Posted on September 2, 2004

Critics: Priest Up for Sainthood a Sinner, Aug. 31

LOS ANGELES — The pope has called him the apostle of California and he’s being considered for sainthood, but if some teachers and Native American activists have their way, Father Junipero Serra will be remembered more as a sinner than a saint.

Serra is long credited with establishing California’s mission system along the famed El Camino Real — or the King’s Highway — which stretches more than 700 miles from San Diego in the south to Sonoma, north of San Francisco.

The trail of mission complexes — 21 in all in California — consists of chapels and living quarters where Catholic missionaries sent to convert the locals set up shop. Construction on the mission system began in 1769, and the trail remains an important stop for history buffs and tourists alike. Some of the missions even still hold Sunday services and other religious events.

A priest in the Franciscan Order of the Catholic Church, Serra was the driving force behind Spain’s colonization of California, and he’s well remembered in the state’s grade-school textbooks.

But some elementary school teachers and activists say Serra took advantage of Native American labor, and through his leadership, the Golden State’s adored missions had devastating effects on thousands of Indians who lost their freedom and lives building and maintaining the 21 Catholic sites.

While Serra could become California’s first saint, some teachers are providing their own perspective, forsaking the mandated textbooks and letting 8-year-olds act out scenarios that portray Serra as a trickster and even, in a few extreme cases, a purveyor of genocide.