Putting aside their misgivings about Father Junipero Serra’s treatment of American Indians, about 350 people, many of them schoolchildren, gathered at St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Sacramento on Wednesday afternoon to celebrate the 18th century missionary’s canonization by Pope Francis.
“As a school, we try to put politics aside,” said St. Francis Principal Ivan Hrga. “We just want to enjoy this moment of the pope being here.”
Serra walked hundreds of miles to establish nine Roman Catholic missions along the California coast.
Hrga and teachers from the school hand-selected eight students to answer questions from the media before the live broadcast of the liturgy in which Pope Francis canonized Serra. They were expecting questions about Serra’s treatment of the state’s Indians.
Desmond Greer, an eighth-grader with a ready smile, said he had learned that it wasn’t Serra so much as the soldiers around him who carried out injustices against the Indians who lived and worked around the missions.
Greer, and his mother, Dineen Greer, said they put their confidence in the Rev. Ken Laverone, the leader of the parish. Greer, a physician at Sutter Medical Center, pointed to Laverone being a canon lawyer. “We believe that he would speak up on something he doesn’t agree on,” she said.
Laverone participated in Wednesday’s service in Washington, D.C. Earlier this week, he acknowledged that Serra condoned floggings of native people if they tried to escape working on the missions.
Gabriella Koebnick, 13, said Serra’s actions were a reflection of the times. She stumbled a little to reconcile the beatings, which she said would clearly be bad nowadays, but was confident in her adoration of Pope Francis.
“I like that he does things that are ‘non-Catholic,’ ” she said, making quote marks in the air with her fingers. “It’s not like you have to be Catholic or have to convert; he’s welcoming to all people.”
The church’s decision to promote Serra to sainthood has attracted strong criticism from some Indians who say the mission system enslaved Indians, obliterated their culture and spread diseases.
Teddy McCullough, 22, is a member of the Coyote Valley Pomo Indian tribe in California who is living in Washington, D.C. He is also a recent convert to Catholicism, and he said he was disappointed in Serra’s elevation.
“Father Serra kind of turned a blind eye on the raping and pillaging of the military as they advanced helping to expand the missions,” McCullough said. “And everywhere that those missions were set up, the surrounding native communities have been decimated.”
Cindy La Marr, director of Capital Area Indian Resources, called the canonization of Serra “confusing at best.”
“What we know as California Indian people is that those missionaries came to make the Indians ‘civilized,’ and bring them into the religion,” said La Marr, who is not Christian. “But what they brought to them was slavery, murder, disease and basically genocide.”
McCullough and La Marr agreed that one positive outcome of making Serra a saint is that the history of the California missions and their treatment of Indians has entered the national discourse. McCullough would like to see more discussion of the high suicide rate and poverty found in today’s American Indian communities.
“The canonization, if anything, opens up old wounds,” McCullough said. “We need to focus on how to shut that wound and heal it, to make sure that future generations don’t have to see it open again.”