On September 23, at a mass in Washington, DC, Pope Francis is scheduled to canonize Blessed Junípero Serra (1713-84), the Franciscan founder of the Spanish missions in California.

Serra was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1988. Vatican representatives have pointed out that his sainthood will emphasize the diverse contributions to American identity of Hispanics and will recognize our Pacific as well as our Atlantic heritage. This point would seem to be politically significant at a moment when Republican Party leaders of Hispanic origin, like Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, and with Hispanic family relations—e.g. Jeb Bush—are vying for their party’s presidential nomination.

I am not a Catholic, but I am a Californian. In college, I studied the cultures and comparative linguistics of Native Americans in the state, and I have written on Serra. For my 1998 volume From West to East: California and the Making of the American Mind, I journeyed to his birthplace at Petra on the Balearic island of Mallorca. Serra will be the first saint from the Balearic Islands, in addition to becoming the first Hispanic saint from the United States. His ethnicity, though, is enigmatic. He declared when he took Franciscan vows that he had no Jewish or Muslim ancestry. But Mallorca, unlike other territories of the Spanish motherland, sheltered the descendants of converted Jews and Muslims. Restrictions on the residence of these conversos in Palma de Mallorca, its main city, were revoked in 1782 by Spanish king Carlos III.

Serra—meaning “saw”—was a common family name among converted Catalan and Mallorcan Jews, reflecting their involvement in carpentry and other aspects of woodworking. Serra’s maternal grandmother’s family names were Abraham, on her father’s side, and Isaac, through her mother. The family of Pere Serra, in Petra, may have been descended from Arab slaves freed when they became Christians.

In truth, we know little about Junípero Serra. Certainly, he embodied the character of New Spain, which would become Mexico. As the Mexican author and Nobel literature laureate Octavio Paz wrote, New Spain’s ideal was “neither change nor the modern consequence of change, the cult of progress. Rather, its ideal was stability and permanence; its vision of perfection was to imitate, on earth, the eternal order.”

Here in California, the Pope’s intention has reignited an old controversy. Serra has been accused by self-appointed representatives of Native Americans of “genocide.” Most of this polemic is carried out in the media and rests on thin documentation. These allegations of cruelty, exploitation, and mass murder against Serra and other Franciscan and Jesuits in the Californias—Lower and Upper, Baja and Alta—echo Protestant anti-Catholic bigotry, which dominated the United States during the early period of independence. Once California became the object of a Gold Rush, Easterners had every incentive to deny the rights of the colony’s Spanish and Mexican residents, as they did later in acts of violence against “Chilean” and Chinese miners, followed by long-lasting prohibition on other Asian immigrants.

If we wish to study the history of violence against the Indians, we should turn to that later episode, the 1849 gold rush. It’s a history San Franciscans take pride in, even having a football team bearing the 49er name. Meanwhile, the newspaper for which I worked from 1989 to 1999, the San Francisco Chronicle, refuses to print references to the Washington Redskins football team. The editors argue that the name is racist, and the newspaper refers to the franchise only as “the Washington, DC football team.”

Avaricious pioneers like the 49ers committed far worse depredations against the natives than did the missionaries. Two anthropologists, Lowell J. Bean and Sylvia B. Vane, wrote in the 1978 edition of the Handbook of North American Indians: 

Some native Californians were Christianized only by force, [but] others accepted the new religion apparently because the Spanish demonstrated possession of kinds of power that appeared desirable. The acceptance of Christianity did not mean that native religious systems disappeared. Native religious ceremonies persisted alongside Catholicism, often tolerated by the priests under the guide of ‘secular’ events, but sometimes carried out secretly. The extreme decrease in native population in the last part of the nineteenth century and the concomitant ‘melting pot’ philosophy on the part of the Anglo-Americans were more destructive to native religious systems than Catholicism.

It is true that some California natives resisted the missionaries; for example, in 1775 the mission at San Diego was destroyed in a revolt by nine Indian villages. The attackers killed a Mallorcan priest, Fr. Lluís Jaume Vallespir. Serra appealed to the Spanish authorities to spare the perpetrators, however. This call for mercy was successful, and the insurgents were pardoned.

Blessed Junípero Serra stands for a period in history that is unknown by most Americans. How many people could even answer the question of the origin of the name “San Francisco”? Let us hope that his canonization will inspire further and deeper discussion of the arrival of Christianity to the American West.

Stephen Schwartz is Executive Director of the Center for Islamic Pluralism at www.islamicpluralism.org.

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