Newly named Saint Serra a controversial figure in U.S. history

Wed Sep 23, 2015 7:36pm EDT
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By Scott Malone

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."   Continued...

Pope Francis dispenses incense while celebrating Mass at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception for the Canonization Mass for Friar Junipero Serra in Washington. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque