Witness to a Troubled Saint-Making: Junipero Serra and the Theology of Failure

The Mass itself was divine, if the saint being honored was less so.  The banquet of intermingled Latin and Spanish liturgy and homily, prayers of the faithful in several languages, an authentic and moving misa criola, accompanied by an exquisite blend of Spanish baroque music, indigenous instruments and Afro-Latino beats wafted across the grounds of the Catholic Basilica in Washington DC  announcing the troubled canonization of Father Junipero Serra. My Oakland, California bishop was not eager to grant me the tickets that would allow me to observe ( along with some 25,000 others) from the lawn outside the Catholic National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception the ancient ritual of saint making.  After five hours walking the line to the Basilica, sans water, sans food, my little knapsack carefully searched  by security guards who were alarmed that I was carrying a small, loud whistle, which they confiscated,  I was nonetheless allowed to take my standing room behind various barriers that allowed me to see  nothing at all. I decided to take action. In my 70s, dressed in a dour  black dress with flat black shoes, I passed well enough for a nun and eventually helped myself to a vacant seat along the  same row  and down from Jeb Bush and his petite wife, Columba.

Before that, mingling in the crowd I met a small group of representatives of the Ohlone tribe from the San Francisco Bay Area. They were beautifully dressed in ritual attire and they carried a delicate headdress that they hoped to deliver as a gift at the altar of the Basilica. They hoped that it would be a first act of acknowledgement and  reconciliation. Their gift, however, was not accepted. Instead, Vincent Madina, an Ohlone descendant and assistant curator at Mission Delores in San Francisco was invited to participate in the prayers of the faithful. Although he disagrees with the canonization of Serra who ( he says)  destroyed his ancestors’ language and culture, he agreed to read a verse from the Old Testament in the vanquished language of his ancestors, Chochenyo. The language is dead and it took Madina two weeks with the help of linguists, to translate the  text from the prophet Isaiah, chapter 52: “How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, announcing peace, bearing good news, announcing salvation.”

Later in the Mass, following the formal proclamation of Serra’s sainthood, Andrew Galvan, a curator of Dolores Mission in San Francisco, brought a relic of St. Junipero up to a stand near the altar as a song was sung in Spanish accompanied by drums. However, no one in the multitude  seemed to know just what that relic was. Some thought it was a small fragment of his body ( what is known in Catholic circles as a ‘first class’ relic); others thought it was a piece of his coffin.

The music, pomp and circumstance of the event pleased the crowd, but the lack of food and water (confiscated by security) was hard on the young and the old.  A young man and his girlfriend were doing their best to stay on their feet during their  five-day fast in protest of fossil fuels. But by the time the endless procession of cardinals, bishops, priests, friars, seminarians, and altar boys settled into their seats and before the Holy Father appeared at the altar, the hunger artist collapsed on the lawn begging for water, which magically appeared, but no loaves and fishes were in sight. He barely made it through the Mass.

At the consecration, as Pope Francis held up the host announcing the presence of the body and blood of Christ (accompanied by the old jingle-jangle bells I remember from grade school), I suddenly began to shake and to pray, fearful that, so exposed as he was, Francis could be felled by a stray bullet or an arrow.  Among my cascade of prayers asking that God protect him was a one that came unbidden:  ‘Dear Lord, you who turned water into wine at the request of Mary your mother, and bread and wine into your own body and blood, could you please turn a few of these cardinals, bishops  and seminarians into women?  (On my return home I asked my husband, Michael, if I had had a nervous breakdown or if it was the Holy Spirit that had moved me to pray.  “Could be either “, he replied laconically. “But don’t discount the Holy Spirit.”)

The crowd was diverse and divided on the question of the sainthood of the late 18th century Spanish missionary, who established 21 Franciscan Missions in what was then known as Alta California. When he appeared, the Holy Father too seemed to be a divided self, a bit fragile, jet lagged and tired perhaps, but not at all the robust man I had met during a Pontifical plenary meeting on human trafficking in the Vatican last April.  Francis seemed to be tottering a bit under the weight of his ornate vestments. He had to be slightly prompted to make the definitive  papal approval of the canonization: ‘Accepto!’  But did he really accept the decision of his papal predecessors?

Pope Francis in Washington DC

Pope Francis avoiding eye-contact with the statue of Serra in the rotunda of the Capitol.

The next day, among the crowds on the West Lawn of the Capitol, I heard Pope Francis allude to the suffering caused by the colonization of the Americas, although he added that one could not make the error of interpreting the past in terms of the present.  As he was gently directed out of the  congressional chambers, his guides positioned him in front of the Statue of Junipero Serra in the Capitol, the gift of benefactors in 1939, joining the statue of President Ronald Reagan as one of two Californians who have achieved this honor.  Francis barely spent a minute looking at the statue. He is a man who is more hungry for people than monuments.

The vandalism of the 6-foot-tall statue of Father Serra at the California Mission in Carmel-by-the Sea, was not shocking to those who know the history of the Franciscan missions and their painful outcome. Doused with green paint and scrawled with graffito,  “Saint of Genocide”, authorities are ready to label the act as a “hate crime”.  This is an unfortunate misreading and a missed opportunity to address deep wounds.  It is hard for Anglo and Latino Californians to accept the facts that  ‘our’ indigenous population suffered a die-out following contact with the Spanish Franciscans, and later, an even graver crisis between 1860 and 1900, when contacts between California Indians and English-speaking ranchers and Russian trappers in California resulted in a veritable genocide.  The indigenous people of California were extremely vulnerable. Their ecological niche allowed them to live in small, semi-nomadic bands of hunting, fishing and gathering peoples, speaking hundreds of dialects and living off the bounty of land and the sea.  They were nothing like the powerful Iroquois-Mohawk confederacy of the Northeast of the United States or the settled Pueblo Indian agriculturalists of New Mexico.

Father Serra had a dream, a utopian one.  He hoped to create a system of Catholic missions that would link San Diego to San Francisco, each mission just a three-day horseback ride apart.  Junipero Serra dreamed of ‘planting’ a European outpost in New Spain through a Mission-Central that would put California’s indigenous people at the center of the new colony. Later, Mexican and Spanish American settlers were expected to build their towns and pueblos around the Missions with intricate gardens, craft workshops, dormitories for men and women and children who accepted Christ, the Spanish language, Latin, and European carbohydrates, corn, flour, and oatmeal.  The plan resembled a Spanish-colonial version of the Puritan New England towns built around a central square with a simple wooden Protestant Church and cemetery, buttressed by the town meeting house.

But in California it didn’t happen that way.  The recruitment of thousands of unrelated “triblets” (small bands) and their ‘concentration’ at the Missions was a disaster. Many did not survive their  first year living at the Missions. Men, women and babies died of epidemics, protein hunger, respiratory infections, and homesickness.  The Mission fathers recorded their distress in letters: for every Catholic convert two of the ‘neophytes’ (candidates for conversion) died.  The worst period occurred after the end of the Mexican war and the secularization of the Missions.  It was later, during and after the Gold rushes in 1849, that there was, without exaggeration, a Native Californian genocide.

Our beautiful California landscape is forever scarred by that history.


Protest against the statue of Cecil Rhodes in Cape Town.

In March 2015 there was a similar uprising of Black, Colored (mixed race) and white students of the University of Cape Town (UCT) against a British colonizer of the beautiful Cape of Good Hope: Cecil Rhodes, who left behind a vanquished land and a legacy of prestigious scholarships for English speaking students.

The student protest was visceral, led by a Black student, Chumani Maxwele, who had vandalized the hated “Rhodes Memorial” that dominated the grand entrance to the University of Cape Town.  Styled after Rodin’s “The Thinker,” the Rhodes monument at UCT honored in stone the man who is the primary symbol of the colonization of South Africa and the accompanying dispossession and oppression of the semi-nomadic indigenous peoples of the Cape:  the Khoikhoi (the so-called “Hottentot” herding peoples) and the San (the so-called “Bushmen”) who lived in the southern Cape for thousands of years until the Dutch and then the British arrived and disposed of them like pesky, dirty flies.  The land was declared to be “empty” and there for the taking by European settlers.  Adding salt to the wounds, the words of Rudyard Kipling’s poem expressing the imperial British manifest destiny, and the South African battle hymn, a perverse version of Martin Luther King’s  “I have a dream” speech was inscribed at the base of the Rhodes Monument:






Maxwele and his followers threw feces on the Rhodes Monument and toppled the statue.  This was followed by a general protest of students and workers at the university.  Having taught at UCT during the end of apartheid more than twenty years ago, I was surprised that the toppling of the Rhodes Memorial had taken so long. The UCT administration did not punish the student protesters or call the protest a “hate crime”.  They understood the reason for the students’ anger. The Vice Chancellor of UCT admitted that it was time for Cecil Rhodes to be thrown to his knees from his royal chair and packed away with other memorials to the Dutch and British colonizers and oppressors through the period of apartheid.  Vice Chancellor Max Price said: “What may look like chaos and confusion is more than that…this is what a university is and should be about. We argue, we fight, and we listen”.

Like Rhodes, Junipero Serra’s statue does not belong in the Capitol, the California legislature or in the Mission of Carmel-by-the Sea. It belongs in a Museum dedicated to the history of California and its native peoples.  As for Pope Francis, one can forgive him for doing his job. He did not begin the long process of canonization and it might be asking too much of him to have refused to carry out his papal duties.  Yet, a reprisal of his heartfelt apology in Bolivia in July  — “I say this to you with regret: Many grave sins were committed against the native peoples of America in the name of God, Like Saint John Paul II, I ask that the Church ‘kneel before God and implore forgiveness for the past and present sins of her sons and daughters” would have gone a long way toward recognizing the suffering of the ancestors of the lucky to be alive descendants of the Missions.

The US needs a need a Truth and Reconciliation process similar to the one that South Africans had after the election of Mandela. The South African TRC did not try to rewrite the history books, so much as to recognize that there were many different narratives and experiences of South African history.  There was not one truth, but multiple truths, which people had to learn to accept.

As a young child, educated in New York City by Irish and French nuns, I was taken with my schoolmates on annual pilgrimages to Auriesville, New York to honor the French Jesuit missionaries, who died at the hands of the Huron and Mohawk Indians.  Father Isaac Jogues and the Jesuit brother and surgeon, Rene Goupil, were our childhood heroes. We weren’t taught to “hate” the people who had killed the missionaries and later I learned about the Iroquois nation by reading the volumes compiled in the “Jesuit Relations”.

I wish there had been a way that Pope Francis could have honored the work (and writings) of the Franciscans and Jesuits in the Americas by also honoring the courageous indigenous exemplars, some who converted to Catholicism and those who did not.   He might have mentioned the canonization of the first indigenous American saint, Kateri Tekakwitha, known as the Lilly of the Mohawks. But there were others whose lives were equally exemplary following a very different colonial trajectory.

John Demos, wrote a wonderful book some years ago, The Unredeemed Captive, about Marguerite Kanenstenhawi, a Puritan colonist who was kidnapped with her father, mother and siblings, minus two that were murdered during a massacre by French and Mohawk Indians in Deerfield, Massachusetts in1704.  Along with a hundred other captives Marguerite, a seven year old, was taken to Canada where her family dispersed. She was adopted by the Mohawk community and assimilated into the tribe and its culture. Relations were good between the Canadian French Jesuits and the Mohawk community and she was baptized a Catholic, of sorts, taking two names, Marguerite, and her Mohawk name, A’ongonte, meaning “she has been planted here.”  Marguerite/A’onggonte married a young Mohawk man, raised a family, and chose to stay with the Mohawks for the rest of her life.


Topped statue of Serra at the California Mission in Carmel-by-the Sea.

After a long search by grieving relatives in Massachusetts, her brother’s son found Marguerite and offered to pay a ransom to the Mohawks in order to return his aunt to civilization.  Marguerite refused the ransom, but she agreed to visit her surviving Puritan family in 1739.  She was welcomed home with open arms, but Marguerite stunned her relatives when she told them that she dearly loved her husband and children and that her life as a Mohawk was a happy one.  She said that she lived among people who respected women and the Mohawk lived in longhouses that were ruled by the most senior women. She would be very unhappy living the constrained life of a Puritan woman.

Before leaving for Canada, Marguerite knelt in the graveyard of her relatives in Deerfield and said a prayer in French at the headstone of her parents and of her siblings, who were killed in the raid in which she was captured. She asked their forgiveness for returning to her Indian family and she asked that there be peace between her two families and cultures.  Marguerite Kanenstenhawi would be my nomination for sainthood, the next time around.

Nancy Scheper-Hughes is Chancellor’s Professor of Medical Anthropology, University of California Berkeley. Scheper-Hughes participated in a Vatican plenary on Human Trafficking in April 2015. She has published a series of articles on the “conversion” of Pope Francis, including, “Can God Forgive Jorge Bergoglio?” (2013, CounterPunch,;  “The Final Conversion of Pope Francis” (with Jennifer S. Hughes),  and “Face to Face with Pope Francis”  (2015), Huffington Post.