Vatican Denies Junipero Serra Genocide Claims: He Was ‘A Man Of His Time’

Junipero Serra, the Franciscan friar who established the first missions in Spanish California, will soon be canonized by Pope Francis, making him an official saint. Native Americans are protesting the act, claiming Serra committed genocide against native populations. The Church recently countered, saying the friar was “a man of his time.”

Junipero Serra is a controversial figure for historians and journalists. The friar attempted to convert California natives, often by force, administrating whippings and beatings as “educational tools.” Many died from disease.

According to the New York Times, between 1769 to 1835, missionaries baptized about 90,000 Native Americans along the West Coast. Once they were converted, the natives were not allowed to leave their assigned missions, escapees would be captured by soldiers and brought back.

Mission officials like Serra banned traditional ways and customs, including language, foods, dress, marriage ceremonies, and, of course, religion.

Many see the Vatican’s insensitivity still present in local churches. At Mission Dolores, founded by Junipero Serra in 1776, 5,700 natives died. One trench that contains the remains of 363 people is now underneath the church parking lot and offices. It remains unmarked aside from a thin wooden marker.

The Vatican has answered back, saying that Junipero was “a man of his time” and so should be judged based on the standards of his age.

According to CBS News, the Reverend Vincenzo Criscuolo told reporters Serra’s actions did not constitute genocide.

“It is not to be excluded, but it wasn’t ‘genocide,’ it wasn’t a death penalty.”

History Professor Steven Hackel of UC Riverside told CBS Los Angeles, that although it’s not acceptable in our time, spankings and other physical punishments were the church’s methods of correcting sinful people.

“I also should add that missions were, at their worst, unhealthy places where native peoples died in large numbers. In that, I think those two things, the physical coercion, the diseases introduced by Spaniards that really ran rampant in missions and reduced native peoples, I think that’s probably at the heart of the resistance, or the opposition to Serra and his vision.”

According to PBS, Serra himself wrote about the commonality of corporal punishment against the natives in 1780, “that spiritual fathers should punish their sons, the Indians, with blows appears to be as old as the conquest of the Americas; so general in fact that the saints do not seem to be any exception to the rule.”

The Vatican hasn’t addressed complaints about the restrictions on native customs, unsafe living conditions, and de facto imprisonment.

Nevertheless, defenders of Serra’s legacy also claim he prevented harsher treatment from Spanish military personnel and made enormous sacrifices to do missionary work in California.

A statue of the friar sits in Congress’ National Statuary Hall, which has also come under fire. The Huffington Post reports that Guzmán Carriquiry, a friend of the Pope’s and member of the pontifical commission for Latin America, claims that plans to remove the statue are misguided, pointing out that Serra is the only Spaniard in the collection of historical figures.

“They want to remove him from the Capitol precisely when the first Hispanic Pope is planning to canonize him. Let’s say that it would not be an extraordinary welcome from a country that claims to be an example of multicultural welcomes.”

Pope Francis is scheduled to canonize Junipero Serra later this year on September 23rd.

[Image Credit: Anatoly Terentiev/Wikimedia]

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