Last month, Pope Francis made the historic decision to canonize Junipero Serra, a local historical figure, sparking controversy within the Roman Catholic Church community.
In 1769, Father Serra established his first mission in what would become the United States. The iconic Spanish missionary would go on to establish eight more missions throughout California.
Serra is largely credited for being the first European to bring Christianity to the American West Coast, and, because of this contribution, a movement began to push for his sainthood. However, significant controversy surrounds his recent canonization.
Katie Sullivan, a teacher at the San Carlos Cathedral in Monterey, opines, “The controversy centers around the treatment of the natives during the time of the mission system.”
Sullivan believes that “Pope Francis would not canonize someone who was not worthy of being a role model of the Catholic Faith…. [Serra] protected many of the natives from a far worse and more dangerous life.” She observes Serra’s locking native women and girls inside the mission at night to protect them from drunken and wild soldiers.
Many Catholics have a very different view on Serra’s past, and Catholics up and down the Mission-speckled California coast wrestle with Serra’s methods. Francis Schlesinger, a life-long Catholic from the Corpus Christi parish of San Diego, cites reasons for opposition to Serra’s canonization.
“[Many] believe that Father Serra was guilty of genocide since he caused the local indigenous tribes of California to leave their camps and culture to live in the missions he founded.”
Some oppose his canonization so strongly that they recently vandalized the Carmel Mission, formally known as Mission San Carlos Borroméo del río Carmelo.
On Sept. 27, the vandals damaged a fountain, dented the main gate and broke asunder the main statue of Junipero Serra.
Gus Valdez, an employee of Monterey Private Security, described the damage: “It’s awful when someone protests a decision by damaging historical treasures,” he reflected with regret.
Valdez also outlined the stepped-up security plan for the Mission.
“Now we’ll increase security to 24 hours a day for a whole month, and we’re upgrading our motion lights,” he said, gesturing to a gentleman on a ladder replacing a light fixture in the eves of the museum building.
Visitors walking among the mission’s shady grounds today would detect no trace of the recent damage. Even Junipero Serra’s statue is whole again.
“The statue is put back together with a pin. You would never know what happened,” Valdez reflects with relief.
Similarly, perhaps the peninsula’s Catholic community can unite and heal.