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Tri-Centennial of the Birth of Fr. Serra

Doug McKnight
Credit Doug McKnight
Statue of Fr. Serra in the National Statuary Hall of the US Capitol

The Carmel Mission Basilica is a 200 year old adobe that is small and simply constructed. In its day this was headquarters for a string of missions that stretched from Monterey to the Mexican border. The man who established the Mission system was a short elderly Franciscan Friar named Junipero Serra.

Outside the Basilica, CSU Monterey Bay archeology professor and Serra scholar Dr. Ruben Mendoza stands in the church’s courtyard. The mission now sits in the fashionable city of Carmel-by-the-Sea. But in the seventeenth century it was a different story.

Dr. Mendoza says, “California was seen as a wasteland and a backwater. It was seen as wilderness. There is nothing there to draw the European mindset. “

According to Dr. Mendoza, It was evangelical fervor that brought Father Serra to this new world outpost. He describes Serra as a zealot so focused on the next world that he had little thought for this one. He saw himself as an instrument of God on a mission to save the souls of the native people.

Dr. Mendoza says, “When you read Serra’s letters, it’s clear that he is protecting the Indians while at the same time being paternalistic and chauvinistic, if you will, about that protection.”

Serra’s evangelism went beyond saving souls. Eventually it would change the very fabric of the lives of the people he sought to save. Santa Clara University history professor Robert Senkowicz and his wife Rose Marie Beebe have just finished a book on Serra. Senkowicz says in the 17th century the church and the state were two sides of the same coin and that being Catholic also meant being Spanish.

Senkowicz says, “That basically meant making Indians Catholic but also teaching them European style agriculture…and having them live in towns and villages which would mimic the living patterns of people on the Iberian Peninsula. “

In 1988 the Catholic Church moved Serra to within one step of sainthood. But to many of the decedents of the Native People, Serra is anything but a saint.

The missions along with the soldiers and ranchers who followed -- changed lives of Native Americans. Tens of thousands were killed or died of disease. Others were robbed of their land and way of life.

Pam Tanous sits in front of Colton Hall in Monterey. It’s the building where the California Constitution was signed. She has a special connection to the early days of the mission system. Her ancestors were there.

Tenous says, “Well my ancestors came with the Portola exhibition…with Father Serra.”

One of the soldiers married an Esselen Indian woman and started Tanous’ family.

For seven generations they have lived here in Monterey County, though for much of that time they hid their Native American heritage.

Tenous says, “In the 1800’s they were not allowed to talked about being Native American. If they were they would be killed…And bounties were put on the Native American’s heads.”

But was this death and destruction the result of Serra’s hand or was it the result of other forces?

Professor Senkowicz says, “He became over time a symbol and was made to stand for many things that in the development of California history for which he didn’t really have any part at all. You know there were governors running California. There were soldiers in all of the presidios and there were soldiers at all of the missions. California even in its early period was a very complicated place “

Three hundred years later, Fr. Serra still stands as a symbol of early California.  The Franciscan friar brought together two very different cultures and created a controversy in the process. California is still a very complicated place.