The Case Against Junípero Serra

Junípero Serra is the subject of statues, tributes and even street names throughout California. But the 18th-century Catholic priest’s legacy is problematic, to say the least.

The bronze statue at the entrance of the basilica at Palma de Mallorca, Spain, depicts Father Junípero Serra brandishing a crucifix as his left hand rests on the shoulder of a naked boy.
The bronze statue at the entrance of the basilica at Palma de Mallorca, Spain, depicts Father Junípero Serra brandishing a crucifix as his left hand rests on the shoulder of a naked boy.

Dear Editors of Alta:

As an occasional contributor to your magazine, and in light of your advertised policy of soliciting advice and commentary from your readers and writers, I thought you should be aware that Father Junípero Serra, listed on your masthead under “Our Inspiration,” has become a figure of some controversy and his inclusion may prove offensive to some readers. Let me explain.

I was in Palma de Mallorca in Spain for a few days in June. As I walked about its ancient narrow streets, paved with millennial flagstones, I came into a plaza and observed a scene that advertised the glory of modern-day Spain. A fountain built in the 15th century constituted the plaza’s center. Two cafes with chairs and tables out front invited one to sit and dawdle.

I watched two Catholic nuns sitting near me smoking and eating ice cream cones. At the next table, three young Muslim women, wearing long dresses and headscarves, laughed and chatted while drinking herbal tea. Behind them, a scantily dressed heterosexual couple, both of whom wore neck chains displaying the Star of David, were passionately making out as an amused male couple looked on, filming with a cellphone. In fact, just about everyone in view was using their cellphones — reading news, chatting, making reservations or posting photos on social media.

Later, in search of food and drink, I made my way along a series of alleys reminiscent of Lampedusa’s Palermo. My destination was the Hotel Sant Francesc, adjacent to the 13th century Gothic Basilica de Sant Francesc. To those unfamiliar with the Catalan and Mallorquin tongues, Sant Francesc refers to Saint Francis of Assisi, the founder in 1209 of the Franciscan religious order and namesake of San Francisco.

A bronze statue, gone green with time and the Mediterranean air, stood upon a tall stone pedestal just to the left of the Basilica’s main entrance. It drew my attention because it depicted a Franciscan priest brandishing a crucifix in his right hand while his left hand rested on the shoulder of a naked young boy. To my perhaps too-jaded eye, it seemed a flagrant embodiment of all the troubles the Catholic church has been traversing this past decade.

It was a statue that probably would not be tolerated for long in the contemporary United States. But there it was. The boy looks to be around 11 years old, and upon further inspection, the priest in question is Father Junípero Serra, born and raised in Mallorca.

Christianity spread throughout Europe and the Mediterranean world thanks to the Edict of Milan, proclaimed by Emperor Constantine I in 313 A.D. Two centuries later, Christians reached Mallorca when the Balearic Islands, dotted with temples honoring Neptune and Minerva, were still under Roman rule. The islands fell under Muslim control from 902 A.D. until 1115. During their reign, and thanks to the relatively progressive Emirate of Cordoba, Mallorca’s economy grew; its cities flourished. By 1230, the islands had become part of Spain. By 1713, when Miquel Jose Serra was born in the Mallorcan village of Petra, Roman Catholicism was firmly established.

Serra’s illiterate parents sent him to study at a local monastery and, showing promise, he was then enrolled in a school in Palma de Mallorca run by Franciscan priests. Shortly before his 17th birthday, he joined the order and took the name Junípero.

It took him seven years of study in Palma de Mallorca before he was ordained, and had he chosen to remain there he would have led a comfortable life as a respected intellectual of the church. It seems that, for a time, he lived within the monastery where the statue stands.

But Serra chose to leave Mallorca. Fired up with the evangelizing spirit, he was granted permission to go to the New World in 1749, when he was already 35 years old. He sailed from Palma to Cadiz and, months later, to Veracruz, Mexico. While other priests aboard his ship chose to continue on to the Mexican capital by horse and carriage, Serra, displaying a masochistic edge, opted to go on foot.

Agents, adventurers, soldiers and religious orders from Spain had colonized vast tracts of the North and South American continents by that time. Their treatment of the indigenous populations, already chronicled and severely criticized by the Dominican Friar Bartolome de las Casas in his “A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies,” written in 1542 and widely read in Spain, left much to be desired.

The natives who did not perish from diseases the Iberians brought with them were subject to relentless exploitation and attempts to convert them to the Holy Roman Catholic faith. Many men were forced into labor. Many women were raped. Genuine relationships also prospered, and the natives who converted and the children spawned from intermarriage became Spanish subjects. Serra, following the tenets of his faith, believed that through his ministrations and preaching, he was saving the local population from the flames of hell.

In 1767, King Carlos III of Spain expelled the Jesuits from the New World. The Franciscans quickly took advantage. Serra became an officer of the Inquisition. He was known as a moderate and achieved notoriety through tactful relations with Spanish military leaders and appointed officials. When word reached Madrid of incursions by Russians on the northwestern coast, a concentrated effort to solidify the Spanish presence began in the territory of Alta California. Driven by patriotism, and perhaps the lure of adventure, Gaspar de Portola led a force of explorers and troops into what was then called Alta California — with Serra in charge of the missionary contingent.

Thus began the final two decades and most noteworthy years of Serra’s life, for it fell to him to supervise the construction of what became nine long-lasting missions, starting in San Diego and finishing in San Francisco. Converting and training California Indians, opposing the more ruthless treatments meted out to them by Spanish soldiers, Serra proved to be a force — a man who never doubted the righteousness of their common cause.

By the time post-World War II California was advertising itself as an Arcadia, successfully drawing hundreds of thousands of new residents from the rest of the nation, a saccharine version of Serra and his missions were part of the pitch. In the same way that native populations are often romanticized, so, too, are perpetrators of religious zeal. The former are perceived to possess primitive nobility; the latter are lauded for a dogged faith. Students were encouraged to admire his absolute chastity, for he began his Franciscan training as an adolescent.

The cross that Serra holds in virtually every statue and painting depicting him is supposed to symbolize his tenacious evangelical spirit, when in fact it represents lengths of splintery wood a man was nailed to. Members of the faith were encouraged to admire Serra’s penchant for self-flagellation, even though his scourge of choice was a chain affixed with bits of barbed iron.

It has only been in recent years, when seen through the lens of identity politics, that Serra’s person and behavior have been severely questioned. Some Hispanics remain pro-Serra. But others, now bearing an understandable grudge for what went down long ago, are angry. Statues of Serra — and there are many in California — have been vandalized. And two statue-related controversies have played out.

A fanciful illustration of Junípero Serra’s funeral in Carmel-by-the-Sea from a 19th century magazine, The Century Illustrated Monthly. Serra died in 1784 and was buried in Carmel.

The National Statuary Hall in the Capitol building in Washington, D.C., contains a collection of life-sized sculptures, two from each state. They depict figures the state has deemed to be iconic. California is represented by Ronald W. Reagan and Father Serra. In 2009, Reagan’s statue replaced that of anti-slavery orator and minister Thomas Starr King. In 2015, the same year in which Serra was given sainthood by Pope Francis, a movement arose in the California legislature to replace the statue of the suddenly controversial priest as well.

The idea that made the most headway was to substitute Serra’s statue with one honoring former astronaut Sally Ride, the engineer and physicist who was born and raised in California and became the first American female astronaut to fly into space. After her death in 2012, her 27-year relationship with another woman came to light. Although Ride would not be the first woman honored in the Statuary Hall, she would be the first openly recognized gay person.

Replacing, or swapping out, a statue from the National Statuary Hall is a complicated process that has only been accomplished six times, all since 2003. It requires the approval of the state legislature and the governor. Although state Sen. Ricardo Lara’s measure passed the California Senate, the process was put on hold in 2015, possibly awaiting the outcome of this November’s gubernatorial election. In 2015, Gov. Jerry Brown said that Serra’s statue would remain in the National Statuary Hall “until the end of time.”

The governor, who once studied to become a priest, said: “Tragedy and good and evil often inhere in the same situation, and that doesn’t mean we won’t have our saints. It’s just that we have to understand that saints, like everybody else, are not perfect.”

In March, the San Francisco Arts Commission voted to remove a statue titled “Early Days” from near city hall. It was part of the Pioneer Monument cluster and depicts a Franciscan monk, reputed to be Serra, standing next to a cocky conquering cowboy while ministering to a Native American sitting forlornly on the ground in front of them. The commissioners decided the statue was offensive and racist.

San Francisco’s Historic Preservation Commission supported the measure as well. But in April, the city’s Board of Appeals voted unanimously to deny the measure, ruling that the Arts and Historic Preservation commissions had acted improperly.

Elected officials representing local minority communities remained determined to get rid of the statue, and it was removed in the pre-dawn hours of September 14.

Some will admire those conquering explorers and religious zealots who were responsible for making large swaths of the world the way they are today — the United States included. But not this correspondent.

In light of the foregoing, I recommend that the Journal of Alta California remove Father Serra from your list of inspirations. Art must lead before politicians will ever act. And if you want a substitute … Viva Sally Ride!

Editor’s note: After consultation among our editors and staff, Alta has decided to accept this recommendation and to drop the name of Junípero Serra from the Our Inspiration section of our masthead.

John J Healey is the author of five novels.
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