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Father Serra--Diocese Answers Critics of Potential Saint

Times Staff Writer

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Monterey replied today to charges that Father Junipero Serra mistreated Indians while establishing California missions in the 18th Century as the campaign to declare the Franciscan priest a saint gained momentum.

Supporters of the Serra cause, as the sainthood drive is known, hope that the 90-page report, compiled by a public relations specialist under the imprimatur of Bishop Thaddeus Shubsda, will help clear the way for Pope John Paul II to beatify the “Apostle of California” when the pontiff visits the Carmel Mission next fall.

“I’m more convinced than ever that the beatification is going to take place on Sept. 17,” said Father Noel Francis Moholy, a Franciscan priest who has been the chief supporter of the sainthood drive for three decades. “I’ve been telling everyone that if they’re betting people, to put their money on Serra,” Moholy said.

The “Serra Report,” released on the 273rd anniversary today of the missionary’s birth in Majorca, Spain, decries “unfounded attacks” on Serra’s character and, in a covering news release, invites Serra’s “detractors to present documentation of their charges.”

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“If there is proof, let’s see it,” Shubsda says in a summary of the report.

The material, consisting of transcripts of interviews with eight academics and curators and one scholarly article, was compiled by Valerie Steiner, a media and public relations specialist. Steiner said she was approached by church officials after promoting “Celebracion ’86,” a Spanish-language rally for Latino Catholics at Dodger Stadium, for Archbishop Roger Mahony.

A knowledgeable source in the church said the report was not commissioned to aid in the sainthood drive but to reply to recent articles quoting Serra’s critics on the treatment of Indian converts. Neither Steiner nor Shubsda would reveal its cost.

Since his election, John Paul II has made a custom of announcing beatifications--the second of three steps to sainthood--on foreign visits. In 1985 the Pope declared Serra “venerable,” the first step in the process, saying he “lived a life of heroic virtue.”

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Beatification, a Vatican finding that a miracle took place through a prayer of intercession to a candidate, is the second step. Canonization, the final step, could follow in as little as 10 years, upon verification of a second miracle. The Pope can dispense with the requirement for either miracle.

Moholy, whose official title is “vice postulator” of the Serra cause, said in a telephone interview last week that he has been summoned to the Vatican by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints to present further evidence of a Serra miracle. He will take Sister Dryda Boniface, a 71-year-old Franciscan nun from St. Louis, who says that 25 years ago she was cured of the disease lupus, a connective tissue disorder, after praying for help to Serra.

Earlier this year, Moholy delivered medical documentation of the nun’s otherwise-unexplained cure to Rome, but the Congregation for the Causes of Saints wants its medical specialists to examine her. For the cure to be considered a miracle, the congregation’s medical panel must agree that the medical diagnosis was correct and that the cure was complete and not the result of medical intervention or natural phenomenon.

Objections to Serra’s beatification in this country have centered on his treatment of California Indians.

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Since the 19th Century, historians have charged that missionaries under Serra’s authority disciplined Indian converts by whipping them and putting them in chains. They have also charged that Indians in the missions were compelled to give up their culture and to provide forced labor. As a result of close confinement and exposure to European diseases, Indians died in large numbers. Research also suggests that Indian converts were not permitted to return to their villages to live if they changed their minds about Christianity.

There is little disagreement about the facts, as the Serra report confirms. The arguments in the report focus on the motives of critics and on the interpretation of facts.

Several of those interviewed for the report charged that contemporary critics of Serra--who was a member of the Inquisition--are guilty of anti-Christian attitudes and of the same anti-Catholic prejudices that motivated some early California historians. They contend that the Indians would have died of diseases and lost their culture regardless of which European power settled California. They also make plain that their judgments are of Serra as a historical figure, not as a candidate for sainthood, and that as a historical figure he must be judged in the framework of his century.

‘Baroque Catholicism’

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Doyce B. Nunis Jr., history professor at USC, said in the report: “You cannot take Serra’s life and times in the missions out of historical context. It’s all very well and good to look back today and, well, this and this and this. But you must remember that in the 18th Century, you would have an 18th-Century perspective, particularly an 18th-Century Catholic perspective, which was Baroque Catholicism.”

There is considerable dispute on several issues, including the health and happiness of the Indians before the missionaries arrived and whether Serra ever mistreated an Indian.

Nunis, longtime editor of Southern California Quarterly, journal of the Historical Society of Southern California, said that although corporal punishment was used in the missions, “there’s no evidence that Serra ever instituted physical punishment or any kind of unusual punishment. He never lifted his hand against any Indian as far as what evidence we have, and I doubt if he would. He did not condone violence.”

There is no eyewitness testimony about Serra’s actions in the historical literature. In his two-volume biography of Serra, however, Father Maynard J. Geiger wrote, “Serra upheld the custom of whipping,” noting that “it was as old as the conquest of America.” Even during his lifetime, Serra was criticized for the treatment of Indian converts at the Carmel mission, and he was forthright in defending himself, according to Geiger, a Franciscan historian.

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‘Cause of Surprise’

“It has always been a cause of surprise to me,” Serra wrote to a superior, “to observe that your lordship should take it as a slight to your own sense of dignity that here my fellow missionary fathers should order the lash for an Indian in this mission which has been Christian for so short a time.”

According to Geiger’s book, published in 1959, Serra--known to lash himself during prayer until he bled--wrote, “Undoubtedly the first to evangelize these shores followed the practice, and they surely were saints.”

Several of those interviewed for the report have long been associated with the Serra cause and served on the Serra Bicentennial Commission in 1984, and Steiner said that no academics critical of Serra were consulted. A typical question asked of those interviewed: “Was Father Serra a brutal man who enslaved the Indians and completely destroyed their culture?”

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One of the scholars interviewed for the report, Harry Kelsey, chief curator of history at the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History, said: “Father Serra was certainly a very human man. He had lots of weaknesses, I suppose, but he had tremendous dedication and strength of purpose. . . . He was a man who devoted himself to the Indians and really tried to help them.”

Kelsey said that life was hard for California Indians when Serra arrived, adding that the idea that they “lived in a sort of pastoral Eden, in perfect peace with one another, is just the greatest malarkey. There’s absolutely no truth to it at all.”

‘Siberia’ in California

At the time, according to Father Francis F. Guest, a Franciscan historian and Serra specialist, Spain was divided “between the traditionalist Catholics, among whom the Franciscans were included, and the enlightened Catholics who . . . were more optimistically open to the science and philosophy of the day. The friars in Upper California, distant from the cultural changes that were overtaking Europe, yielded but gradually to the ever mounting pressure of the humanitarian movement that sprang from the Enlightenment. At this time, Upper California was, as it were, the Siberia of the Spanish empire.”

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The report “is definitely slanted toward the positive,” Steiner said. “Its purpose is to present the good side of Serra,” she said, volunteering that she has no doubt that Serra condoned whipping of Indian converts.

Two people who had been critical of Serra, Father Michael Galvan, the only Indian priest in Northern California, and CheqWeesh Auh-Ho-Oh, an Indian activist, were interviewed, but their views are not included in the report. Serra supporters in the church frequently refer to Auh-Ho-Oh, who has threatened to disrupt the Pope’s visit to Carmel if the beatification goes forward, as “that witch.”

Included in the packet is a photocopy of a brief, entirely favorable article on Serra from the Oct. 5 Escondido Times Advocate. Not reproduced is a longer, more balanced article that appeared in the paper the same day.

‘Process of Dialogue’

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In addition to the report’s head-on attack on Serra’s critics, Shubsda has quietly begun conversations with Native American Catholics and their supporters on the subject of Serra and the beatification.

“A process of dialogue is going on,” said Father Gilbert Hemauer, executive director of the Tekakawitha Conference, an organization of Native American Catholics. “Beatification at this point is not a forgone conclusion,” he said.

According to the recently published papal itinerary, the Pope will fly from Los Angeles to Monterey Peninsula airport on the morning of Sept. 17 and travel by helicopter to an athletic field next to Carmel Mission, where Serra is buried.

The pontiff is scheduled to address 300 clergy inside the basilica on the subject of evangelism and then speak to a crowd of 3,000 in the mission courtyard. From the mission he will fly by helicopter to Laguna Seca raceway for a major address to more than 100,000 people on the subject of agriculture in a religious context.

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“There are some contingency plans, just in case,” said Ted Elisee, a spokesman for the Monterey diocese. “If the beatification comes about, we will have to rejiggle the schedule,” he said.

In that event, a three-hour beatification service would be held at Laguna Seca in the morning and the afternoon rally would be canceled. Serra would then be called “Blessed Junipero Serra.”


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