Apologize for This

Mission founder Junipero Serra brought death and destruction to Californias natives. Now hes one step away from sainthood

The Mission San Juan Capistrano basks in the winter sun. The sky is a metallic blue. A hawk drifts overhead like a kite. A breeze feathers the pepper trees. The fountains gulp and murmur. Draped with cameras and wearing hats, nodding and pondering over their guidebooks, tourists move in processional along the well-scuffed stones, beneath the ancient crumbling arches, past watery and blemished windows, through the tiny cells that are like children's rooms.

The guidebooks say this is the mission that Father Junipero Serra built. This is made clear always. This is his mission and his monument. The mission is full of his presence: the Serra Chapel, the founding document signed by Father Serra, the statue of Father Serra. He is a founder of California, the man who brought civilization to the heathen natives. This is also clear. Go anywhere in the state:_there are streets named for him, schools, camps, museums, hotels, hospitals, government buildings, mountains. Beatified 10 years ago, he is just one confirmed miracle away from sainthood.

In the sky, a jet carves a trail 10,000 feet above the circling hawk. Beyond the stone walls a sudden honking of horns breaks out. A siren wails its Dopplered passage. Seated on a bench, two men in shorts waiting for their wives turn briefly to the sound, breaking away from their conversation about Super Bowl ticket prices. They turn back to laughter and shouts closer at hand and watch children play a game of tag across the cobbled courtyard.

If you leave the two men and the children behind and wander past the courtyard and the fountain, past the gift store, back along a shaded and stone-cool passageway, you come to the Serra Chapel. This is where Father Serra himself conducted services. There is a glittering Baroque altar made of cherry wood and covered with gold leaf—the entire thing shipped here from Barcelona. Paintings depict the Stations of the Cross. The heavy silver is ancient and from the Mexican mines conquered by Cortés.

Behind the chapel there is a dusty and hidden courtyard, off the path of most tourists. There are a couple of struggling olive trees and several shrubs identified by unreadable placards. This is the cemetery. Here and there, small, weathered wooden crosses mark the graves of unidentified padres who served here in some distant past. There is a stone marker for Jose Antonio Yorba, a Spaniard who came here with the first expedition into this country and died in 1825. And there is a tall stone cross, pitted by the weather, with an inscription reading, "In this holy place lie the bodies of those who built the mission. May their souls rest in peace."

Nowhere does it say that here also lies buried a culture.

The tall stone cross does not inform you that most of "those who built the mission" were Native Americans. Luiseño, Juaneño, Gabrielino—the natives who inhabited what is now Orange County. Probably Diegueño as well, perhaps Yuma—all converts who died of disease, gunshot, accident, overwork, old age.

This is the cemetery. This is the bone yard. It contains the bleached bones of 3,000 Native American men, women and children. Because there were so many and because space was tight, they were buried in tiers: one year's ration of deaths bears the weight of the next.

A lizard scuttles across the dust. From the other side of the walls comes the murmur of a passing tour group. Here there is only silence. And then the bells begin to chime a Christmas carol.

On March 12, Pope John Paul II attempted to make—and break—history by apologizing for his church's 2000 years of sexism, racism, anti-Semitism, and mere violence against non-believers. "We forgive and ask forgiveness," he said on the church's first-ever Day of Pardon. But while the pope apologizes, the church moves forward in its effort to give American Catholics another saint, local hero Junipero Serra. Father Serra is a California icon: the devoutly humble Franciscan who brought Christianity to the simple, Stone Age Native Americans, the putative saint who made modern California possible. But, as with all icons, the truth is different and more interesting. If you put aside what the school texts taught us and delve into the records, you find a complex man. There was a very real part of him that was the humble friar; on most of his thousands of miles of journeying across Mexico and California, he walked. Yet he was also intensely ambitious and astutely political in guarding the missions he founded from any competing influence. He was a preacher of renown, fiery and flamboyant: standing before a congregation, exhorting them to penitence, he would scourge himself with iron chains, pound his chest with a stone, and extinguish lighted candles on his bare flesh. He was an academic noted for his knowledge of church doctrine and once taught philosophy at one of Spain's greatest universities. But he could also be an irritating little scold: when water and provisions grew scarce on the 99-day voyage that first brought him from Spain to the New World, he lectured the sick and grumbling crew, "The best way to prevent thirst is to eat little and talk less so as not to waste saliva."

Next Page »