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The contested sainthood of Junípero Serra

Naotake Murayama

It’s not every day that a local person becomes a saint, but on September 23rd, more than two hundred years after he died, Junípero Serra will be canonized by Pope Francis. Serra was an 18th century Franciscan priest whose name can be seen on roads, schools and landmarks all over California. He’s a huge figure in the state, but some people believe Serra is far from being a saint.

This past year, Native American activists in various parts of California have held protests against the Pope’s plans to canonize Junípero Serra.

“If he was a saint, he wouldn’t have brought all of this devastation and  genocide to all of these people,” says Corrina Gould.

Gould is a member of Indian People Organizing for Change. She’s talking about the effects of the mission system, a key part of the Spanish colonization of California. Missions were constructed to spread the word of Christianity. 21 of them stretch from San Diego up the coast to San Francisco, and Junípero Serra was the driving force behind their founding and expansion.  

“Many people in the Bay Area learn about these mission systems, that they were these great things that came and helped the native people. They never talk about the truth of what happened,” says Gould.

That truth includes some uncomfortable facts. After the Spanish arrived in the late 1500s, the native population declined, and fast. Prior to colonization, California had an estimated 300,000 American Indians but by the year 1900 there were only about 15,000. Much of this was due to disease brought by the Spanish, but life on the missions was also brutal.

“You had to live by their rules -- so you didn’t get to speak your own languages anymore, or sing songs, or do any of the things that you would regularly do. And then, you had to go by these bells. For us here in Oakland we are by a church that plays bells at different times of the day. Those bells remind me of my ancestors,” Gould says, referring to the strict schedules that Native Americans in the missions had to follow.

Native Americans that did submit to Catholicism were baptized, and by law they were under the authority of the Franciscans. Some of the mission documents show they were whipped, beaten, shackled, and hunted down if they ran away.

The Vatican is aware of this controversial history. At a town hall speech in Bolivia this past July, Pope Francis apologized for what he called, “the sins of the Catholic church”.

“I humbly ask forgiveness,” said the Pope, “not only for the offense of the church herself, but also for crimes committed against the native peoples during the so-called conquest of America.”

Still, proponents of Serra’s sainthood say the injustices of the mission system should be seen in a historical context. They argue that Serra was a product of his time. Serra’s own papers include the words: “spiritual fathers should punish their sons, the Indians, with blows…” But it’s also documented that Serra strongly voiced his opinions about military expeditions against Native Americans and he resisted climbing any academic ladders, preferring to spend his time with the people he believed needed the Catholic church.  

This notion that Native Americans were needing foreign help makes people like Ruth Orta start to boil.

“I’m going to call this my land because it is. I never left, I’m still here!” says Orta, who’s a volunteer at the Coyote Hills State Park in the East Bay. It’s a place with a lot of historical relevance -- it used to be an Ohlone village site.  


Orta is short, walks fast, and wears a gold cross around her neck. She’s Catholic, and she’s Native American.

“I’m Ohlone, because that entails the whole San Francisco Bay Area, so that’s what I am,” she says.

Orta says that being 81 means she can speak her mind and not care about what you think, so even though she’s Catholic, she has no problems opposing the canonization of Junípero Serra.

“What the man Junípero Serra allowed to happen -- even though there is books saying that he was nice and good with the natives and all that -- well if he was, he should have stood behind them and talked for that goodness that he was supposed to be doing,” Orta says.

Orta says she doesn’t feel torn about being Catholic and Native American.

“I know what I believe and what I think. I’m not torn about decisions.”

Orta tells me she’s looking forward to her Sunday in church. When I ask her how she’s going to feel when she’s asked to pray to Junípero Serra, she has a simple solution.

“Just turn it off, just turn it off,” she says. “God knows what I feel, so he’ll know. I have no qualms with that. I have faith that when I die, I am going to go to my creator.”


For others it’s not that simple. Some have faith that Junípero Serra is worthy of sainthood and some don’t, but one thing is for certain: the canonization has brought to light the complicated and contested nature of our state history.

This story originally aired in September of 2015.


Leila Day is a Senior Producer at Pineapple Street Media and is the Executive Producer and co-host of The Stoop Podcast, stories about the black diaspora. Her work has been featured on NPR, 99% Invisible, the BBC as well as other outlets. Before The Stoop, she was an editor at Al Jazeera's podcast network and worked on creating and editing award winning narrative driven journalism. She began her career in journalism at KALW where she worked as a health care and criminal justice reporter. During that time she contributed as an editor, taught audio storytelling to inmates at San Quentin, and helped develop curriculum for training upcoming reporters.