I have been a docent at the Mission San Juan Capistrano in California since 1991. I conduct walking tours for fourth graders studying Californian history and adults who want to see this well-preserved historic landmark, which was built in 1776. I also give special tours explaining the mission’s collection of religious art.
The founder of this mission was Father Junípero Serra (1713–1784), a Roman Catholic Franciscan priest originally from Majorca, Spain. In 1749, he went to Mexico City to teach in a university and later was selected to develop Spanish missions throughout the area then known as Alta California. Serra is famous, or notorious (depending on your point of view), for his contributions. He died and was buried in Carmel, California, in 1784.
I became aware of Father Serra’s legacy when I took classes to become a docent. His reputation was not good. The Spanish Governor of the Californias, Gaspar de Portolá, did not want Serra to accompany the missionary expedition. He was well into his fifties, had a crippled leg, and his religiosity demanded that he walk instead of ride, thus often requiring the Spanish army to move at Serra’s snail pace. He was a barnacle on the keel of progress.
Father Serra is accused of physically, emotionally, and verbally abusing the local indigenous tribes, who had lived in Alta California for over ten thousand years. He called them savages, destroyed their villages, spread deadly Spanish diseases, and used them as slave labor to build his missions. He did not respect local customs and culture but instead jammed Catholicism down their throat. The punishments for breaking his rules were severe. For this, he was declared a saint in 2015. “Ugh!” was my response.
Because of Serra’s past deeds, he’s currently under attack—and rightfully so. How should the missions of California respond? Here are my thoughts:
- Take down and warehouse all the statutes and portraits of Serra—for now.
- Develop a historically accurate portrait of the real Serra. Today’s citizens demand and deserve the truth about history, police departments, politics, Wall Street, and the church. No more cover-ups.
- A public admission of bad behavior in the past will assure people that the missions know the difference between right and wrong.
- Our institutions must promise that past mistakes are being corrected. (The Catholic church’s handling of the pedophilia scandal has been horrendous.)
- Don’t make me and other docents cover up for Serra.
- I suspect Serra won’t be uncanonized, but in the future, the church needs to vet potential saints more carefully.
I am proud of my well-preserved mission, but the cultural climate in our country today demands that we tell the truth, expose abuse, and stop honoring people whose behavior was oppressive.
I want to honor this positive trend in our nation as well as serve the Mission San Juan Capistrano. I love sharing its fascinating story, Father Serra and all. I hope I can continue doing that for years to come.
What do you think we should do with Father Serra?