Junípero Serra’s Missions Destroyed Entire Native Cultures. And Now He’s Going to Be a Saint.

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It’s a warm fall day outside Mission Dolores, where an Ohlone man whose baptismal name is Francisco is tied to a whipping post. A week ago he ran away to the village where he grew up, but the soldiers hunted him down and brought him back in chains. A priest has gathered the other Indians at the mission to witness Francisco’s punishment. “Remember that this is for your own good, my children,” he says as he raises the leather whip. “The devil may tempt you to run away. But you must fight off temptation to gain eternal life.” He brings down the whip on Francisco’s bare back. After applying 25 lashes, he drops the whip, bows his head, and says a prayer.

This is not a side of mission life that’s taught in the fourth grade. But scenes like this took place at every one of the 21 missions in the chain begun in 1769 by a diminutive Franciscan friar named Junípero Serra. Every schoolchild knows that California Indians at Serra’s missions were taught the Gospel, fed, and clothed; few know that many were also whipped, imprisoned, and put in stocks. Junípero Serra’s pious hope to convert pagan Indians into Catholic Spaniards resulted not only in the physical punishment of countless Indians, but in the death of tens of thousands of them—and, ultimately, in the eradication of their culture. So it was understandable that when Pope Francis announced plans to canonize Junípero Serra in January, some California Indians felt, at least figuratively, as if they were being whipped by a priest again.

“I felt betrayed,” says Louise Miranda Ramirez, tribal chairwoman of the Ohlone Costanoan Esselen Nation, whose people occupied large parts of northern California at the time of Serra’s arrival in 1769. “The missions that Serra founded put our ancestors through things that none of us want to remember. I think about the children being locked into the missions, the whippings—and it hurts. I hurt for our ancestors. I feel the pain. That pain hasn’t gone away. And it needs to be corrected.”




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