Renounce Father Serra

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?


Image courtesy of Brandon (CC BY-SA 2.0)

12 thoughts on “Renounce Father Serra”

  1. I suggest that the mission establish a museum section about the true historical Father Junipero Serra (I refuse to call him “Saint”). Put his statue inside with the exhibit and give honest portrayal of who he was, why the missions were set up in the first place and how. Honest portrayals of history will give missions a boost. Especially if you include local information regarding the local indigenous tribes.

  2. Bil: I am with you 100% on this. I grew up in California where he was one of the heroes in the state history we were taught. Later I learned that some members of the local tribes had committed suicide rather than continuing to live in the mission system. Truth needs to be told.

    • Thanks, Darryl. The OC Diocese response to my blog was to ask for my resignation after 29 years at the Mission. They haven’t canceled our lifetime membership yet nor returned all my money…yet. I think the RCs approach is – truth does not and can not be told.
      Hi to Jackie.

  3. I agree with Susan. When we hides history we only encourage others to do the same. Look how we hid our history about the way the Europeans treated our native Americans, stealing their gold and desecrating their homes and killing and raping the women…among other worse things.

    The Trail of Tears was an even worse way they were treated.

    And look at our history of hanging black men and sometimes even worse. I have read if they couldn’t find the man they would hang the wife and children.

    History needs to be written truthfully for it to teach us anything.

    Even today, our police need to be held responsible for those they kill and maim.

    Just look at the terrible way the Catholic Church handled the pedophilia problem.

  4. I agree with all of the comments. I think maybe do not take down statues but put up plaques telling the truth of these people and make the places prayerful places where we can ask forgiveness of all the peoples who have been harmed by others. Especially those harmed in the name of religion, progress, or just plain old hate.

    • Thanks Betty. The Roman Catholic Diocese solution was to ask for my resignation making sure that school children and visitors don’t get to know about the real Serra.
      But that’s life. That is their modus operandum.

  5. Thank you for this post!

    I grew up in California and never realized the harm brought on by colonization and Catholicism until adulthood. I am happy to hear the truth!

    • I’m sorry Jane for the delay in replying. I had technical problems which were just resolved yesterday. Fr. Serra did great damage to the indigenous people and the church continues to inflict damage on groups. I’m thoroughly convince there would be no big issues with abortion, the LGBTQUI+ community am\nd immigration, if the church weren’t around. They are the folks that keep feeding a non-existent fire. Jesus preached unconditional love with no exceptions. The church keep thinking it is the know all agency in the world to give the final verdict. Smart people know the church is full of fallible human being and there is no such thing as infallible. The institutional is gong thru a Reformation and most won’t accept that so keep doing the same antiquated thing over and over. That’s why about 4,000 churches a year are going out of business. They refuse to adapt. As a priest in the church, I find it not worth my time to be involved. PeaceLoveJoyHopeKindness

  6. It’s all a lot of bullshit..leave the past the past and look ahead instead of behind all the time…just give it a rest folks

    • Thanks Mike for reading my blog and replying. The cruelty of what the institutional church has done to indigenous people all around the earth, and not be ignored. The bullshit will keep happening if we don’t call out man’s cruelty to our fellow human beings. That is why I’m a Marine Corps veteran: I was willing to lay down my life to stop the bullshit. Peace Love Joy Hope Kindness bill


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