Segment from Catholics in America

The Name of the Father

Historian Steven Hackel examines the controversial legacy of missionary Junipero Serra — and why Pope Francis chose to canonize him.


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Note: This transcript corresponds to a previous broadcast of this episode. Therefore, some audio segments may not exactly match the transcript. 

BRIAN: Welcome to the show. I’m Brian Balogh.


ED: I’m Ed Ayers.


PETER: And I’m Peter Onuf. Over the past few weeks, you may have heard news stories like this one.


FEMALE SPEAKER: Pope Francis is hugely popular among Catholics in the US. Still, his visit this month will not be without controversy. That’s because the pope plans to make the priest Junipero Serra a saint.


PETER: That’s a report from NPR, noting that Pope Francis’s decision to canonize Junipero Serra in Washington, DC, is raising a few eyebrows. Serra biographer Steven Hackel says the Spanish missionary isn’t an obvious choice for a saint. He’s a polarizing figure, even among Catholics.


STEPHEN HACKEL: Many people see him as an exemplar of a life of Catholic devotion. Others see him as California’s Columbus, as the person who’s responsible for all the ills and tragedies of the period of European conquest and afterwards.


PETER: Junipero Serra first arrived in California in 1769, after spending two decades as a missionary in Spanish Mexico.


STEPHEN HACKEL: Spain was interested in colonizing upper California, the region north of Baja California, on the Pacific coast. And Serra is an extraordinarily ambitious missionary. He’s very experienced. And he spearheads Spain’s movement into what is now the state of California.


PETER: Hackel says Serra’s northward journey also included what he saw as a spiritual goal.


STEPHEN HACKEL: He wants to work with Indians who have never been baptized, who have never spoken Spanish, who he thinks are like children in the Garden of Eden. And it isn’t until 1769 that he actually meets Indians who he believes fit that description. And he is so overcome, he essentially kisses the ground. And he says they’re just like Adam before the fall.


PETER: Serra went on to build nine Catholic missions across California, believing that the natives could only become proper Catholics if they worked and lived in his missions. The converted Indians attended mass and catechism under the watchful eye of mission priests, and were forced to adopt European style farming. And within this system, Hackel says, Serra was a tough administrator.


STEPHEN HACKEL: Serra was not a warm and fuzzy guy. He was a very, very, very hard-headed, aggressive, imperial priest.


PETER: The Indians in the missions were expected, above all, to obey. They had to ask the friars’ permission just to leave the premises.


STEPHEN HACKEL: If Indians strayed, if they left the mission to visit relatives who hadn’t been baptized, they could be punished with a flogging, with blows. And this was upsetting, distressing, painful, offensive, and unacceptable. But Serra believes that this is absolutely necessary for their development as civilized Catholic individuals.


PETER: Serra died in 1784. But the mission system he pioneered grew for decades, with horrendous effects on Native populations. Missionaries forced Indians to abandon many of their cultural traditions, while European diseases devastated local tribes. It’s no surprise, then, that Native Americans have been protesting Serra’s sainthood. Here’s Chumash Indian Georgianna Sanchez on Al-Jazeera a few weeks ago.


GEORGIANNA SANCHEZ: You could be flogged 10 times for a bad attitude. A lot of people died. What kind of saint would allow that?


STEPHEN HACKEL: It has been a shock to many of us that this pope, who seems to be very enlightened and very open to people suffering, would want to canonize him.


PETER: Hackel says the big question isn’t whether Serra is a sinner or a saint. He thinks the more interesting question is why Pope Francis and Vatican officials would want to canonize such a controversial figure. The answer, Hackel suspects, is about messaging.


STEPHEN HACKEL: They believe that there is a very pernicious wave of anti-immigration in North America. And I think Donald Trump couldn’t have come at a better time for this, because he speaks to all of the negative stereotypes that people hold to immigrants in California and elsewhere.


PETER: Hackel thinks Serra gives the church an opportunity to teach Americans a history lesson– one that focuses on Catholics.


STEPHEN HACKEL: Because I think that our national history, our early American history, is really a story of 13 English colonies that struck as one, led by Protestants who created a nation state. And it’s a very east-coast-centered nation state story. And there’s very little room in that story for people who are Latino, Hispanic, and, of course, Catholic.


The idea is that long before there were Anglo-Americans, there were Catholics, Hispanic missionaries. I think what they want to do is help us move towards a more diversified understanding of our early American history.
ED: That diverse, complex understanding of Catholics in American history is what we’ll be exploring on the show today. We’ll hear how fake exposes of convent life riled up 19th-century New England. We’ll also explore what has made the American Catholic experience distinct from its Roman Catholic roots. And we’ll chat with Catholic sisters living a life of prayer in an American monastery.

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Note to Teachers:

This lesson focuses on the work of anti-Catholic groups to ensure Protestant domination. Understanding the impact made by individuals, groups, and institutions at local, national, and global levels both in effecting change and in ensuring continuity is key. Neither the Know Nothings nor the Ku Klux Klan could prevent participation by Catholics in American government. Despite tolerant attitudes expressed by American leaders, individual heroes seem to be lacking in this story. Change seems to have come about largely through the collective energies of Catholics in America who proved themselves to be American and Catholic.

There are a number of primary and secondary sources included in this lesson for students to analyze. Students will interrogate texts and artifacts and pose questions about the past that foster informed discussion, reasoned debate, and evidence-based interpretation. As they do so, they are asked to reach an understanding of the times that produced the sources and use the information gathered to formulate statements about the issues based on the evidence they have examined.

These lessons contain an abundance of information about the difficulties experienced by Catholics in America over three centuries. Used in their entirety, they show progress in America towards a more tolerant, inclusive nation, and at the same time, the lessons illustrate the difficulty of bringing about social change.