and that he would give his life to these people and their salvation,” Dr. Reuben Mendoza, an archeologist and professor at California State University-Monterey Bay, told CNA.
Traveling almost everywhere on foot and practicing various forms of self-mortification, Serra founded mission churches all along the coast— the first nine of the 21 missions in what is today California.
Many of the missions would form the cores of what are today the state’s biggest cities— such as San Diego, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.
In many ways, the missions were a communal venture between the friars and Native leaders, Mendoza said. Soldiers were typically housed in a garrison just off-site from the compound. The compound itself would include work areas, such as a blacksmith’s shop and places for crafts and weaving.
The Europeans taught the Natives new agricultural techniques, as well as instruction in the faith, performing thousands of baptisms.
There were occasional conflicts, both between the Natives and the friars and between the friars and the Spanish soldiers. Although Serra did not explicitly ban the use of corporal punishment, such as beatings, for Native Americans at the missions, Mendoza said, there is little evidence that Serra ever carried it out himself.
Moreover, Serra specifically advocated for the rights of Native peoples, at one point drafting a 33 point “bill of rights” for the Native Americans living in the mission settlements and walking all the way from California to Mexico City to present it to the viceroy.
The territory of New Spain already encompassed all of present day Mexico, as well as a huge chunk of the present-day US, mostly in the West but also Florida, Cuba and even parts of Canada.
The Spanish would go on to construct some 100,000 churches in the New World, but the Catholic missionaries very often did not share the same goals, tactics, and values as the Spanish military.
Serra often took issue with the harsh methods of Don Pedro Fages, a Catalan military officer who had come to the area in 1769 as part of an expeditionary force. Fages was the founding governor of the presidio, or fortress, of Monterey, California.
Mendoza said the worst abuses against the Native Americans in California took place after the age of the missions ended, when the Spanish government ceased sending funding to the 21 sites and to the Spanish military.
The soldiers, without the support of their faraway benefactors, began to prey on the missionaries and the Natives. Many more Natives died during this time than had in the 60 years that the missions were operational.
Mendoza said there was a time during the transition to the American era when indigenous people were more vulnerable to attacks by settlers and white authorities if they were not Christian. The fact that the missions had converted many Native communities to Christianity actually helped them survive later European abuses, he said.
By the 1820s— nearly four decades after Serra’s death— friars at the now mostly destitute missions were writing letters of grievance to the American and Mexican governments, advocating for better treatment for the Natives, Mendoza said.
The California gold rush in the 1840s saw hundreds of thousands of European settlers come to the area, with little to no protections afforded to the Natives.
While the Native peoples did suffer instances of horrific abuse, Mendoza said many people conflate the abuses the Natives suffered long after Serra’s death with the period when Serra was alive and building the missions.
After California became a state in 1850, the state constitution for years deprived indigenous people of any legal protection, meaning a white person could kill one of them with no consequences.
One of the figures associated with well-documented atrocities against Native Americans was Governor Leland Stanford— the namesake of Stanford University— who while he was governor in the late 1800s had a specific militia to hunt down and slaughter Natives.
In light of this, Mendoza said it is especially ironic that there have been several successful efforts in recent years to expunge Serra’s name from campus buildings and landmarks at Stanford, but relatively few calls to rename the university itself.
The missions had a huge effect on modern-day California. Apart from bringing Catholicism to the area in a big way, the missions also brought California its wine industry, which— pre-pandemic, at least— pumped $50 billion into California’s economy and employed some 325,000 people.
Most importantly to Serra, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles today cares for more souls than any other diocese in the country, with nearly 300 parishes, and millions of Catholics.
“Unlike many of us today, Serra was a man on a mission,” Mendoza said.
“He was absolutely determined to engage the salvation of indigenous communities. And while for some that may be seen as an intrusion, for Serra in his time, that was seen as one of the most benevolent things one could do— to give one’s life over to others, and that’s what he did.”