In less than a week, thousands are expected to pour into Washington, D.C., to see Pope Francis canonize 18th century priest Junipero Serra.
In California, where Serra founded the state’s first missions, the church is planning its own tribute.
Officials at the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles spent Thursday mounting a special art exhibit honoring the friar. The display, housed in a chapel at the Cathedral of our Lady of the Angels and open to the public beginning Wednesday, will feature a painting of Serra commissioned by Archbishop Jose H. Gomez. It is thought to be the first official portrait of Serra as a saint.
“It’s a piece that really aims to capture his spiritual side and show his devotion to God,” artist Lalo Garcia said.
The oil, painted on canvas, shows a haloed Serra, hands clasped in prayer, looking up at the Virgin Mary. Also pictured are three of the missions Serrra directed — San Buenaventura, San Gabriel and San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo, where he died in 1784 — as well as the California coast and the Camino Real.
Serra’s canonization has received much attention since Pope Francis made the announcement in January.
Critics, particularly Native American groups, oppose honoring a man who they say forced thousands to convert to Catholicism and did little to help as they labored amid harsh treatment.
Garcia, who spent months on the portrait, said he was well aware of the controversy. The native of Michoacan, Mexico, is familiar with stories of priests imposing Catholicism on natives. But the details regarding Serra, he said, he will leave to historians.
“It’s all a matter of personal opinion,” he said. “I just know he couldn’t have done the work he did without having a great deal of faith.”
The exhibit, at the main entrance of the cathedral, will run through the end of the year and includes several pieces by Mexican painter Aurelio Mendoza. Two show Serra at work among the natives: directing the construction of a mission and overseeing an offering by indigenous people to Jesus. The remaining pieces, by local artist Howard Anderson, portray California’s 21 missions.
In the chapel, visitors can see two Serra relics: a small piece of bone and a wine-colored stole he wore over his robes.
On Saturday, the cathedral will host a Mass to bless all the Catholics traveling to Washington for Wednesday’s canonization.
Because many Angelenos will not be able to travel to the ceremony, archdiocese spokeswoman Adrian Marquez said, “We want this to be a space where the local community can gather and commemorate such a historic moment for the church.”