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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Pope Francis took one of the most controversial steps of his U.S. visit on Wednesday when he canonized an 18th-century missionary known by admirers as the "Apostle of California" but accused by Native Americans of helping to eradicate their culture.
The man now known as Saint Junipero Serra arrived in what is now San Diego in 1769 and went on to found nine of the 21 missions that grew into modern-day California. He is a household name in the most populous U.S. state, where many streets and buildings bear his name.
A crowd of some 25,000 people including some opponents of the canonization flocked around the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, where Francis said an outdoor Mass where the pope declared Serra a saint. The ceremony also was the first canonization carried out on U.S. soil.
Detractors contend that Serra essentially imprisoned Native Americans in closed communities, where he suppressed their cultures and had them beaten as he tried to indoctrinate them in Roman Catholic ways. Supporters acknowledge that corporal punishment was used but contend that was common practice at the time.
Francis, who was born in Argentina, said on a summer visit to Latin America that "many grave sins" had been committed against Native American people in God's name but insisted on Wednesday that Serra had stood up for the residents of his missions.
"Junipero sought to defend the dignity of the native community, to protect it from those who had mistreated and abused it," the pope said in his homily delivered in Spanish on the steps of the largest Catholic church in North America.
The pope spoke of "mistreatment and wrongs which today still trouble us, especially because of the hurt which they cause in the lives of many people."
But he also seemed to acknowledge some criticisms of Serra, saying, "Mission is never the fruit of a perfectly planned program or a well-organized manual."
The Mass's first reading, from the Biblical book of Isaiah, was read in the Chochenyo language spoken in the region where Serra served as a missionary.
Native American activists decried the move.
"I am totally against the canonization of Serra," said Corrina Gould, co-founder of Indian People Organizing for Change and a member of California’s Chochenyo Ohlone tribe.
"Serra came up here with the intention of wiping out the people, whether he thought he was going to do that through disease or through Christianity, it happened."
Gould said she had little sympathy for the argument that Serra's behavior was explained by his times.
"He did the bidding of the Catholic Church and the Spanish crown and his own ego," Gould said in a phone interview.
"Someone who was a saint would have done something above what he did, would have seen the devastation he created with his missions in Mexico and stopped it."
There was little opposition to Serra's canonization evident in the crowd at the outdoor Mass.
The drive to name Serra a saint began in California in 1934. Pope John Paul II beatified the missionary, the last step before sainthood, in 1988.
Francis sped the process along by waiving church rules that require a second miracle attributed to a beatified person before sainthood can be bestowed.
The missions founded by Serra in California and by priests in many other parts of North America were intended to convert native residents of the continent to the Catholic religion and make them to adopt a way of life based on Western European norms.
"The attempt to canonize, to many Indians, whether they are California Indians or live elsewhere, seems in their eyes to be a statement of approval for all of Serra's behaviors and policies involving the California Indians," said Steven Hackel, a professor of history at the University of California at Riverside and author of "Junipero Serra: California’s Founding Father."
"It's incorrect to interpret this canonization as a beatification or a statement of approval for all of Serra's policies in the California missions. What is happening here is the pope is trying to say Junipero Serra was a Spanish immigrant who came to California and made an important contribution."
Reporting by Scott Malone; Editing by Lisa Shumaker