Fr. Serra--saint or conquistador?

Center for the Humanities Newsletter Photo
Steven Hackel

Franciscan missionary Junípero Serra, founder of California’s mission system, slept with his arms around a foot-long crucifix. He is now in line for sainthood, which seems only right to those who venerate him—but outrageous to the many others who denounce him as a rapacious conquistador and promoter of native genocide.

“Junípero Serra has been memorialized as both a pioneer of pioneers and as a religious icon, as both a founding father of the state of California and as a Catholic leader worthy of veneration and devotion,” said Steven Hackel. “There is also, however, a third Serra, one who inspires scorn, not veneration. To his most severe critics, Serra’s life embodies the evils inherent in a colonial system that promoted cultural genocide, sanctioned corporal punishment, and initiated the decimation of native California.”

A Research Fellow and OSU associate professor of history, Hackel is writing what he describes as an “interpretive biography” of Serra, to be published by Hill and Wang. Hackel’s first book, Children of Coyote, Missionaries of St. Francis: Indian-Spanish Relations in Colonial California, 1769-1850, also was written with the assistance of a Center Fellowship. It has won the 2006 American Society of Ethnohistory’s Erminie Wheeler-Voegelin Book Prize, the 2006 James Broussard Best First Book Prize from the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic, and the 2006 Pacific Coast Council on Latin American Studies Hubert Herring Book Award.

After a successful career as a priest and professor in Spain, Serra moved to Mexico as an apostolic missionary, converting Indians to Catholicism for more than twenty years. At 56, he led Spain’s colonization of California and founded a chain of missions that eventually extended from San Diego to Sonoma. Serra is likely to be canonized before long, which will make him the first saint whose legacy is rooted in California and the American Southwest.

“To the Catholic faithful, Serra is the saintly embodiment of timeless virtues—devotion, obedience and charity, all lived in the name of the church. . . To many, however, Serra merits not veneration but condemnation,” said Hackel, for the mission system enmeshed tens of thousands of natives in an oppressive, often fatal, labor system. “In many ways, therefore, history has bequeathed to us not just the heroic and saintly Serra, but an unambiguously villainous Serra, whose caricature has taken on the worst features of a rapacious Spanish conquistador.”

Though Serra’s life has inspired numerous biographies, “most are more ideological and partisan than historical. They obscure Serra’s complexity and remove him from his historical context.” The lack of a modern interpretive biography is unfortunate because Serra’s life and what it represents is an important chapter not only in American religious history, but also in the related and interwoven histories of colonial America, colonial California, the American West, the Spanish Borderlands, and Native America.

“Serra’s life story, when shorn of hyperbole and cant, remains compelling and instructive, not just for its own drama but for the glimpse it provides into the most resonant issues of his time. . . Serra was an extremely literate man who wrote often and did so with gusto, enthusiasm, and purpose.”

Serra’s role was complex, in part because of the Franciscan vows that set him apart from society while committing him to reform it. He had to submit to superiors within the order, but he also gained great power over others, which led to contempt for other institutions, particularly the Spanish monarchy.

“Serra believed in the nearly absolute powers of the church over the state, yet he lived in an age when the Bourbon state was increasing its authority over the Catholic Church. Serra, in this sense, was a mighty anachronism. Yet he was more than just a man swimming against the currents of history. Rather, he sought to reverse the rising tide of regalism that threatened to overwhelm his missionary order.

“In a further and more intimate irony, Serra sought to control Indians’ marriage and sexuality even though through his vows he had separated himself from those roles and affairs. And finally, Serra believed with such certainty that his interpretation of Catholicism was the only path to salvation that he all too often proved uncompromising and so alienated the very people he sought to convert.”

The book will conclude with reflections on what Hackel describes as “perhaps the greatest irony and challenge presented by Serra’s life and legacy, that is, the growing incongruity between the historical Serra—the missionary who devoted himself to the suppression of individuality and the denial of materialism—and the place with which his legacy is now bound, California, a state that in the popular American imagination has come to represent the glorification of unabashed vanity, quirky individualism, conspicuous consumption, and technological progress.”