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It is estimated that during the mission period, the Native American population of California declined from 300,000 to 100,000 or even 30,000.
In 1934, Junipero Serra was formally proposed for sainthood. A church historical commission gathered all the material available on his life and works and shipped the archive to Rome for further examination. On May 9, 1985, Father Serra was declared "venerable," the first step toward sainthood. On Sept. 25, 1988, after extensive research had confirmed the miraculous cure of a nun afflicted with lupus, he was formally beatified by Pope John Paul II.
The process was not without controversy. Critics, particularly but not exclusively Native Americans, charged that as the chief administrator of a colonial system that exploited the native population and eventually led to its destruction, Father Serra should never be considered for sainthood. Proponents countered that Father Serra was a godly man who devoted his life to enriching, in the only way he knew, the lives of the natives of California.
Regardless, the process continues. Before he can be declared a saint, a second miracle attributable to him must be confirmed. Several possibilities have already been discarded because they involved cancer—a disease that sometimes goes spontaneously into remission. But several new possibilities are being investigated, including that of a person born without retinas who suddenly developed sight after praying to Father Serra.
For years, the man most intimately connected with the cause of Father Serra's sainthood was Father Noel Moholy, a Franciscan-appointed vice postulator—the prospective saint's advocate. Father Moholy, whose license plate read SERRA, died recently, and a new man will be appointed to his place.
Meanwhile, the controversy over Father Serra continues.
Edward Castillo, a professor at Sonoma State University and a descendant of Coahuilla and Luiseño tribes, has organized a campaign for a monument to memorialize the mission Native Americans. "The missions were not death camps," Castillo said. "But they were labor camps. In a lot of ways, the system was similar to the slave plantation system in the South."
The Native American culture of California was not a simple one, he said. Their view of the cosmos was rich, their society complex in its beliefs and traditions, and their economic system ensured that even the poorest had access to resources. The coming of the Spanish destroyed all that.
"You cannot excuse Father Serra," Castillo said. "He had spent 10 years in Sierra Gorda, so he knew that wherever the Spanish went, there would be death. He was not a demon, but he endorsed and administered a system that restrained people and executed people. He was in charge of the machinery. He saw sacrifice as necessary and believed that lives were less important than souls.
"His legacy is not sainthood. It is as the founder of a large colonial system."
Father Serra biographer Monsignor Francis Weber urges a more compassionate view. "The mission system was a system governed by strict rules and regulations," said Weber, director of the archival center of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. "It did nothing that was not done in many other parts of the world. They were dealing with aboriginal people, and nothing could be done overnight." Discipline was necessary. "The Native Americans might be punished for infractions, but there were no beatings. If corporal punishment was used, it was carefully regulated." Father Serra himself never engaged in corporal punishment, Weber said.
"Father Serra's concern was for the Native American," Weber said. "He wanted to take the message to them, and his desire was to help them. He was a brilliant, compassionate man, as much at home with these poor, benighted people as with university students.
"It could be a hard system that Father Serra administered, but the fact is that because of disease, non-mission Native Americans died out at a much faster rate. And it is also a fact that most of the problems for the culture were caused by the influx of Anglos for the gold rush."
Robert Schafer, a historian studying the archival records at the San Juan Capistrano mission, agrees. "You have to take into account the times," he said. "This was the late 18th century, and everywhere, people were treated badly. There were slaves; women and children were sent into the mines to work. This was the context of the mission system. The Native Americans, through the mission system, were tied to the land. They weren't slaves, but they weren't free either; they were life serfs. And from the Spanish point of view, those Native Americans who entered into the mission system lived better and had 'cultural advantages.'"
According to Schafer, Father Serra "was, from the soles of his feet to the top of his head, a missionary. He could be stubborn, and he could be arrogant, but his guiding light was the welfare of the natives."
The archives of the Mission San Juan Capistrano are contained in ancient leather-bound volumes a couple of inches thick. The bindings are sturdily sewn. The printing is by hand, in ink, on buff-colored paper brought by the Franciscans from Mexico City. The paper is of excellent quality and, because it is acid-free, has held up very well. The writing is generally clear; most of the entries are in Spanish, with some in Latin. The entries list baptisms and weddings and deaths among the residents of the mission, some Spaniards, most Native Americans. There are weddings of boys and girls as young as 10. There are baptisms of children whose parents were not converts themselves. There is also a term that appears frequently among the entries: "fugitive," describing an Native American who had become a Christian and then, for unspecified reasons, fled the mission.