On Serra and controversy

March 23, 2016, 11:59 p.m.

A student at a Catholic high school once asked me if the Catholic Church would strip a saint of his or her title if a cure were found years later for a miracle attributed to that saint. The fact that we know something today does not change the fact that it was a very real miracle for those who experienced it at the time — miracles are tested against the natural or scientific laws of the day. This example, I believe, gets to the heart of the ASSU Undergraduate Senate’s request to cleanse Stanford of the name Junípero Serra. Judging the past based on current values creates a slippery slope. A brief history lesson may be useful for those interested in what the ASSU Undergraduate Senate is attempting to do.

Only weeks after Serra’s death, his friend Father Francisco Palóu began writing a biography about the man who brought Catholic Christianity to California. In 1989, Dorothy Regnery wrote in Sandstone and Tile, the quarterly of the Stanford Historical Society, that Jane and Leland Stanford were very fond of Serra. They respected him so much that they commissioned a statue in his honor that was presented to the city of Monterey on June 3, 1891. Acclaimed novelist Helen Hunt Jackson glorified Serra in her 1883 essay “Father Junípero Serra and His Work.” In 1910, a movement began to recognize Serra for his contributions — its major booster was the Native Sons of the Golden West, an organization devoted to historical preservation. Two decades later, the society’s campaign would come to fruition. In 1931, Serra was memorialized with a statue in the rotunda of the United States Capitol. Father Muller, representing the Franciscan Friars of California, summed up the popular sentiment for Serra in the early part of the 20th century: “The unveiling of the statue of Junípero Serra is the realization of the words spoken by the Hon. Hiram W. Johnson when on the 24th of November, 1913, the bicentennial of the birth of Junípero Serra, as governor of the State of California he proclaimed a legal holiday saying: ‘To the memory of Junípero Serra, California owes an everlasting tribute.’”

In 1963, The Americas, a quarterly review published by the Academy of American Franciscan History, presented an article by historian Jack D. Forbes titled “The Historian and the Indian: Racial Bias in American History. Father Francis J. Weber wrote in his 1966 preface to “A Select Guide to California Catholic History,” “Telling the story of California’s missions is no new endeavor, and the pageantry of that era is now an accepted and pivotal part of Western Americana. Through the dedicated efforts of such scholars as Zephyrin Engelhardt, Herbert E. Bolton and Maynard J. Geiger, quality has been combined with quantity to provide narratives at once accurate and absorbing.” The understanding portrayed by Weber has been challenged, to some extent. How is it that such diverse people over such a long period agreed that Serra should be honored? It is not because new information has been uncovered, but because of changes in attitudes and in how we are taught about history. It is peculiar to me that in Mexico and Spain, Serra is not a controversial figure.

Rubén G. Mendoza, professor of archaeology at California State University, Monterey Bay, lived with anger for most of his life towards anything to do with the Catholic missions. He was told by those whom he trusted that Serra and the Catholic Church were anything but benevolent. However, he overcame these feelings while excavating at San Carlos Cathedral in Monterey, the site of the Royal Presidio Chapel founded by Serra in 1770. He shared in a March 17, 2015, Los Angeles Times article: “After years of rejecting the California mission era, I felt a powerful personal connection with it. . . . I’m Iberian, indigenous and Mexican. It took years to reconcile those differences. But I was born here.”

There is an inherent problem if anger is the dominant lens through which one sees history. Why? Because everybody can be angry when it comes to history. For instance, Catholics at Stanford were shunned for most of its history. The first regular Sunday Mass was not celebrated in Memorial Church until 1966. Catholics were not given their own parish on campus until 1997. Catholics at Stanford sure have every right to be angry.

History can be used as a weapon, but it can also be a powerful tool to show the common thread that binds us. I believe wholeheartedly that studying any topic from a myriad of viewpoints will make us more thoughtful and understanding. Serra’s writings are available online for free. Read them and one will see that he was no monster, as a few claim. Learn from the past to make sense of the present. Do not change the past in order to feel good about the present. Just imagine what people in the future will say of you and me.

– Christian Clifford

Contact Christian Clifford at saintserrabook ‘at’ gmail.com.

Christian Clifford is the author of “Saint Junípero Serra: Making Sense of the History and Legacy” and coming soon from Vesuvius Press, “Who Was Saint Junípero Serra?” For more information, visit www.SaintSerraBook.com.


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