Sunday, September 27, 2015

In the Matter of Junipero Serra (Saint)

Oh fer gawdsake. I mean really. This man has been proclaimed a saint? Why?

For God's Sake, why?

Please understand, I grew up in California, and in 4th Grade California History class the story of Father Serra was told with such a romantic glow that it would be a wonder if he weren't eventually sainted and venerated and made holy, holy, holy by the Pope in Rome. The picture we were given of Father Serra and the California Missions was one of intrepid bravery and steadfastness in the face of untold perils and fear.

I attended 4th Grade at San Jose Elementary School in the San Gabriel Valley about 20 miles east of Los Angeles. Our class visited the San Gabriel Mission on a field trip, and later on a friend and I discovered a mano  and  metate while digging in the schoolyard one day. The archaeologists who came from Cal Poly to assess our finds declared that we had found artifacts remaining from a now long gone Gabrieleno Indian village that had no doubt once been affiliated with the San Gabriel Mission.

One of our class projects was to construct miniature versions of the California Missions. Many of the students made generic missions out of sugar cubes, cardboard and construction paper, but my friend and I chose to make miniature adobe bricks and build a version of the unique and iconic San Gabriel Mission we had recently visited.

Mission San Gabriel via Wikimedia

Well, it was quite a hit. We even had little bells in the belfry, and there were balsa wood doors that opened to reveal a painted interior.

San Gabriel Mission was founded by Father Serra, and it along with the eight or nine others he founded became the centers of mission life in California for the next sixty years or so.

According the the stories we were told, California history began with Father Serra and the Missions. Before that was... nothing, I guess.

Well, there were Indians, of course, but they didn't read or write. They were little more than naked savages foraging and suffering in barbarous ignorance. Until the arrival of the White Men from Spain what could one expect, no?

One thing we added to our mission model were Indian huts made out of sticks and grass. For the missions in their splendor -- and they tended to be rather splendid given the fact that they were built on the wild frontier -- couldn't exist without the labor of the Indians whose souls Father Serra set out to save.

In exchange for their salvation and various trinkets and hoo-hah the Spaniards brought with them, the Indians were required to work for their new -- kindly, we were told -- overlords. So they did.

The Mission system we were told about was a remarkable, indeed an amazing thing. Enormous plantation like ranches were attached to the missions, and each mission was not only expected to be self-sufficient unto its needs, it was expected to produce a surplus to trade and provide for the needs of civilian colonizers who came from Spain and Mexico -- and later from other regions of the world.

Each mission was actually a huge enterprise, and Father Serra was the CEO if you will.

We were told the Indians came to the missions voluntarily, submitting to the authority of the Spanish Crown and the Heavenly Father proclaimed by our hero, Junipero Serra (Saint.)

The bells. They came because of the bells. I heard that story often.

And when the missions were dissolved after Mexico gained independence, the Indians were turned loose to fend for themselves. Tragically, many did not survive.

What we were not told is that by the time the missions were dissolved in the 1830's there were very few Indians left. Many tens of thousands had already died, and very few were born to replace them. We were not told of Father Serra's cruelties toward the Indians -- "Nah, he was always kindly toward them...." We were not told of the shackles and the floggings and the executions, the disease and almost complete social and cultural destruction in the wake of the Spanish and the blessed Franciscan Fathers -- Serra, Lausen and Crespi.

No, we were not told, and I didn't find out for many years. I've been to most of the missions, San Diego and Mission Dolores in San Francisco being exceptions. Most of them have graveyards beside the churches, and many of those graveyards have simple wooden plaques that state that so many thousands of Indians are buried therein. Thousands and thousands of dead Christian Indians... wait. The Mission system was only in operation from the 1760s to the mid 1830s. How could thousands of Indians be buried in each mission graveyard? I found out.

They died primarily of imported diseases: smallpox, measles, cholera, typhus, syphilis and the like. But many were worked to death. Some were executed for rebellion or disrespect of the Glory of God. Some died of despair when their voluntary service at the mission became a life sentence of imprisonment. Some were killed in conflict that could not really be called battles with the soldiers who protected the priests.

Father Serra delighted in every baptized Indian's death for it meant yet another resident of Heaven.

I learned that Father Serra administered some of the punishment to rebellious or recalcitrant Indians himself, wielding whip or club or whatever was at hand to chastise the rebellious savages.

He also mortified his own flesh, so it's not as if the punishment of the Indians was all that much different from what a prideful priest might have to endure. Not all that much different at all.

The California mission system didn't last very long but it wrecked havoc on the California Indian societies it touched, and some were completely wiped out. Others never recovered.

Things only got worse for California Natives when the Anglos took over after the Mexican American War and the discovery of gold in them thar hills. Much worse indeed.

The Anglos didn't even try to mask their genocidal tendencies with clever references to the salvation of souls. They just came, stole, and killed.

I came to understand that Father Serra was not necessarily a kindly missionary to the benighted savages, though he may have been somewhat kinder than the hidalgos and grandees and caballeros who came to California in his wake. Serra was an arrogant Spaniard, primarily a politician intent on expanding and securing the power and territory of his king and country -- and saving a soul or two along the way.

So when I learned earlier this year that Junipero Serra was to be declared a saint by Pope Francis, I was perplexed. What was the Pope thinking? But then he also proclaimed John Paul II a saint, and John XXIII. What could he possibly thinking?

Many have pointed out that there are others much more worthy of sainthood than Serra, so why him?

As I listened to parts of the ceremony of sainthood at the cathedral in Washington, it became somewhat clearer. Serra was seen by the Pope as a heroic Hispanic figure in the Western Hemisphere. Apparently Serra is highly regarded elsewhere in Latin America and has long been considered an example of the best that Spain sent to the New World during the period of discovery and conquest.

His legend is known far and wide.

He was a Franciscan as well.

The Pope apparently had the notion to elevate Serra to sainthood in order to...

Well, I don't rightly know, but it seems that his goals include solidifying the Catholic Church's position among Hispanics in Latin America and the North.  By making Serra a saint, apparently, Hispanics who have felt abandoned by the Church (it's a long story) will be inclined to return...


Meanwhile, the descendants of the survivors of the California Mission period are less than amused by this fairly overt political maneuvering. One even suggested that Cesar Chavez was far more worthy of sainthood than was the founder of the California Missions.

I would agree. The political problem for the Church, though, would have been greater had Pope Francis chosen Chavez for elevation (which he might-could do... later) rather than Father Serra. Even some Hispanics, and certainly nearly all the Anglo ranchers and farmers in California and much of the West, despise Chavez and would no doubt bitch to the Heavens above were the Holy See to confer sainthood on someone who made their lives so miserable by shame and long-suffering and truthtelling.

Serra, on the other hand, is such a romanticized historical and cultural figure, the "Founder of Modern California" and all that, that few besides the Indians would dispute his saintly reward. Few indeed have any idea what the Mission period was really like and how so much of California's deepest culture -- at least in Southern California -- is still rooted in the efforts of Serra, Lausen and Crespi to evangelize and proselytize among the California Indians of the late 18th Century.

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