Serra Students Sing His Praises

Times Staff Writer

The longstanding debate over the canonization of Junipero Serra, the 18th-Century Franciscan priest who founded the California mission system, has raged unabated since Serra was first mentioned as a candidate for sainthood.

But at Gardena’s Junipero Serra High School, there is no debate.

“My friends at other schools say, ‘Serra, who is that?’ ” senior Arturo Patino said in an interview last week.

But Serra students are well-versed in the history of their school’s namesake and have followed both the Vatican’s findings on Serra’s worthiness for sainthood and the anger from those who say he was no saint.


“I’d been to the missions, and we also learned about him here in school,” Patino said. “I feel he’s finally getting the recognition he deserves.”

Serra was beatified--a step on the way to sainthood--by Pope John Paul II at the Vatican last week, a ceremony attended by the high school’s principal, Father Charles Hill.

Hill represented the all-male parochial school whose 350 students are predominantly black, and where Serra’s story is common knowledge.

That was evident during a recent visit to the campus. Senior Albert Plascencia said he has “heard a lot about Serra. He was one of the first white settlers in California and he’s one of nine Americans who has been blessed” by the church.


What Serra represents to students, said faculty member Patrick Fitch, is a role model whose perseverance and indomitable spirit makes him “a distant figure of admiration.”

But admiration is hardly the feeling expressed toward Serra by some American Indian groups, historians and other detractors. They say that in founding the mission system in Spanish California, Serra whipped American Indian converts and enslaved them at the missions, where they died in great numbers of European diseases such as smallpox, syphilis, and even the common cold.

And as the American Indians died, opponents charge, much of their culture died with them.

Even some of Serra’s defenders acknowledge that the missions led to the demise of many Indians and their culture.

In a report issued in 1986 by the Archdiocese of Monterey, Franciscan Father Francis F. Guest of Santa Barbara acknowledged that “the missions themselves, as an institution, were an important cause of death among the converted Indians.”

Hill acknowledged that there is duality to the Serra story.

“Sometimes we think of saints as people who are absolutely perfect, but in no way is the church holding that,” he said. “The church is saying they are good people, though they may have had faults. It’s a matter of holding up an example.”

For Hill, watching “the enthusiasm of the people” at the Vatican and in St. Peter’s Square was a jubilant occasion-- “It’s part of California history, and since I’m the principal of Serra, I felt I should be there.


“There is no question in my mind that (Serra) was adamantly opposed to the Spanish military and was a protector of the Indians from the Spanish military.”

Throughout the school, the focus on Serra is equally positive.

At 59, Father Serra “walked from San Diego to the missions in Northern California,” said Fitch. “Commitment is virtually unheard of in contemporary society. Hopefully we can transmit some of (Serra’s) deeply held commitments to the students.”

Serra senior Patino said he has learned, on his own as well as at school, about Serra’s dedication.

“He never took advantage of the Indians when he could have,” Patino said.

Hill acknowledged that Serra used corporal punishment against Indians, but said it, along with self-flagellation, was an accepted form of punishment during the 18th Century.

“It was common for even Father Serra to take ‘the discipline,’ to beat himself” in front of American Indians at the missions, Hill said.

Serra also worked to remove Indians from the control of the harsh laws of the Spanish military, one reason some see him as a protector of the Indians, Hill said.


But Serra’s “ultimate goal was to make (the Indians) self-reliant, and in that respect he didn’t succeed,” Hill said.

Controversy or not, Serra students said Serra’s beatification is a fitting tribute.

Many Catholic schools “are already named after saints, so we’re kind of unusual in that way,” said student Plascencia. “Not every school can say that.”

Hill--who traveled to the beautification with a local delegation that included Archbishop Roger M. Mahony, archivist Msgr. Francis J. Weber and others from the Archdiocese of Los Angeles--said he paid for the trip himself.

Serra’s beatification by the Roman Catholic church was the second step in the three-step process to sainthood. Serra attained the first step in September, 1987, when, during Pope John Paul II’s visit to Los Angeles, he was declared “venerable.”

After last month’s beatification ceremony, Father Serra became known as Blessed Junipero Serra, and Aug. 28, the anniversary of Serra’s death, was named the day of the Feast of Junipero Serra. Proof of a miracle is required for each step toward sainthood; proof of a third miracle will be required before Serra is canonized.