Local Commentary

Editorial: The Canonization of Junipero Serra

Our editor (this writer), not being Catholic, except in the most general “lower-c” sense of the word, nor up on the news of the church, was very pleasantly surprised this week to learn that a big part of Pope Francis’ visit to the U.S. this week was to partake in the canonization to sainthood of Father Junipero Serra, the founder and builder of the California mission system.

From his cushy corner in the clouds, there is no doubt that one Franciscan Father Noel Francis Moholy is especially pleased. Moholy was a friend of our editor. It was his job within the Catholic Church to make the case for the elevation of Serra to sainthood, something he dedicated over 40 years of his life to until he passed away in our editor’s home town of Santa Barbara at age 82 in 1998.

Santa Barbara’s mission is, by consensus, considered the most beautiful of the string of nine missions that Serra was responsible for. Moholy, a San Francisco native, following his ordination as a priest in 1941 earned a doctor of theology in 1947 and taught for years at the Santa Barbara Theological Seminary. In the 1950s, he led a campaign to restore historic buildings at the Santa Barbara Mission before taking up the call to spend his full time to win sainthood standing for Serra.

Cultural relativists have convinced many that Serra was an abuser of indigenous peoples, and as Moholy began to shape his case, opposition to it grew at the same time. Serra was portrayed as an evil, exploitative tyrant. Yet for anyone who has toured his missions, especially the Santa Barbara one, what is on display there are musical instruments, choir robes, books on a variety of scientific and engineering subjects, and even classroom desks, hardly the contents of dungeons.

Serra volunteered to lead the mission building in California around the same time as the American revolution was being waged on the other side of the continent. It was launched because of the Spanish empire’s concern that the Russian empire was moving in on California to expand its fur trade and port access from the north, which was true.

The two forces came close colliding with each other – Serra from the south and the Russians from the north – a couple hours north of San Francisco (Fort Ross being the southernmost Russian intrusion). Russia backed away.

The Spanish plan, in fact, was more in keeping with Enlightenment “city building” than only mission building. Each outpost Serra selected was to have three components: first, a presidio to secure a military defense; second, a mission, to educate the surrounding population; and, third, a pueblo, or city, with a civic government, as a the seat for commerce and trade.

Remnants of all three components survive in California, but mostly the missions. Serra laid the groundwork for California’s entry into the U.S. on the side of the Union a half century later.