Canonization of Junipero Serra celebrated by local Catholics, condemned by Chumash leader

The visit of Pope Francis to the United States and the canonization of Junipero Serra were celebrated by local Catholics on Wednesday, some of whom made the trip to Washington, D.C.

But the leader of a local Native American group said that Serra’s sainthood dishonors the Native Americans who were treated “like animals” by the church centuries ago.

Francis canonized Junipero Serra on Wednesday during a Mass outside the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, the largest Catholic church in North America.

Serra was a Franciscan friar who marched north from Baja California with conquistadors from his native Spain, establishing nine of the 21 missions in what is now California, including Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa. The pope announced in January that Serra would be canonized.

The decision was polarizing. Serra is revered by Catholics for his missionary work, but many Native Americans in California say he enslaved converts and contributed to the spread of disease that wiped out indigenous populations.

Despite the controversy, the Rev. John Ulrich said Cal Poly and Cuesta College students in the Catholic campus ministry, which has a chapel near the university campus, were sharing comments and excited over social media posts from a classmate who attended the pope’s appearance in Washington.

“I had a room full of students who are very excited about the pope being in the U.S.,” Ulrich said. “Pope Francis is putting a friendly face to (his position as pontiff). He’s showing another side, a more compassionate side.”

Ulrich said a group of local Catholics from the Diocese of Monterey — which includes San Luis Obispo County — accompanied Bishop Richard Garcia to Washington, D.C.

Ulrich called Serra a “visionary, a man of compassion and a man who was in love with the Lord.”

But the reaction from Fred Collins, administrator of the Northern Chumash Tribal Council, was far different.

“Serra was sent here as part of a group of emissaries who treated indigenous people here as if they were animals, people who enjoyed the beauty of simplicity and were caring of mother Earth,” Collins said. “The canonization is horribly insensitive. The wounds need to heal from this treatment.”

Collins said Native Americans were forced to change their diet and their lands were ripped away; today, Native Americans are the “lowest on the rung of all society with high amounts of drug and alcohol abuse.”

“When you look at Father Serra, you have to look at it from the lens of the Native American people,” Collins said.

In his homily, Francis characterized Serra as a kind and open-hearted man who protected Native Americans from colonizers.

“He was excited about blazing trails, going forth to meet many people, learning and valuing their particular customs and ways of life,” Francis said. “Junipero sought to defend the dignity of the native community, to protect it from those who had mistreated and abused it. Mistreatment and wrongs which today still trouble us, especially because of the hurt which they cause in the lives of many people.”

During a visit to South America in July, Francis offered a broad apology for the sins, offenses and crimes committed by the church against indigenous peoples.

Ulrich said Serra protected Native Americans from abuses perpetrated by the Spanish army and that his actions should be viewed in the context of his era.

“How things were done then were different,” Ulrich said. “He wouldn’t be canonized if he weren’t a virtuous person.”

Many Latinos in the U.S. view the canonization of a Spanish-speaking missionary as a badly needed acknowledgment of the Hispanic role in the American church and an affirmation to the 38 percent of U.S. Catholics who are Latino.

The pope’s apology did little to quiet critics who say Serra was carrying out a Vatican policy of treating indigenous people as inferior.

“Serra knew of the oppressive conditions in which Chumash natives built the buildings, grew the food, and made the clothing,” wrote San Luis Obispo resident Joe Morris in a letter to the editor to The Tribune earlier this year. “Here and elsewhere, mission Indians were treated like children, beaten for offenses, and died prematurely from European diseases. True, Serra was acting like a person of his time. But do not saints rise above their times?”