History of Orange County

Serra: Saint or sinner or both?

Statue of Junipero Serra at the Mission of San Juan Batista (Flickr Creative Commons).

Statue of Junipero Serra at the Mission of San Juan Batista (Flickr Creative Commons).

By Jim Tortolano

Anyone who grew up in California got the story: Junipero Serra was one of the founding fathers of California. The Franciscan friar was a hero for establishing a chain of missions all up and down what would become the Golden State. His legacy is memorialized in the names of parks, streets and schools.

The veneration of Serra is especially strongly-felt in Orange County. Serra founded Mission San Juan Capistrano in 1776. It was the first European settlement in the Santa Ana Valley and nearly every schoolchild in the OC has taken the obligatory tour of the missions.

But Serra’s legacy isn’t just history; it’s still very much an open matter. When Pope Francis visited the United States in September, he was canonized, making him Saint Junipero Serra. While some celebrated this honor, others found it offensive. The issue has been controversial since he was beatified – a preliminary step towards sainthood – by Pope John Paul II in 1988.

Courtyard at Mission San Juan Capistrano (Flickr/Jean).

Courtyard at Mission San Juan Capistrano (Flickr/Jean).

Historians generally agree that Serra was a significant figure in the growth of Spanish California. He was born to humble beginnings in 1713 on the island of Majorca, off the coast of Spain. At age 16 he became a novitiate of the Franciscan order of friars.

Serra came to the New World in 1749 and after additional training and missionary work in Mexico, he came to Alta (Upper) California in 1769 and founded his first mission, in what would become San Diego. Under his leadership, he established a total of 21 missions in the state, the most famous of which is San Juan Capistrano, well-known for the legend of the returning swallows and its occasional role in the fictional stories of Zorro.

So why is the work of Serra controversial? Historians generally agree on these virtues:

  • He was a physically brave and hardy man, who often traveled over great distances in a wild land on foot.
  • He sincerely believed he was a benefactor of the Native American people he dealt with.
  • He supported the American Revolution, taking up a collection of $137 and sending it to General George Washington for the cause of American independence.
  • The creation of the missions was an important step in the development of California, and did much to advance communications, agriculture and “civilization” is what is now America’s most populous and influential state.
  • He was probably more lenient with the natives than the Spanish government – especially the military – was.

On the other hand, Serra’s paternalistic approach had some not-so-admirable aspects.

  • Indian converts were treated in a way analogous to serfs or slaves, and were sometimes not allowed to leave the mission grounds. A jail in the San Juan Mission still survives, its purpose being to punish unruly tribesmen.
  • At least in one instance in Mexico, he summoned an inquisitor to combat what he believed was witchcraft, including flying people.
  • Disobedient natives were beaten or whipped.
  • He sought to force the Catholic faith on the natives.

Was Serra truly saintly? There’s much division of opinion on that matter. Immediately after Serra was canonized, the church at the Carmel Mission was struck twice by vandals who knocked over his statue and wrote “saint of genocide” nearby.

Even Pope Francis, in a speech in Bolivia, acknowledged the price that was paid for the colonization of the New World.

““I humbly ask forgiveness,” he said, “not only for the offense of the church herself, but also for crimes committed against the native peoples during the so-called conquest of America.”

In San Juan Capistrano, Serra is clearly the man who created the place, and its town center surrounds the Mission, which is now an historic non-profit site and a tourist attraction.

Orange County’s oldest community now promotes itself – in part – as the Equestrian Capital of the West Coast. It’s become a wealthy city with a population of about 17,000. The average household income is about $100,000.

The area has come a long way in the over 200 years since it was founded. But so have public attitudes about the legacy of the man who did the founding.

Sources: Wikipedia, City of San Juan Capistrano, New York Times, Mission San Juan Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano Chamber of Commerce.



1 reply »

  1. People should not judge the actions of people from centuries ago based on today’s morality. The father thought he was working for the good of the people. Today we see his actions differently. But works of people today will be judged by the realities of tomorrow.

    Today there are still people who are trying inflict there morality and faith on others so how is that any different then these missionaries of the past?

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