Viewpoints

Maybe Serra’s sainthood will help California correct historical record

Junipero Serra
Junipero Serra

Could sainthood be bad for Junipero Serra’s reputation?

Serra has long been a singular figure, hailed as California’s “founding father” for the Catholic mission system he started in the 18th century. Schools, parks, even a beautiful freeway (Interstate 280 from Daly City to San Jose) were named for him. California schoolchildren are still taught his story.

But next week in Washington, D.C., Pope Francis will canonize Serra – making him one more saint in a church with thousands of them.

Could sainthood transform Serra into a more explicitly religious figure – and, in time, a lesser one? California is a secular, diverse place where the story of an evangelizing colonizer shouldn’t wear well. And California has long been a place that forgets its saints, even those whose names grace our cities. Do you know anything at all about the saints honored by Santa Barbara or San Diego?

At the very least, Serra’s canonization should make clear that we needn’t treat the man as a secular founding father of California. In accounts of Serra’s life, religious devotion stands out as a defining trait. Steven Hackel’s terrific biography portrays an almost supernaturally religious man with a relentless focus on evangelizing up and down California, despite health problems that made travel very painful.

But – for all the power of his faith – it’s fair to say that Serra’s work as an administrator and builder was a failure. His mission system was supposed to serve Indians, but it was a disaster for them. Native Californians lost culture, communities, food sources – and lives. Tens of thousands of Indians died in the mission system, mostly from disease.

When it came to temporal matters, Serra was – to put it charitably – out of touch. He made little effort to understand the culture or customs of the Indians. And he was no democrat. When Gov. Felipe de Neve, who thought Serra treated the Indians worse than slaves, sought to establish local governance and elections in the missions, Serra blocked him.

Contrary to popular mythology, Serra did not found the state. The real impact of his mission work was to clear away much of native California so future Californians had a freer hand in building it.

The state we live in today began, long after Serra’s death, with the Gold Rush, and was refounded by migration, oil, war, aerospace, weather and higher education. The most important network of institutions in California history is our system of public universities, not Serra’s missions.

Serra’s new sainthood and the related controversy are good for today’s California, and we should thank Pope Francis for both. The controversy, in particular, suggests that we might recognize that Serra, even as he receives a sacred promotion, deserves a secular demotion.

An effort is underway to replace the statue of Serra in the U.S. Capitol – each state gets two statues in the Capitol (our other one is of Ronald Reagan) – with a far more representative figure, the late astronaut Sally Ride, the first American woman in space. She embodies the real secret of California’s success: our faith in science.

Here’s praying that Serra’s sainthood helps California correct the record. We had founding impulses, not a founder. We had greed. We had ambition. We had crazy dreams.

Now we have a saint. Let’s leave it at that.

Joe Mathews is California & innovation editor for Zócalo Public Square.

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