In meditating on the sins of our fathers, whether regarding slavery or genocide of indigenous Americans, the case of friar Junipero Serra and the abusive mission system he founded stands out.

“Junipero Serra Cenotaph, San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo Mission (founded by Father Junipero Serra, 1770; restored 1884). Carmel by the Sea, CA.” Photo by Keith Ewing on Flickr

The coastal Indian numbers were estimated at 300,000 when the Spanish arrived in 1769; 120 years later they were 16,624. Is that not genocide?  While some of that happened after the gold rush in 1849, it began with the mission system that Serra founded. 

The missions, like the monasteries of the late middle ages (which St Francis had reacted against in starting his order), became vast properties where tens of thousands of head of cattle, sheep, and goats made the friars rich beyond measure. 

In August, 1833 the Mexican government secularized the missions and all their lands, making them the property of the Mexican government and stripping the Franciscans of their authority over them, though allowing the chapels to continue as places for Mass. 

At San Gabriel the leading friar “flew into a rage” and ordered the destruction of all the buildings and livestock with the result that tens of thousands of carcasses of cattle, sheep and goats littered the field.  He tried to destroy the vineyards as well, but Indians assigned to do it refused.

Indigenous people flee Franciscan friars in this anonymous image from “The Canonization of Junipero Serra” by Vision Maker Media

Survivors of the missions were interviewed in the late nineteenth century and “all agreed that the friars and mission life was cruel and oppressive.”  On July 21, 1797, a group of Indians who escaped were interviewed by the military commander who captured them on why they escaped. 

Here are some of their testimonies as recorded by the commander:

         — After his wife and daughter died, on five separate occasions Father Danti ordered him whipped because he was crying.  For these reasons he fled.

         — He fled because his wife and one child had died, no other reason than that.

         — His motive for fleeing was that his brother had died on the other shore, and when he cried for him at the mission they whipped him.

         — He left because his mother, two brothers and three nephews died all of hunger.  So that he would not also die of hunger, he fled.

Indigenous activists ceremonially bring down the statue of Junipero Serra in Los Angeles. Uploaded to YouTube by L.A. Taco

Friar Antonio de la Conception Horra who was assigned to head Mission Sanguel in 1798 was shocked and wrote the Viceroy of Mexico:

The manner in which the Indians are treated is by far more cruel than anything I have ever read about.  For any reason however insignificant it may be, they are severely and cruelly whipped, placed in shackles, or put in stocks for days on end without receiving even a drop of water.

Another Friar in 1797 reported to the governor that Indians fled the Mission San Francisco “due to the terrible suffering they experienced from punishments and work.” An investigating presidio commander wrote: “Generally the treatment given the Indians is very harsh.  At San Francisco, it even reached the point of cruelty.”

See: Elias Castillo, A Cross of Thorns: The Enslavement of California’s Indians by the Spanish Missions, pp. 200, 151-153, 141f.

See also: See Matthew Fox, Sins of the Spirit, Blessings of the Flesh: Transforming Evil in Soul and Society, pp. 203-209.   

Matthew Fox, A Way To God: Thomas Merton’s Creation Spirituality Journey, pp. 193-200.

Banner Image: Mission Santa Barbara is a Spanish Franciscan mission near present day Santa Barbara, California, founded in 1786 by Junipero Serra to evangelize the local Chumash (Canaliño) tribe. Photo by Ken Lund on Flickr.

Do you agree that it is time to take Serra’s statute out of the halls of congress?  And remove it from parks and public places?  And rename highways and schools named after him in the state of California?

A Way to God: Thomas Merton’s Creation Spirituality Journey

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5 thoughts on “Serra’s Story, continued”

  1. Avatar

    I can’t help but view the horrific stories of our past in the light of the ‘perpetrators’ believing their thoughts/dogmas: about the Natives in the case of recent posts. For me, the light of this ‘understanding’ supports an inner peace that may, in the spirit of forgiveness, propel us to come together now, as best we can, to make things right where we are able and move forward together in peace. Perhaps this begins within all of us as we do the ‘making things right’ in ourselves and among those we live and work with. Does the past show us our present and potential future?

  2. Avatar

    Every day I ask myself what is wrong with the human race? Cruelty. Yesterday in the news we were reminded of the slaughter of thousands of Muslims in Bosnia. Germany and the Jews.
    Slaughter of the American Indians.
    On and on even today in the manner in which we treat blacks and colored in this country.
    I am heart-broken.

  3. Avatar

    Thank you for continuing to reveal the dark shadows of our collective past, even though we are not all Roman Catholics. Our ancestors stood by and allowed Serra’s sadistic behavior. I believe we are in a time when there is such great possibility for real change–this time of political and social upheaval with the current administration and the pandemic is bringing out the very best–and also the very worst, as Fromm warns us. May we all pray and work for positive change.

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