In the heart of Silicon Valley lies Santa Clara University, a private Catholic university. And, in the heart of Santa Clara University lies Mission Santa Clara de Asis, from which the university, city, and county derive their names. Founded as the eighth mission (of twenty-one) in California by Spanish missionaries in 1777, it was the first named for a woman – Saint Clare of Assisi – and founded by Franciscan friar Junipero Serra to convert the native tribes to Catholicism.

Today, the mission serves as the university’s chapel, though it is closed – at least to the public – for Covid 19. And with parking at SCU being only by permit and pay stations being closed, my experience here was limited to taking a few photos of the admittedly beautiful building on what is a stunningly beautiful college campus. You may ask why I bothered driving here to spend only about three minutes with my car’s emergency flashers on in a reserved parking spot just to take a few pictures of a mission I couldn’t even get inside of. The answer lies in the complicated legacy of the mission’s founder, Junipero Serra, a story I’ve wanted to tell for a long time, and one that felt forced to tell from a visit to the mission closest to my home in Los Angeles, Mission San Fernando, since Father Serra had long passed away by the time that building was founded.

Mission Santa Clara

History’s basic facts are set. Events happened at specific times with certain people, places, and things being involved. After that, black and white fade much more into ever-evolving shades of gray as those facts are re-examined over and over through the lenses of modernity, leading to major contextual shifts in the legacies of some of the indisputable facts. The story of Junipero Serra is one that has evolved over time, as he has made the rounds of hero and saint to villain. As with many such people, the truth is probably somewhere in the middle, and completely dependent on the lens through which one examines the man.

Miquel Josep Serra i Ferrer was born in 1713 on the island of Majorca off the Mediterranean coast of Spain. At age seventeen, the young Miquel, who had shown aptitude for religious studies and music, joined the Franciscan order as a novice. It was at that time that he was given a new name: Junipero. He also converted his last name from the Catalan to the more simple Serra in Castilian Spanish.

Serra became a priest in 1737, remaining on Majorca to teach. However, he wished to become a missionary. So, in 1748, at the age of 35, Junipero Serra set sail for the Spanish colonies in North America. Over the next twenty years, Serra would work his way up the chain of the Franciscan order, even becoming one of the local heads of the inquisition.

In 1768, Serra and his missionary team departed Mexico for what would become his lasting legacy, the establishment of missions in Alta California, what is now the state of California. In July of the following year, he opened Mission San Diego de Alcala, the first of nine missions he would personally found.

Another view

The importance of the missions was twofold. First, they existed to create Spanish footholds in their sparsely-populated-by-Spanish colony. Second, and more to Junipero Serra’s specialty, they served to convert the local native tribes. Those who converted would live on mission grounds, or in the houses surrounding them, working in food-preparation, animal husbandry, farming, or anything else needed to sustain a small colony far from the main Spanish outposts in Mexico. They would be taught religion, Spanish, and other subjects and skills needed to bring them into Spanish civilization. More on this in a bit.

Junipero Serra died of tuberculosis in 1784, at the age of seventy. In 2015, he was canonized by Pope Francis on his first visit to the United States, after being beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1988. His remains are at Mission San Carlos in Carmel, California.

For decades, if not centuries, Junipero Serra was lauded as a brilliant administrator, missionary, and builder of Spanish Catholic civilization in a faraway land. Some of the native tribes Serra worked with likewise praised the man, with that praise continuing to this day. Members of California’s Ohlone Tribe even played active roles in the canonization mass in 2015.

Those who idealize mission life claim that Junipero Serra did in fact treat people unequally, but that those were Christians versus non-converted natives. To an extent, this may be true. However, Serra also believed in corporal punishment for even Catholic natives who disobeyed mission orders. At the time, this likely was not a major deal, and even for a couple of centuries following; after all, corporal punishment was even used by parents on their children in the United States widely through last century – and even by teachers through at least mid-century. But in the light of today’s morality, subjecting natives to punishment reserved for children and criminals seems nothing short of racist.

I love mission porticos

Even Junipero Serra’s missionary work is subject to the tests of hindsight. While some native Californians did convert completely voluntarily, many did not, and had it imposed upon them on threat of death or slavery. Lest we think Serra himself would never have done so, we must recall that he volunteered to head the local office of the inquisition, an organization that routinely tried – and executed – those even suspected of practicing alternative versions of Catholicism, let alone keep a native religion. Such a man would never have had an issue forcibly inflicting a mass-conversion-or-die policy.

In the decade preceding this writing, several statues of Junipero Serra have been toppled or decapitated, as well as painted over with slogans like “stolen land.” And, given that I write this from Los Angeles, land stolen by Spain, Mexico, and the United States in succession from tribes like the Gabrielino and Chumash, one can see the point of those who wouldn’t be happy with the original colonizer so honored.

And on the other hand, modern California might not be here without Junipero Serra and his missions, or rather it would have ended up being something else. Our rich Latinx heritage here would certainly have been significantly altered.

One last view

So is it possible to examine someone like Junipero Serra through the lens of 2020 morality and see both the good and bad? Ultimately, I don’t know. While I can do so in some cases, I struggle with it here. This was a man who so supremely looked down on non-Catholics that he devoted his entire life to converting them, regardless of the beauty of their own religious beliefs. This was a man who saw his sole purpose as being one of “civilizing” those who already claimed complex civilizations, just not European ones. And to do so while threatening them with severe retaliation for the “crime” of desiring to live as their ancestors did seals the deal for me.

I leave Mission Santa Clara quickly, but the legacy of Junipero Serra remains. The man certainly helped to build California as we know it, but his legacy as seen through my own morality and that of our modern era is more complex, if not downright villainous. I would not want a statue of the man in my hometown.

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