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article • This Day in Catholic History

The Real Story of St. Junípero Serra

St. Serra cared for both the temporal and eternal well-being of indigenous peoples

In The Real Story of Catholic History: Answering Twenty Centuries of Anti-Catholic Myths, I discuss the reasons why historical myths about the Catholic Church persist in the modern world. Sometimes these myths persist due to simple ignorance. Sometimes they are championed by anti-Catholic bigots. Sometimes they are maintained by those with an animus against religion, generally, and the Church, specifically. Perhaps the most compelling reason for the persistence of anti-Catholic historical narratives was provided by Christ himself who said, “If they persecuted me, they will persecute you” (Jn. 15:20).

Junípero Serra, the saint whom the Church remembers today (July 1) on her liturgical calendar, certainly suffered persecution in his lifetime, and has become an object of scorn due to a false narrative about the Church’s missionary efforts in the New World. Modern critics attack Spanish missionary efforts in California and the Southwest in the eighteenth century, arguing their activities resulted in the genocide and cultural extermination of indigenous peoples. This view is rooted in an anti-Catholic myth that Catholic missionaries mistreated, enslaved, and forcibly converted native peoples in the New World. Today, a hermeneutic of suspicion exists toward any New World Catholic missionary, and their activities are viewed as nefarious programs rooted in intolerant religious zealotry.

A writer for the Los Angeles Times declared Pope Francis’ canonization of St. Serra in 2015 “a profound insult to Native Americans and an injustice to history.” The author ignored the prime motivator for thousands of missionaries throughout Catholic history, including St. Serra: love. Charity compels the Catholic missionary to spread the Gospel throughout the world even at great personal sacrifice and cost. Love of Christ and love of neighbor are clearly found in the life of St. Serra, which makes the current fervor and violence in the United States over his statuary representations mystifying and troublesome.

Permanent Spanish colonization and evangelization efforts in the New World began with the voyages of Columbus in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. In 1565, a settlement at St. Augustine, Florida, was founded, forty-two years before the English settlement at Jamestown, Virginia. Spanish colonial activity was extensive, taking place in areas that are today known as Mexico, Chile, Peru, Columbia, Ecuador, Dominican Republic, the American Southwest, and California. Many of the Spanish conquistadors were committed to the evangelization and fair treatment of the native peoples and chaplains accompanied them to provide for their spiritual needs and to spread the Gospel.

Sadly, many Spanish colonists focused on finding gold, spices, and exploiting the natives. There are plenty of examples of harsh and even sadistic treatment by the Spanish colonists towards Native Americans. In many of these cases, Catholic priests and religious spoke out against the abuses. Bishop Juan de Zumarraga, best known for his role in the appearance of Our Lady of Guadalupe in 1531, fought against the enslavement of the native Aztecs in Mexico, going so far as to excommunicate the colonial authorities who defied him.

Sometimes that protest produced positive results and better treatment of the native peoples, but at other times it resulted in more barbarity, as in the case when one priest dared to criticize a Spanish colonial governor for throwing native children to his dogs. In retaliation for the protest, the governor ordered a child dismembered in the priest’s presence. The indigenous population also suffered greatly through the arrival of non-native diseases, which produced significant and, in places, catastrophic depopulation, which was an unintended consequence of European settlement in the New World.

By the time Junípero Serra arrived in the New World, Spain had a colonial presence for over two hundred and fifty years. St. Serra entered the Franciscan order in 1730 and was eventually appointed a professor at the university of Palma in Spain. Although a gifted teacher, St. Serra felt called to more challenging work and, at the age of thirty-five, volunteered for the New World missions. He reached Veracruz in 1749 and, on the way to Mexico City, was stung by a scorpion. Despite the wound, the holy friar continued his journey on foot. The wound never properly healed and left him with a limp for the rest of his life.

In 1750, St. Serra volunteered for service at the remote Sierra Gorda Indian missions. He spent nine years working peacefully among the Pame Indians, teaching them new farming techniques and livestock tending. He learned the Pame language in order to evangelize the people and also translated the Catechism into their language.

In 1767, St. Serra, along with fifteen Franciscan companions, went to California. While in California, the friar volunteered for an expedition to Upper California, where he was tasked with founding missions along the 600-mile Spanish colonial supply line. He spent the next fifteen years establishing nine of the twenty-one Spanish missions in California, including San Carlos (June 1770), San Antonio (July 1771), San Gabriel (September 1771), San Luis Obispo (September 1772), San Francisco (October 1776), San Juan Capistrano (November 1776), Santa Clara (January 1777), and San Buenaventura (March 1778). He frequently clashed with the Spanish military and civil authorities over the treatment of native peoples and journeyed long distances on foot to plead their cause, even before the viceroy.

St. Serra was concerned with both the material well-being and eternal souls of indigenous peoples. He baptized several thousand individuals and, when granted the faculty to confirm in 1778, he administered the sacrament of confirmation to over five thousand Native Americans. He died on August 28, 1784 at the age of seventy-one after serving thirty-five years in the New World missions. A century after his death, the California legislature declared August 29 a legal state holiday and in 1931 California gave his statue to the National Statuary Hall Collection in the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C.

St. Junípero Serra was an ardent defender of native rights against the abuses of Spanish colonists. He was not a “racist” or harbinger of genocide as decried by the unruly mob who tore down his statue in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco (along with statues of Ulysses S. Grant and Francis Scott Key) last week. Thankfully, another attempted violent removal of a St. Serra statue in Ventura was thwarted by a group of prayerful Catholic defenders.

St. Serra gave his life for the native peoples of California out of love for them, for Christ, and for the Church. It is a travesty that his memory and sanctity are impugned by those who seek to attack the Church. Now is the time for Catholics to know the authentic history of the Church’s missionary activity in the New World and defend it against the false anti-Catholic narratives that are prevalent in the modern world.

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