Pope Francis, the first Hispanic head of the Catholic Church, will canonize the first Hispanic, Junipero Serra, during a special mass held at the National Basilica on Wednesday.
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But the ceremony will not be without controversy.
Serra, a Franciscan monk who worked to evangelize the California coast during the 18th century, has been criticized for using coercive force and corporal punishment on Native Americans.
Steven Hackel, a history professor at the University of California, Riverside, says Serra’s use of corporal punishment was even controversial at the time. It was believed that physical punishment should not be dispensed by Franciscans or missionaries but rather by the state when someone committed a crime. Native American groups have protested Serra’s canonization, saying that Serra enslaved and abused their ancestors.
“There’s a sense of loss and despair over what those missions meant” to Native Americans, said Hackel.
But the Vatican is hoping that the focus of Serra’s legacy will be on his saintly acts and his immigration efforts.
Pope Francis, himself the son of immigrants, said that he sees Serra as “one of the founding fathers of the United States.”
The canonization is part of an effort by the Catholic Church to help shed light on an often forgotten era of American history that usually begins with Puritans arriving not far from the East Coast cities Pope Francis will be addressing.
Serra became a missionary late in life and arrived in California in 1749 at the age of 54, the same year King George II granted the Ohio Land Company a charter to settle along the Ohio River.
Sent by the Spanish crown in the 18th century, Serra helped lay the foundation for modern California by building a network of churches and settlements along the Pacific Ocean and converting Native American people to Christianity.
His legacy is considered so important to American history that he is one of two Californians with a statute in the U.S. Capitol’s Statuary Hall along with Ronald Reagan. Earlier this year, the California legislature proposed legislation to replace Serra with Dr. Sally Ride, the first American woman and youngest person in space.
Pope Francis plans on acknowledging the Serra statue during his visit to Congress on Wednesday.
Hackel said that the church sees the canonization of Serra as an opportunity to remind Americans of their Hispanic past, but also to provide historical context to immigration issues.
“The Vatican sees Serra almost as a patron saint of immigration,” said Hackel. Serra’s canonization is a way of communicating that, “there’s a history behind immigration policy that is rooted in a Spanish Catholic past and not just a Protestant, 18th Century political rebellion.”
Immigration is believed to be one of the key topics discussed by the pope during his time in the United States.
On Wednesday, a relative of one of the Native Americans Serra converted will be carrying a reliquary during the canonization ceremony.