Catholic Church launches campaign to reshape Junipero Serra’s image

Writings by Father Junipero Serra, a friar whom Pope Francis will elevate to sainthood during his visit to the U.S. in September.

Writings by Father Junipero Serra, a friar whom Pope Francis will elevate to sainthood during his visit to the U.S. in September.

(Liz O. Baylen / Los Angeles Times)

It’s not every day that a newly named saint needs a campaign to spruce up his image.

But with the Vatican’s formal announcement Monday that the pope will canonize Father Junipero Serra during the pontiff’s visit to the U.S. came the beginnings of an apparent rebranding effort.

The 18th century friar and his acolytes are credited with launching a string of missions from San Diego to Sonoma, which laid the spiritual and economic foundations of modern California. Advocates for his sainthood contend that the Mallorca-born missionary opted to spread the gospel rather than lay claim to land and gold like so many Spanish governors and military leaders.

But the treatment of natives at the missions -- where the Spanish often flogged the insolent and chased those who tried to escape -- has drawn scrutiny and protest. Many Native American groups have reviled Serra and his ilk for stamping out their traditional life while introducing foreign diseases that decimated the population.


To counter what it considers negative or inaccurate portraits of the future saint, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles has launched a website devoted to Serra,

“In order to understand why Father Serra is being canonized, we need to understand the real story of why he is being considered for sainthood,” said the archdiocese’s archivisit emeritus, Msgr. Francis J. Weber, whose writings are included on the site.

The website documents Serra’s early life in Spain and charts his rise from an academic career in Italy to his travels as an evangelist in the Western Hemisphere.

After his death in 1784 at the San Carlos Mission in Carmel, some Native Americans referred to the late Serra as “el santo,” or the saint, but the canonization effort picked up in the mid-20th century, a process that is outlined on the site. English and Spanish translations of the content are available.

The effort to burnish Serra’s image isn’t limited to the digital space.

A special conference is to be held next month in Rome devoted to shedding light on Serra’s role in carrying Catholicism across the Atlantic Ocean, Vatican officials announced Monday.

Archbishop Jose H. Gomez, head of the archdiocese of Los Angeles, is scheduled to be among the speakers at the conference, which will conclude with a Mass said by the pontiff.

Serra’s canonization is to take place on Sept. 23 outside the National Shrine in Washington, church leaders announced, offering new details about the reasons for the controversial priest’s sainthood.


An official with the Vatican’s Congregation for Saints’ Causes, Father Vincenzo Criscuolo, told reporters in comments carried by the Catholic News Service that a key piece of evidence supporting Serra’s canonization were 191 handwritten letters testifying to the holy work in the California missions.

Criscuolo called Serra an “intrepid defender of the rights of native people” and a man who was influenced by the trends of the time. He roundly dismissed efforts to characterize Serra as a proponent of genocide or the death penalty.

Guzman Carriquiry, the secretary of the Pontifical Commission for Latin America, touted Serra’s role as the United States’ first Latino saint, a status that endorses the presence of Latinos in the country, he said.

“It will allow many millions of Hispanics who live in the United States to free themselves of a mentality that says they are barely tolerated and frequently discriminated against foreigners on the margins of society,” Carriquiry said.


“They can rightly affirm, ‘We are Americans,’ without having to abandon their best cultural and religious traditions.”

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