Time for Social Justice? The Church, Its California Missions, & Its Native Peoples

Pope and Serra

(Reprinted from Christianity-In-Vogue)

History of Serra and the Missions:  Many of you may not know that the Spaniard, Blessed Junipero Serra, founded 9 of he 21 California Missions starting in San Diego in 1769,  and is considered by some to be the Founder or Father of California.  As with many of the colonization efforts by European and other nations, the history and legacy of the Spanish in California and Blessed Serra in particular is subject to some controversy.  Some of the controversy is due to the duality of the Spanish Missions being both a Military base for the home country and a new opportunity for the Church in the new world to convert the native peoples to Catholicism.  Many of the native peoples believe that their ancestors were forced to contribute their labor to the building, care and support of the local mission that became the hub for activity in the areas where they were founded.  One thing that is certain is that the native populations contributed the majority of the labor to the building of the missions.  Many contributed food to the ongoing support of the missions and its day to day operations.  Many stories abound concerning the diseases brought to California by the Spaniard that blamed for the deaths of countless numbers of the native population up and down California.  Others believe that Blessed Serra was motivated solely by his zeal for evangelism and was always kind and supportive of the native populations he encountered.

Saint or Villain: Today, there is one legacy that Blessed Serra left behind and that was a saying that was attributed to him and it can be paraphrased as “Always Forward, Never Back“.  Perhaps this should be the motto for both the Church and the remaining native leadership who attempt to coexist and share the remaining mission lands and sites.  Too often, the Church tries to play down the negative historical interpretation and legacy and ignores the real animosity of some of the native peoples and their leadership.  The canonization of Blessed Serra has served to exacerbate the hard feelings between the Church and the native peoples in this regard.  The native peoples feel that while the Church is ignoring their view of mission history and the mistreatment of their ancestors, the Church is elevating to the status of Sainthood the very founder and person responsible for allowing the abuse to take place or worse yet, the one who was the source of the abuse.  Add to this situation, the Church still controls the missions, many of which have native burial grounds within their boundaries.

“Always Forward”, Church + Native Peoples:  Perhaps it is time for the Church to stop trying to rewrite history or at the very least try to convince everyone that there is only one possible interpretation of history, that of the Church.  The Church won!  It controls the missions many of which are active Catholic parishes today.  The natives are allowed to “visit” the sites of their ancestors located on the mission grounds as tourists but have to ask permission to hold tribal ceremonies on these lands and native burial sites.

Where there are designated native burial grounds on mission property, these areas are solely under the control of the Church and their maintenance personnel.  Often the burial grounds are “Westernized” with marked graves and outlined by shells or other local objects.  This interpretation of a real native burial ground is incorrect and downplays the number of native persons buried in these sacred grounds.  Further, the lack of acknowledgement by the Church that these are native burial grounds and should be preserved according to their customs is yet another source of frustration by the local tribes.  They are more than willing to at a minimum consult on the care of these grounds but they should be given an active role in the care are these grounds.

Some of the Nations and tribes have been ignored by the Federal Government over the years and have not been recognized and given full nation status.  One of these is the Ohlone, Costanoan, Esselen Nation, OCEN, who inhabited the greater Monterey Bay area down to Big Sur.   The primary reason that this group has not attained Nation status is the ineptitude of our government bureaucracy.  That said, this nation remains unrecognized today as a native population nation within California.

New Social Justice by the Church:  There are a couple of very simple efforts the Church could make to live up to Blessed Serra’s call for “Always Forward“.

  1. Mutual Support of Native Burial Grounds:  Where there are recognized native people’s burial grounds, form agreements with the local Nations/Tribes to jointly maintain and preserve these grounds.  If there are costs involved, work together to raise the funds necessary to properly maintain and preserve these grounds.  We preserve art and artifacts, what is more important than human ancestral remains?
  2. More Open Access to Native Peoples:  The Church should make sure that each mission develops policies and practices that welcome native peoples back to the missions either as individuals or groups.   If there are special prayer ceremonies or other gatherings that can be scheduled, the local mission should be working with the native peoples to accommodate these events and make is easy on the native peoples to frequently engage in these events.
  3. Support Local Tribes:  If there are local tribes that are seeking Nation status or have other needs requiring local, state or federal approval, the Church should support the native peoples in these efforts.  That is not to say that the Church has to pay for the legal or other costs, but they should lend all of the support they can to facilitate the local peoples efforts.
  4. The Church, Act Like Blessed Serra:  Serra was first and foremost an evangelist seeking to convert everyone he came in contact with.  Conversion to the Catholic Faith was his passion and driving force and can be seen in all of his writings.  Many of the descendants of the mission era native peoples were converted to Catholicism and baptized by Fr. Serra or his fellow friars.  Many of these same people have fallen away from the Church for a lot of reasons just like other peoples.  Perhaps the Church could make a more concerted effort to welcome these descendants back into the Church and welcome them as part of the Church and its mission roots.
  5. The Church Should Be Respectful:  The Church and the Spanish founded the San Diego Mission in 1769.  Recently, in Pacific Grove, California, a local member an early Esselen tribe was exhumed and the remains were found to be over 5,000 years old.  Understand that the native peoples may look at the mission lands as there own and respect their right to do so.  They are not going to take the lands back!

Food for thought for the Church prior to the Canonization of Blessed Junipero Serra!


One thought on “Time for Social Justice? The Church, Its California Missions, & Its Native Peoples”

  1. Thank you – that was very interesting and educational. When I lived in Calif and learned about Fr. Serra, I got the impression that he had founded ALL of the missions, so thanks for correcting that error of mine!

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