US & World

Savior or villain? The complicated story of Pope Francis' next American saint

A stained-glass window depicting Father Junipero Serra in the Basilica Parish in Mission Dolores.
A stained-glass window depicting Father Junipero Serra in the Basilica Parish in Mission Dolores.
/Talia Herman for NPR

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When Pope Francis travels to the U.S. later this month, he'll give 18th-century Spanish priest Junipero Serra the Catholic Church's highest honor: sainthood. But for many Native Americans in California, sainthood for Father Serra isn't a slam dunk.

In the late 1700s, Serra helped Spain colonize California by converting tens of thousands of Native Americans to Catholicism. For many of their descendants, he's the man responsible for destroying their ancestors' traditional way of life.

Serra arrived in San Diego in 1769, charged by the Catholic Church with "Christianizing" and "hispanicizing" the native population on behalf of the Spanish crown. He did that within the mission system: self-contained residential complexes where Indians would live, work and worship under the authority of Spanish priests and soldiers. Serra founded nine missions along the coast of California before his death in 1784. Twelve more were erected after his death.

Locals ended up in the missions for a number of reasons. Many came looking for food; the Spanish colonizers brought with them nonnative animals that ate plants and berries crucial to the ecosystem that Native Americans depended on, leaving starvation in their wake. The priests were known to lure people into the mission with gifts. Young men from neighboring areas were also rounded up by Spanish soldiers for agricultural and construction work. However people arrived, they were invariably forced to stay in the missions and adopt Spanish ways of life, stripped of their tribal languages and cultural identities and gradually known as "Mission Indians."

"People were enslaved in the missions," says Vincent Medina, 28, assistant museum director at San Francisco's famed Mission Dolores. "They were whipped if they spoke their language. If they tried to escape, they were forcibly brought back, flogged and punished, and kept in stocks. People were getting diseases. They were horrible places to be."

When Medina leads tours of Mission Dolores, he points out the ceiling of the old adobe church on the mission grounds that was erected in 1791 and is still in use. Two rows of pews line the narrow space, and the wall behind where the priest resides at worship bears figurines of saints and lots of gold flare in over-the-top Baroque grandeur. But the ceiling looks totally different, painted geometrically in red, yellow and gray in what Medina says is a traditional basket-weave pattern. "It shows how my ancestors factored their culture into this building that they were essentially forced to make," he says.

Medina is a descendant of Mission Indians from Mission San Jose in Fremont, as is his boss, Andrew Galvan, museum director at Mission Dolores. They're distant cousins who didn't know one another until six years ago when their work around Mission Indian cultural restoration brought them together. They're the only descendants of Mission Indians hired by the Catholic Church in this capacity at any of California's 21 missions.

Galvan and Medina were both raised knowing they were Mission Indians from the Ohlone tribe of the northern and central California coast. Spanish priests kept records of marriages, burials and baptisms at the missions, and the pair recently discovered that they share ancestors at Mission Dolores, too: a married couple named Jocbocme and Poylemja.

"There's a certain something about knowing you belong," says Galvan. "I know my great-great-great-grandfather was buried at Mission San Jose, but now I know that his parents, their bones, are right here in this cemetery, so I belong here." More than 5,000 Indians are buried at Mission Dolores in unmarked graves, something Galvan wants rectified so other descendants of Mission Indians can know where they "belong."

Galvan has been the museum director here for more than a decade and had a simple wooden grave marker placed in the cemetery to acknowledge Jocbocme and Poylemja. He placed a tule house directly across from the grave marker, a hut made of dry reeds like the kind Ohlone families slept in before the arrival of Father Serra and his mission system.

In a way, that tule house facing that wooden grave marker represents the conflicted emotions many descendants of Mission Indians feel toward Father Serra. When they lead tours of Mission Dolores, Galvan and Medina begin at this spot to help visitors understand that their ancestors were most likely forced to live here, but also that because they lived here, Galvan and Medina have a link to their history through the records and burial spot at Mission Dolores.

Medina and Galvan are both practicing Catholics. Despite the way their ancestors were introduced to this religion, both feel it is an inextricable part of who they are today. They say they're just like millions of other Catholics whose history with the church is colored by colonialism. But unlike Medina, Galvan takes it a step further: He has an unwavering belief that Junipero Serra loved the Mission Indians and wanted the best for them, which, at that time, meant accepting the Gospel. He's been fighting for Serra's sainthood for as long as Medina has been alive.

"In my eyes, he's a saint," says Galvan, matter-of-factly. If all goes according to plan, Pope Francis will confer sainthood on Serra in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 23. It's a day Galvan has been waiting for and Medina is dreading.

"To be a saint is the highest you can be in the Catholic Church, for a human being. And I can't support it because lots of the effects of the missions are being felt by Ohlone people even today," says Medina. "He just doesn't deserve that promotion."

He brings up the loss of countless cultural traditions: basket weaving, spiritual ceremonies, and language. Medina spent years trying to relearn his ancestral language, Chochenyo, from old recordings.

Galvan doesn't blame Junipero Serra for those losses. He blames a colonial system that was predicated on the total assimilation of California's Indians to the Spanish way of life. "He is a person of that time — it is not correct to judge him by our standards," says Galvan.

So, how can they work together day in and day out? Galvan says good scholarship means listening to both sides of a point, and he's sure he and Medina agree on more of what happened at a California mission than what they disagree on. They agree that the mission system could be brutal, but that it's also the strongest link to their ancestral past, their history.

Medina wants some of the things that were taken away to be returned. He wants the missions to offer language classes and basketry, and traditional ceremonies to be performed alongside the Catholic faith. He's hoping the spotlight on Father Junipero Serra's sainthood can, at the very least, help make that happen.

"If we can take something that I perceive as being negative, channel that frustration into some good, then ultimately we all win in the end, you know?" says Medina. "Andy gets his saints. I get Indians in the Mission."

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