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Pope Wants To Canonize The Controversial Man Who Brought Missions To California

R.D. McLean portraying Junipero Serra in the Mission Play at the Mission Playhouse in San Gabriel, Calif. in 1926 along with two actors portraying Indians. (Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library)
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The Pope, whose politics have drawn the love of progressives and increasingly the ire of Republicans, wants to fastrack to sainthood the man who brought God, disease and forced labor to the natives of California centuries ago.

Pope Francis announced today on a flight to Manila that he will canonize Junipero Serra, a Spanish Franciscan from the 1700s who founded eight of the first 20 California missions. According to Reuters, he said, "In September, God willing, I will canonize Junipero Serra in the United States, who was the evangelizer of the west of the United States."

The Pope has a trip to Philadelphia planned in September, and he is expected to hit up the United Nations in New York and meet with the president in DC. There's speculation now that he will make a visit to California with this recent announcement, too. Serra is an iconic figure in our state. His statues abound around official buildings, including at our Capitol in Sacramento. Serra is one miracle shy of sainthood, but Pope Francis has just decided to waive that requirement just for Serra.

But Serra is far from a universally beloved figure. He was chosen to oversee the missionary expansion in California in 1768, and by his death in 1784, he'd succeeded in establishing eight missions. The missions disrupted life for the natives of California, including the Tongva in Southern California. The newly-baptized lured onto missions were ravaged by infectious disease, but life wasn't good for survivors either. KCET writes:

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Life at the mission was unpleasant even for those who escaped disease and early death. The missions were enormously profitable, and while the fathers theoretically held the mission lands in trust for their charges, little of the wealth made its way to the Indian laborers. "Despite innumerable lamentations, apologies, and justifications, there can be no serious denial that the mission system, in its economics, was built upon forced labor," historian Sherburne F. Cook wrote in his influential 1943 article, "The Indian versus the Spanish Mission." Tongva tribal council member Mark Acuña was even more blunt in a KCET Departures interview, describing Mission San Gabriel as "a slave society."

The OC Weekly points out that local tribes' numbers were decimated under the colonial project to the point that still to this day, many local tribes haven't been able to win federal recognition.