Pope Francis will canonize Junipero Serra on Sept. 23 during his visit to the United States. We take a look at Serra's life, mission and the controversy surrounding his canonization. (Gillian Brockell/The Washington Post)

When Pope Francis canonizes the 18th-century Spanish missionary Junipero Serra on Sept. 23 in Washington — the first canonization on U.S. soil — he will declare Serra to be enrolled among the saints and “to be venerated as such by the whole church.”

For many Native Americans, however, Serra is no saint. The Indians who joined the missions Serra built were forced to shed their own culture, including their religion, dress and food. Thousands of them died prematurely from diseases common in Europe.

“It will be a day of mourning for our people,” says Valentin Lopez, chairman of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band, located along the central coast of Monterey Bay in California.

Lopez said he will be cutting his own long black hair short as a visible sign of his mourning. He and other Native Americans point to Serra’s leadership over a mission system in which many were abused and died. Serra “has to be recognized as the architect of the system,” Lopez said.

Serra, a Franciscan theologian who established Catholic missions along the coast of California as he marched north with Spanish conquistadors, has long been treated as a heroic figure by California leaders. A statue of him has stood in the U.S. Capitol — where each state is allowed two statues — since 1931. At the time, Sen. Hiram Johnson (R-Calif.) described him as “a pioneer of pioneers, bringing Christian civilization to the primitive and savage land, now a wondrous empire.” Some historians cite Serra’s dedication to Native Americans, while others say he oversaw and even contributed to a system that mistreated tribes.

Visitors view the altar and Junipero Serra’s resting place in the Carmel Mission Basilica. Pope Francis will canonize Serra on Sept. 23 at a Mass in the District. (Michael Fiala/Reuters)

“He was one of the founding fathers of the United States, a saintly example of the church’s universality,” the pope said of Serra in February.

Few Catholic Church observers expected the pontiff’s announcement in January that Serra would be canonized. For one thing, Serra is credited with only one miracle when saints usually need two (the pontiff says that Serra’s life serves as a second miracle).

Francis has fast-tracked several candidates for sainthood, already canonizing 21 individuals and hundreds of martyrs in just over two years as pontiff. Saints play an important role in the Catholic Church, as the church teaches that the faithful can directly pray to saints to intercede with God. The precise number of saints is unknown, though experts say it is within the thousands.

Francis’s decision to canonize Serra will be a gesture to Hispanic Catholics, and the tickets for about 25,000 people to attend the Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception will go primarily to Hispanic Catholics from the D.C. area. The pope will celebrate the Mass in Spanish.

Serra was a pivotal force in the Spanish conquest and colonization of California, said Steven Hackel, a history professor at the University of California at Riverside and author of a biography of Serra.

“He’s our Columbus or our Cortéz, the one who, right or wrong, for better or for worse, gets all the blame and glory in California,” Hackel said. “He’s a convenient symbol of everything.”

Serra is credited with bringing literacy, economy and agriculture to the state. “The conventional wisdom was that he saved the Indians, especially from the Spanish military at the time,” Hackel said.

A painting of Junipero Serra is displayed above his grave in the Carmel Mission Basilica in Carmel, Calif., in May 2015. (David Royal/The Monterey County Herald via AP, File) (David Royal/AP)

Historians have documented the exploitation of the natives by Catholic missionaries and European monarchies, especially Spanish conquistadors. In July, during a visit to Bolivia, Francis offered an apology for actions of the church during colonialism.

“I say this to you with regret: Many grave sins were committed against the native people of America in the name of God,” he said. “I humbly ask forgiveness, 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.”

Lopez says these comments don’t square with the upcoming canonization plans.

“How can he give a blanket apology like that and at the same time canonize Junipero Serra?” Lopez said. “To do so shows hypocrisy and shows the apology is disingenuous.”

Lopez’s tribe has sent six letters to the pope protesting the canonization. Lopez received a letter from Archbishop Bernardito Auza, the Vatican’s representative to the United Nations, who responded with a historical note the Catholic Church issued in 1988 when the church defended the beatification of Serra by Pope John Paul II. The note said that after convening a report from historians and anthropologists, it was possible to move forward “with soothed consciences” to his beatification.

Many public schoolchildren in California are taught about Spanish exploration and colonization of the state, but it is up to the teacher how to portray the relationships among soldiers, missionaries such as Serra and Indians. The Rev. Jaime Soto, bishop of Sacramento and president of the California Catholic Conference, announced on Sept. 4 that the bishops will review Catholic schools’ third- and fourth-grade curriculum to “better reflect modern understandings” of what happened. He said the church would also revise displays at state missions, saying that “the Indian experience has been ignored or denied.”

Serra began to get additional attention in 2013, the 300th anniversary of his birth. Still, there wasn’t much talk about him until the pope made his announcement earlier this year, sparking debate about Serra’s role in the abuse and deaths of Native Americans. Of the 80,000 Indians baptized in the missions between 1769 and the mid-1830s, about 60,000 died “by the latter period,” many from disease, Hackel said.

Historians say there is no evidence that Serra abused any Native Americans himself, but he oversaw people who performed whippings and defended that punishment for Indians who tried to escape the mission.

“He believed the church had the authority and power to punish Indians with blows,” Hackel said. “They were his spiritual children, because [missionaries] had brought them in the church.”

Nearly 10,000 people have signed a MoveOn.org petition asking Francis to reconsider his canonization plans.

“Spanish Priests did little to recognize indigenous people as humans and did not come to their rescue when women were raped by soldiers and settlers,” the petition states. “With an over 90% indigenous mortality rate, Serra hardly ‘saved many souls.’ ”

Serra is sometimes lumped in with other colonialists of his time, said Gregory Orfalea, author of “Journey to the Sun: Junipero Serra’s Dream and the Founding of California.” Serra regularly defended Native Americans against the Spanish military, Orfalea said.

“The protesters are painting with a broad brush, and tar and feathering Serra along with colonialism,” Orfalea said. “There is plenty of room for protests about colonialism, but this particular man stands out against the worst violations of the colonizers.”

Born on Majorca in 1713, Serra was a theological professor before he decided to become a missionary in 1749 when he traveled to Mexico. He established the Mission San Diego de Alcalá in California in 1769, ahead of much of the Western expansion of the United States.

He argued with the Spanish army over who should hold authority over the Indians, opposing military advances that many say would have caused worse conditions for the natives. Serra thought missions could protect Indian converts from soldiers, miners or others who could bring violence or disease. He established and oversaw nine missions in California before his death in 1784.

Father Marc Lindeijer, a senior church official in Rome who compiles cases and serves as an advocate for prospective saints, said it is “not completely new” to canonize controversial figures. He cited, for instance, the canonization in 2002 of Josemaría Escrivá de Balaguer, a Spanish priest and founder of the conservative Opus Dei organization who also stood accused of supporting right-wing movements, including the dictatorship of Spain’s Gen. Francisco Franco. “Sometimes there is a prejudice due to lack of information, but there is also the question of looking at someone during the spirit of their age, like Serra,” Lindeijer said. “It’s only afterwards that you would look back and say, ‘I don’t think we would have done it this way.’ Even saints sin. But the virtues outweigh the sins.”

The pope has called Serra “a great evangelizer,” probably fitting with the Catholic Church’s emphasis on “the new evangelization,” an effort launched by Pope Benedict XVI to further the teachings of the church.

Archbishop José Gómez of Los Angeles has suggested that Serra was one of the first people in the Americas, maybe even in the Catholic Church, to argue against the death penalty. After a 1775 attack by California natives on the San Diego mission, Serra told Spanish authorities to spare the lives of those who had killed several people.

“The fact that there were some abuses at that time doesn’t take away the fact that Junipero Serra dedicated his life totally to the service of people,” Gómez told reporters at the Religion Newswriters Association meeting on Aug. 28.

Serra is being canonized because he was holy, not because he was perfect, historian Robert Senkewicz argued at a news conference in April hosted by the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

“My sense is that people are not canonized because they are perfect — otherwise, presumably, St. Peter would never have been canonized,” he said, according to Catholic News Service. “They are canonized because they made a commitment which, on balance, had more good than non-good associated with it.”

Anthony Faiola in Rome contributed to this report.