Then, the Catholic Church made Serra a saint — and his mistreatment of Native Americans in the colonial era fell under harsh light.
Now, Stanford University is seeking permission from the U.S. Postal Service and Santa Clara County to wipe Serra from its mailing address. It’s seeking to change the street name to “Jane Stanford Way” in honor of the school’s co-founder, the university announced Thursday.
The announcement comes after a Stanford committee concluded that Serra’s contributions to the decimation and abuse of native people who lived — sometimes forcibly — on his Catholic settlements rendered Serra’s name unworthy of prominent display on campus. In addition to the address change, the university will remove Serra’s name from one dormitory and one academic building.
As the Stanford committee noted, “Though we have no doubt about Serra’s piety and good intentions, it is also a fact that the mission system pervasively mistreated and abused California’s Native Americans.”
The decision marks Serra as the latest historical figure to be exiled from college campuses, city parks or buildings for deeds of the past that have fallen under renewed scrutiny. In the past three months, for example, Duke University removed a statue of Robert E. Lee and Florida State booted a statue of its slave-owning founder from its front entrance. Just last week, a committee at the University of California at Berkeley School of Law recommended removing various references on campus to John Boalt, who helped shepherd the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 into law.
In the Stanford committee’s report, dated Aug. 18 but released late last week, the committee says the input of Native American students and tribes was integral to the decision to remove Serra’s name from most places on campus. Students had been protesting since March 2016, when a student assembly voted to remove his name from the mailing address, the Stanford Daily reported.
“The committee called for renaming several features on campus that recognize someone who had no direct role in Stanford’s history and lived a century before the university was even founded,” Jeff Raikes, chairman of the Stanford Board of Trustees, said in a statement, “yet whose role as the recognized leader of the mission system provides an acute reminder to our Native American community of the profound impact of the mission system on indigenous people.”
Pope Francis named Serra a saint in 2015 over the loud protests of Native Americans. It was the same year the pope extended an apology on behalf of the Catholic Church for Spanish mistreatment of indigenous people in Latin America, which he called “grave sins.” The pope asked for forgiveness.
In naming Serra a saint, Pope Francis described Serra as a priest who protected “the dignity of native communities” from abusers as he grew Catholicism in the New World — but this depiction of Serra has been disputed among historians.
Ahead of Serra’s canonization, the National Catholic Reporter wrote that “strong disagreement exists between those who promoted his sainthood and those who oppose it. Each side lays claim to a version of history, advanced in each case by historians of note, and each side accuses the other of failing to see the full picture.”
“Serra apologists acknowledge that the friar’s history has a dark side, but point to the positive, while indigenous activists say the negatives experienced by indigenous people far outweigh the good Serra may have done,” the National Catholic Reporter wrote.
Serra founded the first nine Catholic settlements from San Diego to San Francisco in 1769, with the hope of herding native people onto the farms and baptizing them. Once baptized, they were not allowed to leave, causing overcrowded conditions that contributed to rapid spread of disease, according to the paper “Junípero Serra’s Canonization and the Historical Record,” published in “The American Historical Review” in 1988 after the Catholic Church beatified Serra.
Native people were forced to work on the settlements, and those who tried to escape were subjected to beatings, according to the article, which cites Serra’s own statements as evidence. Serra supported corporal punishment because, he wrote in 1780, saints have endorsed it, too.
“That spiritual fathers should punish their sons, the Indians, with blows appears to be as old as the conquest of these kingdoms [the Americas]; so general in fact that the saints do not seem to be any exception to the rule,” he wrote in a 1780 letter to Felipe de Neve, then-governor of the Californias,. “… In the life of Saint Francis Solano … we read that, while he had a special gift from God to soften the ferocity of the most barbarous by the sweetness of his presence and words, nevertheless … when they failed to carry out his orders, he gave directions for his Indians to be whipped.”
The author, James A. Sandos, also cites correspondence from Serra in which he asks other priests not to beat Indians “excessively.”
But Robert Senkewicz, a history professor at Santa Clara University and the author of “Junípero Serra: California, Indians, and the Transformation of a Missionary,” told the National Catholic Reporter that Serra should not be used as a “stand-in for the entire 65 years of mission experience in California.”
“In Junípero Serra’s willingness to sacrifice the comforts of a very successful career,” Senkewicz told the outlet, “to forego climbing the academic and ecclesiastical ladders, to travel halfway around the world to live the rest of his life among people he had never seen but whom he deeply and genuinely loved, and to go without many advantages he could easily have gained, one sees qualities that are very consistent with what the church has long held up as indications of sanctity.”
The Stanford committee said it interviewed a group of Hispanic Catholics as part of its review. They overall favored renaming the buildings and mailing address, saying the “pain of the Native American community should be prioritized” over the loss of a Hispanic saint’s name on campus.
“For many of the participants” in interviews, the committee wrote, “Serra’s name evokes the entire history of oppression of Native Americans.”
There’s also a “Serra Street” on the campus, but the university said that the”ordinary street” would not be renamed. The university intends to develop a sign or plaque on Serra Street to explain who Serra was and why he’s controversial.