Congressional staffer Olivia Hnat has walked past the Capitol’s nine-foot bronze statue of Junipero Serra, the 18th-century California missionary whom Pope Francis will canonize during his visit to Washington next week, hundreds of times. Hnat, also a parishioner of Southwest’s St. Dominic Church says the significance of the nine-foot-tall bronze sculpture isn’t lost on her.
“The statue of Father Serra, the first saint to be canonized on U.S. soil, will stand as a reminder of the pope’s historic trip to America and of his address to Congress,” she says.
The sculpted Serra in the Capitol’s National Statuary Hall, created by Venetian-born Ettore Cadorin (1876-1952), looks heavenward. His right hand lifts a cross, and the left supports a model of Mission San Carlos, which he founded in present-day Carmel-by-the-Sea, Calif. A new painting of Serra by Mexican-born artist Lalo Garcia, commissioned by the Los Angeles Archdiocese, shows a very different portrayal. Garcia’s Serra, perhaps the first to be haloed, shows the soon-to-be-saint eying Our Lady of Guadalupe with hands clasped in prayer.
Separated by more than 2,500 miles, the two works bookend journey to sainthood for the Franciscan friar whose canonization bid has come with significant growing pains, particularly surrounding his treatment of Native Americans. Some maintain that Serra whipped and enslaved Native Americans, and there have been efforts to remove the sculpture from the Capitol and defacement of museums devoted to Serra. But proponents claim that Serra was “ahead of his times, and he is being canonized for his heroic virtues,” according to a L.A. Archdiocese Web site.
“He advocated continuously, closely, and at great risk for himself, for the Indians against the Spanish military,” says Gregory Orfalea, an instructor at Santa Barbara’s Westmont College and author of “Journey to the Sun: Junipero Serra’s Dream and the Founding of California.” Unlike the Pilgrims in New England, who considered Native Americans subhuman, Serra “thought he was ministering to people of equal dignity,” Orfalea says.
Steven Hackel, a history professor at University of California, Riverside and author of “Junipero Serra: California’s Founding Father,” rejects the claim .
“I’m not saying that they’re lying, but as an historian, when I look at Serra, I see someone who is entirely in keeping with Franciscan views toward Indian peoples,” Hackel says.“Serra, in arguing that he alone should have control, that missionaries should have control, is very much out of keeping with the times. He’s an anachronism by the 1770s, and it catches up with him, and the governors are ultimately able to rein him in in the last years of his life. To argue that Serra was at the vanguard of humanitarian thinking towards native peoples, if that’s what they’re suggesting — I don’t see that.”
Rudy Ortega, president of Southern California’s Fernandeño Tataviam Band of Mission Indians, agrees. “The pope should have never made Serra a saint out of respect for the native people and especially for those who are in [the] church,” Ortega said in a release.
In his writings, Hackel has noted that the Capitol sculpture — unlike 18th-century depictions of Serra, which depict him as sickly in his later years — shows “a big man whose body projects strength, not mortality.” There is no reference to Serra’s practice of pounding his chest with rocks and burning his skin with candles to renounce the body while he preached, or of his evangelizing among Native Americans, an “unfortunate” absence that Hackel says is repeated in the new painting.
“To erase any sign of the native presence in the missions or Serra’s own preoccupation with them seems to miss the point of the missions as Serra knew them,” he says.
Artist Garcia says the idea to introduce Guadalupe in his oil painting came from the archbishop, but he appreciated the opportunity to respond to“quite a bit of controversy” by stressing Serra’s identity. “He was a man of faith, and he trusted in God’s will,” Garcia says.
Los Angeles Archbishop José Gomez said of the painting, “We wanted to help people understand that he dedicated his life and mission to Our Lady of Guadalupe and to proclaiming the Gospel.”
Hackel and Orfalea agree that the canonization is a Vatican effort to underscore Serra’s Mexican ties and to respond to what Hackel calls a “wave of anti-immigration sentiment in North America, directed at largely Catholic Latino people.” The archbishop and Argentinian-born pope are giving Americans a “big history lesson” and responding to Donald Trump and others, “who see immigrants from Mexico as kind of imposters, as illegal,” Hackel says. “The message is: Long before New England was settled by Pilgrims and the Puritans, there were Catholic missionaries throughout the Americas.”
“He’s definitely paying respect to the Spanish heritage in our country and saying, ‘Open the door. Don’t close the door, because these people helped found your country,” Orfalea says. “Who are these people? They’re the children of Junipero Serra.”
Wecker is a freelance writer.
The canonization Mass for Junipero Serra takes place Sept. 23 at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. Tickets are required to attend the event, and it will also be shown on large screens around the city. www.popefrancisvisit.com