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A Saint's Sins

The campaign for Father Serra’s canonization began in the 1930s, and quickly became a subject of controversy. Father Serra had his fervent backers — one California real estate developer had 100 statues of him cast from a single mold, and sent the monuments to Catholic schools and missions throughout the state, praising the friar as “the first developer of California.”

He also had his furious detractors, among them Native Americans, Catholic and non-Catholic, who attempted to offer historical and anthropological evidence that Father Serra’s missions had been calamitous for their people. Yet, as Dr. Sandos wrote in a 1988 issue of The American Historical Reviewwhile church officials had solicited the input of professional historians, they disregarded research on the physical toll the mission system had taken on Native populations as well as “Serra’s own words, the growing body of evidence from Indians, and the insights available from anthropology, all of which would have contributed to a balanced view of the past.”

It’s not possible to say whether Father Serra would have been canonized had a fuller historical picture been presented. But for Ernestine de Soto, an 82-year-old member of the Barbareño Band of Chumash Indians, there is no question that he is a true saint.

“We’ve been Catholic since the Franciscans’ arrival,” Ms. de Soto, whose mother, Mary, was the last fluent speaker of the Chumash language, told me.

She believes her prayers to Father Serra saved her adult daughter, who was hospitalized with severe pneumonia and little hope. “I begged Father Serra to give my daughter back to me,” she said. “And I said I would be forever devoted to him, and I am.”

Ms. de Soto is devastated by attacks on Father Serra’s statues. She does not dispute what the historical record says about life in the mission system, but thinks Father Serra has received an unfair share of blame. “Why are we dumping everything on him when there were all these Spanish soldiers everywhere?,” she asked pointedly, “why isn’t anyone burning the Presidios?”

Vincent Medina, a Muwekma Ohlone Native American from the San Francisco Bay Area, views Father Serra with a more critical eye. “These statues bring up a lot of feelings: Feelings of invisibility, and the feelings brought up by the crimes, the sins they committed against us, against our ancestors,” he told me. Mr. Medina, whose work ranges from preserving (and serving) Ohlone cuisine to teaching and sharing the Chochenyo language, was baptized Catholic, and worked at the Mission Dolores for several years as a curator.

Read entire article at New York Times