In Los Angeles and San Francisco over the weekend, protestors tore down two statues of St. Junipero Serra, an 18th-century Franciscan priest and missionary who they accused of contributing to the destruction of Native American culture through his founding of the first nine of California’s mission churches.
Who is Junipero Serra, and why has he become such a lightning rod for controversy?
Born on the island of Petra Mallorca in Spain in 1713, Serra joined the Franciscans and quickly gained prominence as both a scholar and professor.
He chose to give up his academic career to become a missionary in the territory of New Spain, in which Spanish colonizers had already been active for over two centuries.
A California archeologist, who has studied the missions for over 25 years, told CNA earlier this year that it is clear from Serra’s own writings that he was motivated by a missionary zeal to bring salvation to the Native people through the Catholic faith, rather than by genocidal, racist, or opportunistic motivations.
“Serra writes excitedly about how he had finally found his life’s calling, and that he would give his life to these people and their salvation,” Dr. Reuben Mendoza, an archeologist and professor at California State University-Monterey Bay, told CNA.
Traveling almost everywhere on foot and practicing various forms of self-mortification, Serra founded mission churches all along the coast— the first nine of the 21 missions in what is today California.
Many of the missions would form the cores of what are today the state’s biggest cities— such as San Diego, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.
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