What Will the Future Hold for St. Junípero Serra at Stanford University?

Update, 17 Sept 2018: The Stanford Daily reports that the two buildings on campus named after Serra will be renamed, but the street name shall be renamed. Read more here

Thaddeus Shubsda (1925-1991), Bishop of Monterey, California, informed those who questioned the holiness of Serra, “What we have here is an extraordinary man being defamed more than 200 years after he died. He cannot defend himself. So we will.” It was as if he was drawing a line in the sand with those words in the Executive Summary of the Serra Report, November 24, 1986.

In the same vein, Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles said on May 2, 2015, “Sometimes it seems like scholars and activists have made Father Serra a symbol for everything they believe was wrong with the mission era.” In the eyes of the Catholic Church, the issue reached its zenith when Pope Francis canonized Saint Junípero Serra September 23, 2015, at The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. For some, however, the issue is clearly not over. Stanford University’s Serra Committee will use certain criteria to see if the name of the Founder of the California missions should be erased from campus.


Accusations against Serra’s holiness brought to the forefront in the media in the mid-1980s (and resurfaced when his canonization was announced) were:

  1. Mission Indians were mistreated
  2. The intent of the Spanish was to have the Indians die out
  3. Indians were forced into the missions
  4. Serra was a fanatic
  5. The missions were concentration camps

Each claim, among others, was answered by eight specialists of California mission history in the Serra Report. Some excerpts follow.

“Mission Indians were mistreated”

 Dr. Iris Engstrand, at the time of the Serra Report a member of the Department of History at the University of San Diego, said, “. . .when you have 400 or 1,000 Indians involved with a mission with two priests and five soldiers, there has to be some willingness on the part of the Indians to be there” (2).

“The intent of the Spanish was to have the Indians die out.”

John Johnson, at the time of the Serra Report Curator of the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, describes how disease (diphtheria, measles, syphilis) caused so much death. “I don’t see it as being purposeful — it’s  tragic consequence of the Spanish colonization of California, not a deliberate act” (7).

“Indians were forced into the missions.”

Dr. Harry Kelsey, at the time of the Serra Report Chief Curator of History at the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History, “[Indians] had been living on the bare edge of existence. Until they came to the missions, they didn’t know from one month to the next what they were going to eat, or how they were going to cure themselves from an illness, or what they were going to do in the event of some dire tragedy” (2).

“Serra was a fanatic.”

Dr. Gloria E. Miranda, at the time of the Serra Report Associate Professor of History and Chairperson of, Chicano Studies, Los Angeles Valley College, said, “I believe [Serra] was harsh on himself. I don’t see him as a fanatic. . . . He was obviously a man who was very inspired. An inspired man who genuinely believed that he was improving the life of these tribes . . .” (2).

“The missions were concentration camps

Dr. Doyce B. Nunis, Jr., at the time of the Serra Report Professor of History, University of Southern California, said, “Some of the things that have been said about [Serra] are just despicable. For example, that the missions were concentration camps. This is absurd. Concentration camps were deliberately set up by Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Germany regime as a form of organized genocide to destroy people. The missions were never set up to destroy. The missions were set up to save” (8-9).

When Dr. Michael Mathes, at the time of the Serra Report Professor of History, University of San Francisco, was asked, “Where is the documentation that would indicate that Father Serra was cruel to Indians?” he responded, “. . . the poor man [Serra] has had no privacy for years. Everybody has picked at every little aspect that could be known about this man’s life” (4). James A. Sandos, professor of History at the University of Redlands, thought otherwise.

In Sandos’ conclusion to his article “Junípero Serra’s Canonization and the Historical Record” (The American Historical Review, December 1988), he gave his colleagues who participated in the Serra Report a tongue-lashing. “The failure of Bolton [the only layman on the three person Historical Commission for the Serra Cause] in 1948 and of the historians interviewed for Bishop Shubsda in 1986 to present both sides of Serra’s story profoundly challenges the ethics of the historical profession” (1269).

Contemporary Dissonance

Father Junípero Serra still intrigued and continued to be investigated, as evidenced by the exhibit “Junípero Serra and the Legacies of the California Missions” at The Huntington, Aug 17, 2013 – Jan 7, 2014. The exhibition coincided with the 300th anniversary of the birth of Junípero Serra. A conference was also held that brought together an international group of scholars to explore the larger contexts within which Serra lived and the various ways he has been represented in California and beyond. The exhibit’s co-curator and associate professor of History at UC Riverside, Steven Hackel, had recently released a major work about Serra, Junipero Serra: California’s Founding Father (2013).

Two other major works would be soon released — Gregory Orfalea’s Journey to the Sun: Junipero Serra’s Dream and the Founding of California (2014) and another by Rose Marie Beebe and Robert M. Senkewicz, professors at Santa Clara University, Junípero Serra: California, Indians, and the Transformation of a Missionary (2015). Rubén G. Mendoza, archaeologist at Cal State Monterey Bay, has been researching for the past twenty years how the Franciscans built mission churches in a way that taught the Indian converts very important lessons (see “How the Sun Illuminates Spanish Missions On the Winter Solstice” here).

When it was announced on January 15, 2015, that Pope Francis would canonize Junípero Serra during his September visit to the United States, the same accusations made by detractors answered by Bishop Shubsda in 1986, resurfaced in the media.

Only days after Pope Francis’ announcement, California State Senator Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens) called to replace the Serra statue in the National Statuary Hall. Bishop Robert McElroy of the Diocese of San Diego would remind all in an April 15, 2015 San Diego Union-

Tribune article that Serra is a “foundational figure” in California history. He noted that the statue should remain as a testament not only to the past, but also the present. In 2013, 38.4% of Californians were Hispanic or Latino, according to the United States Census Bureau. Also, during Easter Sunday Mass more than 100 Native Americans peacefully protested the canonization of Serra at Carmel Mission Basilica. Valentin Lopez, Chairman of the Amah Matsun Tribal Band took it a step further, expressing his frustrations in an open letter to Pope Francis. Since the canonization, the debate has escalated. Stanford University has a movement to rid the campus of any reference to Serra. The San Francisco Arts Commission voted unanimously October 2, 2017, to consider the removal of a statue depicting a Franciscan missionary near Civic Center. Statues of Saint Junípero Serra have been vandalized six times — at Monterey, twice in Carmel, Mission Hills, Old Mission Santa Barbara, and the most recent at Mission San Gabriel. The front wooden doors and a side wall at Mission Santa Cruz were spray painted in red with the message “Serra St. of Genocide.”

Church Confidence

The Catholic Church is confident, though.  The ecclesial court proceedings to question Serra’s holiness began on December 12, 1948. The evidence brought forth were 2,420 documents (7,500 pages total) of Serra’s writings, 5,000 pages of materials written about him from those who knew him, and testimony of people inspired by his life. A summary of findings would be collected into the Positio (position paper)—Serra’s position was 1,200 pages. The evidence propelled Pope Francis to share in the homily at Serra’s canonization on September 23, 2015 in Washington, D.C.,  “Junípero sought to defend the dignity of the native community, to protect it from those who had mistreated and abused it.”

The Catholic Church is also open. Just before the canonization, the California bishops and Franciscans promised to reappraise what people learn at the California missions. Michele Jurich wrote in her Oakland Voice article that the study would focus on  “. . . the way the natives are depicted in exhibits and displays at the 19 California missions that are active Catholic parishes, and in the ways Catholic schoolchildren learn about Indians in third grade and missions in fourth grade.” The public schools already have a new framework in place that address such concerns.

The Catholic Church is also repentant for the challenges brought by colonization. Pope John Paul II begged for forgiveness on September 14, 1987, retired Bishop Francis A. Quinn of Sacramento on December 15, 2007, Pope Francis on July 9, 2015, and Auxiliary Bishop Edward Clark of Los Angeles on July 21, 2016. The most beautiful act of reconciliation, in my opinion, was that Vincent Medina, who had been outspoken against Serra, recited the first reading at the September 23, 2015 canonization Mass, in the Chochenyo Native American language.

Into the Unknown

There is something about Saint Junípero Serra. It seems certain that he will continue to inspire in ways that may boggle the mind.  He motivated Brother Anthony Serviam Maria, a Franciscan Friar of the Immaculate to make a pilgrimage of the California portion of the El Camino Real de las Californias without any money. What he built called Edie Littlefield Sundby, two time cancer survivor and author of The Mission Walker (Thomas Nelson Publishers), to walk the entire 1,600 mile El Camino Real de las Californias from Loreto, Baja California, Mexico to Sonoma, California, United States. Edie said it best, “I felt very blessed to be following in the footsteps of a saint in this journey. The missions are our heritage; they are tremendously vital to the well-being of our state. And I believe Serra belongs to more than Catholics, to more than California; he is a saint for all of us.” Only time will tell if Stanford University agrees with such sentiment, even that of its founders. In 1989, Dorothy Regnery wrote in Sandstone and Tile, the quarterly of the Stanford Historical Society, that Jane and Leland Stanford were very fond of Serra. They respected him so much that they commissioned a statue in his honor that was presented to the city of Monterey on June 3, 1891, the same statue that was beheaded just days after Junípero Serra’s canonization.

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Christian Clifford is the author of four books about Catholic Church history in Spanish-Mexican California. His latest is Pilgrimage: In Search of the Real California Missions, the story of his epic 800-mile walk of the California Missions Trail. He can be reached at www.Missions1769.com.

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