Misleading claims about St. Junípero Serra have made their way into a bill sent to California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s desk, drawing concerns and objections from several Catholic leaders who say the errors shouldn’t stand amid debate about statues of the pioneering Spanish Franciscan missionary.

After vandals knocked down a decades-old statue of Serra on the grounds of the California capitol last year, the Democratic-controlled state legislature passed a bill to remove a place for the Franciscan missionary saint and instead place a Native American statue on the grounds.

“The California Catholic Conference supports the intention of A.B. 338 to create a monument that represents and honors the Native peoples of California,” Kathleen Domingo, executive director of the California Catholic Conference, told CNA Sept. 3. “We recognize the immense contributions of the Native peoples and the terrible hardships they have endured. The support for our Native peoples need not come at the cost of spreading false information about St Junípero Serra.”

However, the Catholic conference said it “strongly objects” to the legislature’s findings presented in the bill about St. Junípero Serra and the mission system.

“Credible historians do not support the findings made in this bill, which are highly offensive and not historically accurate,” Domingo said. “The native peoples of California suffered a ‘genocide’ beginning in 1851 under California Governor Peter Burnett. This is a horrific part of our state’s history and a terrible tragedy for our Native brothers and sisters. This began long after Junípero Serra’s death in 1784.”

Junípero Serra's missions played a critical role in the spread of Christianity. Many of Serra’s missions form the cores of what are today the state's largest cities, including San Diego, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. He was particularly admired in the 20th century and various statues of him were erected on public grounds.

Critics have since lambasted Serra as a symbol of European colonialism and said the missions engaged in the forced labor of Native Americans, sometimes claiming Serra himself was abusive.

But Serra's defenders say the priest was actually an advocate for native people and a champion of human rights. They note that he often found himself at odds with Spanish authorities over mistreatment of native people, and the native communities themselves showed an outpouring of grief at his death.

“Catholics in California are proud of our rich history and the faith brought by St. Junípero Serra,” Domingo said. “We know that Serra and the missionaries fought for better treatment of the Native people and taught that all people have equal dignity under God. Our diverse parishes include Latinos and Native people praying together. Our Church in California must include a cooperative effort to celebrate the gifts and accomplishments of the Native people and the missions and a commitment to working together peacefully and respectfully for the better future.”

The California legislation’s purported findings side with Serra’s critics, however. The bill says, “One of the greatest gaps between history and reality has been the retelling of the mission period in Native American history and the role of Franciscan friar Junípero Serra.”

“Enslavement of both adults and children, mutilation, genocide, and assault on women were all part of the mission period initiated and overseen by Father Serra,” the bill continues. “Therefore, it is critical that California address the incomplete telling of the history and contributions of Native Americans in this state and that the devastating impact of the mission period, and Father Serra’s role in that devastation, be recognized and acknowledged.”

A statue of Junípero Serra was on the California Capitol Grounds from 1965 until July 4 of last year, when about 200 demonstrators damaged it and tore it down. Some protesters at the capitol had portrayed this gathering as an effort to “decolonize the streets.” Statues of Serra were vandalized or torn down across California, including some on church grounds.

“There have been a number of incidences of vandalism to statues, church buildings and other religious structures or artwork throughout California and the U.S.,” Domingo said. “This should be of great concern to everyone, religious or not. Throughout history, church buildings have been recognized as refuges of hope and healing, and religious art has been revered. We are seeing a growing hostility in our culture toward faith and people of faith.”

When vandals knocked down the Serra statue at the capitol grounds, Bishop Jaime Soto acknowledged the suffering of indigenous people under Spanish colonialism and later “the horror of government-sanctioned genocide under the nascent State of California.”

“Yet, it is also true that while Fr. Serra worked under this colonial system, he denounced its evils and worked to protect the dignity of native peoples,” he said in July 2020.

If Newsom signs A.B. 338, it would remove the legal statute that requires a statue of Junípero Serra to be maintained on the capitol grounds and instead require a monument to Native Americans. The governor can sign the bill, veto it, send it back for modification, or do nothing, Domingo explained. He has until Oct. 10 to act on the bill.

The Thomas More Society of Orange County, a group sponsored by lay Catholic lawyers and judges, in a Sept. 2 email charged that the legislature seeks “to permanently defame” Serra’s life and legacy. The group asked its members and supporters to contact Newsom’s office and state their opposition to the statements about Father Serra in the bill.

“The St. Thomas More Society of Orange County supports the concept of constructing a monument honoring the native people of the Sacramento region,” the group said. “However, we strongly oppose the absolutely unnecessary and conclusory findings tarnishing Fr. Serra, and we are concerned how these findings may be used in the future. The monument can certainly be constructed without disparaging Fr. Serra.”

The Catholic lawyers’ group provided a sample message to the governor which called the bill “misleading, conclusory and sparse on facts.” The bill “goes much farther” than recognizing Native Americans and contains “entirely unnecessary, unsupported legislative findings that disparage Fr. Serra.”

“It is offensive to Catholics and their heritage and history in California, and contains a highly incomplete and inaccurate portrayal of a great man,” said the sample message. The message urges the governor not to sign the bill or to remove “all legislative findings” about Fr. Serra from the bill.

The Catholic group objected that the bill relies on “a singly highly questionable source” and ignores “the plethora of evidence in favor of the Apostle of California.”

Among the longtime admirers of St. Junípero Serra is Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles, a Mexican-American who has often depicted Serra as another “Founding Father” of the United States.

“The sad truth is that, beginning decades ago, activists started ‘revising’ history to make St. Junípero the focus of all the abuses committed against California's indigenous peoples,” Archbishop Gomez said in a June 29, 2020 column for Angelus News. “But the crimes and abuses that our saint is blamed for--slanders that are spread widely today over the internet and sometimes repeated by public figures--actually happened long after his death.”

He praised respectful debate about Serra monuments, but also defended Serra’s example.

“He learned their languages and their ancient customs and ways,” said the archbishop. “St. Junípero came not to conquer, he came to be a brother. ‘We have all come here and remained here for the sole purpose of their well-being and salvation,’ he once wrote. ‘And I believe everyone realizes we love them’.”

“Serious scholars conclude that St. Junípero himself was a gentle man and there were no physical abuses or forced conversions while he was president of the mission system,” said Archbishop Gomez.

Fr. Tom Elewaut, pastor of the Old Mission Basilica of San Buenaventura, told CNA last year that indigenous people are not uniformly critical of Serra.

“There is substantial evidence that among the Chumash St. Junípero Serra is revered and respected for his contributions to our county. Their voices have not been heard or respected. Their voices should have equal weight and import.” Some indigenous Americans, both in Ventura and Santa Barbara, are “appalled by the character assassination of St. Junípero Serra,” the priest reported.

Fr. Elewaut is the 30th successor of St. Junípero Serra at the San Buenaventura mission, which St. Junípero founded on Easter Sunday 1782. It was the final mission the friar founded.

“Historic fact supports the good Serra brought to the indigenous people of Alta California, his spiritual children,” he said, stating that indigenous Californians suffered the most after the mission period had ended. “Do your homework, read the historical facts, and learn who really abused the indigenous peoples. Not Serra himself and not the intent of the Mission Era.”

Pope Francis canonized Serra during his 2015 U.S. visit, making Serra the first Hispanic saint to minister in the continental U.S. He praised Serra as “the embodiment of 'a Church which goes forth', a Church which sets out to bring everywhere the reconciling tenderness of God.”

“Junípero sought to defend the dignity of the native community, to protect it from those who had mistreated and abused it,” the pope said. “Mistreatment and wrongs which today still trouble us, especially because of the hurt which they cause in the lives of many people.”