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."

With the natives of the New World, he was at times equally overbearing—dispatched to quell the half-wild Pames of the Sierra Gorda north of Mexico City, he put on religious pageants, dressing the chiefs as Magi and the children as angels—but showed patience as well: he learned the Pames' excruciatingly complex language.

Occurring often enough for it to be a kind of rule, history is made by people who were lucky. And Father Serra was lucky. He had long dreamed of entering the unexplored regions of Alta California to save the inhabitants for the church, but when he finally made it as far as Mexico, he was sent off to deal with the Pames and then burdened with administration. But while he languished in Mexico City and the years revolved and he grew old, two events occurred far beyond his scope. First, the Russians launched exploring parties from their settlements in Alaska down the coast toward Alta California. When intelligence of this reached Madrid, there was panic because the central coast of Alta California was the first eastward landfall made by the Manila galleon, and Spain depended on the riches of that yearly voyage from the Orient to rule its empire and fight its wars. Orders were dispatched that an expedition be mounted to establish and fortify settlements at San Diego and Monterey.

Then the second half of Father Serra's luck came to pass. In the normal course of things, padres accompanying any expedition into Alta California would have been Jesuits; they ruled the Baja California missions that would be the jumping-off points for any expedition north. But the wealth and power of the Jesuits had long been resented by various factions at court, and now a conspiracy fabricated evidence against them, its result being the order's expulsion from all parts of the empire. Their missions in Baja were given to the Franciscans, whose leaders, casting about for someone to take charge of them, happened to remember Father Serra, then handling administrative chores in Mexico City and readily available for a new job.

He was appointed presidente of the Baja California missions. In 1769, 56 years old and not in the best of health, accompanied by a party of soldiers, friars, muleteers, servants and Native American neophytes to drive the accompanying livestock, he began the trek to California.

Get up from your desk or sofa for a minute and go to the window. Looking out, imagine the land as it was at the beginning. Mentally erase from your view of Orange County all the houses, glass-and-metal towers, shopping centers, streets, freeways, cars and buses and airplanes, any sort of mechanical conveyance, any sort of machine at all. Erase the hand of the white man. What you have left is the Earth as it was. Brown grasslands, cut by arroyos and dotted with groves of oak and clumps of prickly-pear cactus, the grasslands rolling down to mud flats and beaches and the ocean. Freshwater marshes, replenished yearly by numerous streams and rivers, their banks thick with alders, sycamores and cottonwoods. Evergreen-dense chaparral hillsides. Tall gray mountains. Deep canyons flushed by cold springs. All of it teeming with creatures: rabbits, coyotes, deer, antelope, wolves, foxes, squirrels, skunks, rattlesnakes, hawks, crows, badgers, bears.

This was the land the native Californians inhabited. In the beginning, they told themselves, were the Sky and Earth, who were brother and sister and who joined together. From their union were born dirt and sand, stone and flint, the trees, then herbs, then animals, and then, finally, a creature called Wiyot. And from Wiyot came the first race, the predecessors of mankind. Their numbers gradually increased. At the same time, the Earth grew southward, and the people followed. For food they consumed the soil. But then Wiyot was plotted against by the Frog Women, who poisoned him. His mother, the Earth, prepared a remedy but did not reckon with always-curious Coyote. In his curiosity, Coyote caused the remedy to spill, and so Wiyot died but promised the people he would return. His body was cremated. Coyote appeared and, singing his affection for Wiyot, leaped upon the pyre, tore off a piece of his flesh and ate it. After this, Chingichngish, who lived everywhere throughout the world, at last revealed himself to the people. He changed the first race of beings into plants and animals and scattered them across the Earth. Then, out of the earth, he made a new race, the race of humans, and he gave them laws and institutions and taught them to build the wankech, the ceremonial chamber in which was placed the skin of a coyote filled with feathers and claws and beaks, particularly those of the condor.

The native Californians fashioned a society intimately connected with the land. Living in complicated family clans, they built permanent homes, either of conical wooden frames covered with bark or earthen pits roofed with tules. Each village had its sweathouse in which the men would sit in the evenings. The Native Americans fashioned a wide array of implements: bows and arrows, pottery and baskets, gracefully shaped mortars and pestles, canoes, clay pipes for everyday smoking and special pipes made of ancient stones for the shaman to use in ceremonies. Essentially an acorn people, the Native Americans also consumed fruits and berries and seeds and added to their diet, when available, wild game and, if they lived on the coast, fish and shellfish. Food was dried and stored against lean times. They knew the medicinal properties of more than 20 different plants—wounds, for instance, were treated with poultices of wild onion and a plaster of cooked tule leaves. Their dead were cremated in special ceremonies designed to release the spirit of the deceased into the heavens. Boys and girls were initiated into adulthood with trials of endurance and advice on how to live good and responsible lives. War was waged under strictly limited circumstances and never to acquire territory.

It was a rich and complex society, on the verge of agriculture.

California's native peoples were isolated by ocean, mountains and deserts, but they certainly would have known about the Spanish. From the south, along the ancient trade routes from Mexico, word would have come of the fall of the Aztec empire to advancing white men. Spanish ships had periodically cruised the coast and would have been seen by the Native Americans. Crew members from these ships would have landed to replenish water supplies and would have come face to face with Native Americans along the coast; word of these encounters almost certainly filtered into the interior. What the Native Americans thought of the white men is impossible to know, but they certainly wouldn't have viewed the newcomers as gods. Their skin was white, they rode on animals, they made use of complicated machines, they brought new diseases, and their attitudes about the Earth were entirely strange, but they were clearly men—men to be viewed with a combination of anxiety and great curiosity.

So the seasons revolved, generation after generation, rumors and stories about these white men increasing and creeping into the Native Americans' lore, and it finally became, in our reckoning, the year 1769. There is some scholarship that suggests California was just then emerging from a strong El Niño pattern, which would have temporarily disrupted the local food supply. This is important to remember because Spanish apologists would later try to justify the disastrous effects of the mission system on the native way of life by arguing that the Spanish arrived in Southern California to find an Native American population just barely alive.

Through the spring and early summer of 1769, the various components of the Spanish exploring expedition had been moving toward what is now San Diego. Ships had transported all manner of supplies, even chamber pots, to stock the planned settlements and missions. Characteristically, Father Serra had chosen to accompany the land part of the expedition, which spent a month and a half on the brutal trail across the Baja deserts. Father Serra walked, of course, at one point his foot and leg becoming so inflamed with ulcers that the expedition's commander, Gaspar de Portolá, wanted to send him back. Father Serra refused and had one of the muleteers treat him with an ointment of herbs and tallow. On July 1, 1769, all parts of the expedition were united at San Diego. Buildings and fortifications of brush and mud were built, and on July 16, Father Serra blessed Mission San Diego de Alcalá, the first permanent white settlement in Alta California.

While Father Serra remained behind, Portolá led an exploring party north. His band became the first white men to enter what is now Orange County. It was the high California summer, the streambeds dry and dusty, the hillsides burned brown. Seven days out of San Diego, the party—several officers, 34 soldiers, seven muleteers, two servants, two priests, 15 Christianized Baja natives, and 100 mules loaded with salt pork and grain—struggled north across the flats that are now the northern reaches of Camp Pendleton. They had passed large areas of grassland that they concluded had been burned by natives to facilitate the hunting of small game, but so far the only Native Americans they had seen had been at a distance.

About midday on July 22, following signs left by their scout, Sergeant Jose Francisco Ortega, the party crested a low hill and then descended to a dry riverbed curving off to the northwest. Following this riverbed, which climbed gently toward low hills a mile away, they entered a thicket of alders and oaks. Here, at a small spring, they found Ortega—and a village of about 50 Native Americans. Two little girls of the village were ill and were brought forward by the Native Americans, probably in the hope that these white men, so strangely dressed and carrying machines that emitted fire and transporting their goods on the backs of animals, might have powers that could cure them.

The priests baptized the two children, naming them Maria Magdalena and Margarita. After the baptism, Portolá and his party moved on.

You can visit this place of first contact today. Take the Cristianitos exit off I-5 and follow Cristianitos Road northeast toward Camp Pendleton. At the camp gate, a Marine will direct you about a mile farther on. You will come to a small gravel parking lot on a little bluff overlooking the canyon. In the distance to the southwest gleams the Pacific. Steps lead down the side of the canyon, but tread warily, for the trail is in poor repair and overgrown with brush. At the bottom, near a grove of oaks, you will come to a little spring. Beside it is a marker: "Near this spring the first Christian baptism in Alta California was performed by Padre Francisco Gomez."

The leaves of the oaks rattle sadly in the breeze. Water drips through moss and grass. The noise of the modern world is distant.

There is no record of what happened to the two little girls.

Portolá's expedition continued north but, as it turned out, totally missed Monterey Bay—the whole point of the journey —and discovered San Francisco Bay instead. Father Serra himself later had to set out for Monterey and reached it by sea. At any rate, under Father Serra's direction, the hand of the white man worked busily across Alta California. Father Serra made his headquarters at Carmel and tirelessly traveled his new domain—a string of missions established rapidly up and down the country. From their pulpits, his voice often rang out in a kind of rapture: "Come, you pagans! Come to the Holy Church! Come, come to receive the faith of Jesus Christ!" In October 1775, the usual party of priests, soldiers, muleteers and Native American laborers arrived in what is now southern Orange County and began work on a mission to be named for a Franciscan saint who had distinguished himself at the siege of Belgrade in 1456: San Juan Capistrano. Their work was interrupted by an Native American revolt in San Diego but resumed the next year with the building of a church, living quarters and various sheds. On Nov. 1, 1776, Father Serra officially founded the mission.

The establishment of San Juan Capistrano and the other missions began the process that would transform California and bring an end to native culture. Father Serra had won from the government in Mexico City a proclamation that "the government, control and education of baptized Native Americans should belong exclusively to the missionaries." Father Serra apologists would later proclaim this a "Bill of Rights" for the Native Americans. In reality, it was the legal framework for a system of colonization and ruthless exploitation.

All Native Americans in the area surrounding a mission were urged to come to it and be converted to Christianity. Once converted, the Native Americans were bound to the mission—told where to live and work, and what to eat and wear. If an Native American misbehaved, he was whipped. If he ran away, he was hunted down and brought back and whipped. All surrounding land was held in trust by the mission. After 10 years, when the natives were at last "civilized," the land would in theory be returned to them; but that was a rare outcome. The Native Americans labored exclusively for the mission, grew its food and tended its livestock. At sunrise, they assembled for Mass and then ate a breakfast of porridge. They spent the morning laboring in the fields under the direction of padres, at noon were fed a bowl of pozole, then returned to the fields until evening. In the evenings, they went to church again.

The mission system turned the natives' world upside-down. The Spanish introduced sheep, horses, cattle and hogs, all of which ate the very same foods the Native Americans had lived on for centuries, destroyed the gardens and disrupted the game ranges. White settlers were lured by grants of land, livestock, implements and seed. Forests were cleared for firewood and construction materials. Plows turned the land, exhausting it and leaving it open to erosion. Thus the Native Americans became dependent on farming and were even more tightly bound to the missions.

The effect of this cycle of exploitation was evident even at the time. In 1786, the French scientist and navigator Jean-François de Galaup La Pérouse, circling the globe as part of a research expedition, visited California and recorded his impressions of the mission system. Of the missionaries personally, he spoke with praise, complimenting their individual character and zeal. Toward the system they operated, however, he was not so favorably inclined. The neophyte, the Native American converted to the church, was treated as both child and slave, he wrote, "The government is a veritable theocracy for the Native Americans. They believe that their superiors are in immediate and continual communication with God." He was reminded of the slave plantations of Santo Domingo: "With pain we say it, the resemblance is so perfect that we have seen men and women in irons or in the stocks; and even the sound of the lash might have struck our ears, that punishment being also admitted, though practiced with little severity." La Pérouse noted that Native Americans who left the mission were hunted by soldiers; he thought "the progress of the Faith would be more rapid if they were not under constraint." He concluded: "I confess that, friend of the rights of man rather than theologian, I should have desired that to principles of Christianity there might be joined a legislation which . . . would have made citizens of men whose condition hardly differs now from that of the Negroes of our most humanely governed colonies."

This was the system that Father Serra created.

Father Serra remained tireless in overseeing that system, traveling some 11,000 miles throughout California, visiting missions, conducting mass baptisms, jealously guarding the rights of the church from secular interlopers. He even found time, when Spain joined France in the war against England over the fate of the American colonies, to order that each mission Native American be taxed one peso to support the war effort.

But his health was deteriorating rapidly. In July 1784, he made one final tour of his missions and then returned to San Carlos in the north. The presidio surgeon applied irritants to his chest, but with little effect. At Father Serra's orders, the mission carpenter began building a coffin. Father Serra spent much of his final night praying and toward dawn received absolution. Visited by some friends and officers, he asked to be helped outdoors to feel the sun one last time. It was recorded that for an instant, the shadow of some unknown fear crossed his face but was quickly gone. Returning to his cell, he lay down. A short time later, a friend came and found him dead. His body was placed in the coffin and covered with flowers. Neophytes came to touch his body with their medals and rosaries. All of his clothing was cut into fragments and passed out as relics. Only the robe on his body was reserved, but in the end, despite a constant vigil, someone made off with a part of that as well.

During the mission period, the Spanish baptized 100,000 Native Americans. There were 28,000 marriages and 74,000 burials recorded.

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.

Lucas Maria Supi was a fugitive. In 1781, at the age of 28, he was baptized. A year later, he married Valerie Tajam. They had a son, who was given the name Fidel and whose birth is recorded for the year 1785. By that time, Fidel's father had become a fugitive, as recorded in the ponderous volume. It is not recorded whether father ever saw son again.

Of that group of Natives the Spanish called Juaneño and who inhabited much of what is now southern Orange County, about 4,000 descendants remain; 500 of those live in San Juan Capistrano. The Juaneño are currently seeking federal recognition, which would qualify them to receive grants that could be used for health services and cultural programs. The chief and chairman is David Belardes, a man of heavy, composed features. We talked in the tribal office, which is in his home on a tree-lined street in San Juan Capistrano. As he spoke, his hands traced slow patterns in the air before him.

"For his time," Belardes said, "Father Serra thought he was doing his best according to his beliefs. He thought he was doing his best for us. But it was not good. There were killings. Villages were burned. Families were split apart. It was like a plantation system, and the Native Americans were like serfs."

He leaned forward, nodding, as if to make sure I understood. "This was not paradise when the Spanish came. The average life span was 45. But the people weren't starving either. Then the Spanish came, and along came their sheep and their cattle. And then everything changed. It was a drastic, incredible change, and it destroyed our culture." Again he nodded. "But I suppose there were no other people at that time who would have treated us any different.

"You know what?" he said after a moment. "People forget the coyote. But our ancestors sat and watched the coyote. Coyote still survives. And coyote survives on nothing, but he survives."

How do you measure a man? How do you assess his worth and character? How do you judge his legacy?

I do not know because this is not a pursuit for which I am trained. Nor do I know if these are even questions that should be asked in the first place.

I am a journalist. All I do is collect information. I go to libraries and search out old volumes and read through their pages, making notes. I dig through archives. I make phone calls. I conduct interviews. I collect facts, data. But this is not the substance of a man who once existed; it is only a ghost . . . information.

How do you judge a legacy?

I would not know where to start.

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