A Murderer and a Saint


The California Missions all feature a statue of Junipero Serra, who is either a murderer or a saint, depending on who you ask. Serra, who is due to be canonized by Pope Francis in September, started the California mission system and founded the first nine missions before his death in 1780. He was also responsible for the strategy that left thousands of Native Americans dead from European diseases. He brought Christianity to California, and then forced the native population to convert. He oversaw the instruction of children and the whipping of runaways. He taught theology to his fellow Franciscans and he mortified himself in front of large audiences. And he gave me, a nine-year-old Protestant girl from Los Angeles, something to cling to when I didn’t know who I was.

Just before I entered fourth grade, the year all California students are required to do a project on one of the missions, my family moved to Illinois. I had had my mission all picked out: Santa Barbara, the Queen of the . My family had visited Santa Barbara several times before we moved away, and I loved the expanse of the mission building: its long arched hallway, the quiet rooms where the brothers lived, the unvarying warm weather. A few years later, I would return to California from Illinois, on vacation, and take pictures with my arm around the statue of Serra at Santa Barbara, like we were old friends.

It didn’t seem fair that I wouldn’t get to do my mission project. But Thomas Jefferson Elementary School in Hoffman Estates, Illinois, had its fair share of Catholic students, and I fell hard for one of them. His name was Tony Spagnolo. One fall day so cold it felt like winter, I found myself standing near Tony at the coat racks that stood at the entrance to the fourth grade classrooms. The crush began when he told me that he liked a poem I wrote about P.T. Barnum for Ms. Hart’s class, and solidified when I saw how cute he looked playing basketball with his friends on the playground. He was natural, liquid, floppy-haired—and he liked my writing. I told Tony that my father was a pastor and that I was Catholic. On the first matter, he heard “bastard” and told our whole class. On the second, he didn’t register any opinion at all. I thought it would endear me to him, since he was Italian and Catholic, but I forgot that priests weren’t called “pastors” and couldn’t have children. Tony didn’t seem to care. He was about my height (or not–who can remember the height of the nine year-old boy they were in love with?) and he had brown hair and brown eyes, and a smile that went up a little higher on one side than the other. When I told my mom that I had a crush on him, I started to sob. I still don’t know why.

We had moved to Illinois because my dad really was a pastor and had taken a job at a church called Willow Creek. Willow was–still is–a megachurch, with around 20,000 members and a parking lot so big I learned to drive in it. If they didn’t know it was a church, people thought it was a college campus. It was an easy mistake to make; there were no crosses on display at Willow, no religious art or imagery. It was “seeker friendly,” which meant that it wanted to present itself as a blank slate for newcomers, many of whom were former Catholics. Crosses, stained glass, wooden pews–all of these carried too much baggage for someone who had a bad relationship with religion. So the chairs were movie theater-style, gray and plush. The windows were clear and looked out on small ponds and had retractable blinds that went up and down by remote control. The carpet was corporate and the whole place smelled like an office building. I loved it.

It would be easy–too easy–to say that I lied about being Catholic because of some latent childhood desire for liturgy and mystery. I didn’t. I didn’t even know about those things, having been brought up almost entirely in non-denominational churches that met in school gyms. It was only because I thought Tony would like me more if I was Catholic that I told him I was. Our suburb of Chicago had a sizable Catholic population, and, although neither place would have said so, there was a sort of tug-of-war going on between Holy Family, the local Catholic congregation, and Willow Creek. Holy Family was big for a Catholic church, and it seemed like most of my elementary school peers who went to church went there. They were bored by it, sure, but they didn’t seem jealous of me when I later told them about the games we played at Willow Creek. They were bored because church was boring, because God was boring. I felt differently, because I found Him endlessly interesting.

When you are raised in a religious household but you go to public schools, you learn quickly how different your family is from many others. You learn how strange it is to pray before meals in the cafeteria, and how trying not to swear makes you less cool in the eyes of your peers, even if it made you better in the eyes of your church. And when you’re an anxious child who wants to make a good impression, you learn to discard the parts of your upbringing that aren’t useful, and manufacture parts that are.

I didn’t love the missions because I loved the liturgy, but because I loved California and because they seemed like the best link between California and Illinois. Illinois didn’t have missions, but it had a lot of Catholics. What I wanted, as a newcomer, was to fit in. So I chose the thing I knew best: religion.

On the days when I felt most like I didn’t belong in Illinois, I thought about the Santa Barbara mission. I thought about its expansive size, its strange icons, its small cemetery. I thought of the rose garden across the street and how, when you stood in the right place, you could see the Pacific Ocean and Santa Cruz Island. Even in high school, I never fully recovered my sense of belonging, because the most important part of me always belonged to California. My AOL screen name was RoxyCAGirl. I talked about surfing and the Beach Boys, like I was Gidget, not understanding that no one else in my suburban elementary school knew who Gidget was. Every other nine year-old girl around me was singing along with Grease, a movie all suburban Illinois girls inexplicably loved, and which I had never seen.

For several weeks, before we moved into our new house in Illinois, my family lived at a La Quinta hotel—Midwesterners called it “La Kwinta”–whose website now bills it as “an 11-minute drive from Medieval Times Dinner & Tournament.” We ate breakfast at the Shoney’s buffet downstairs. I had bacon every morning.

The La Quinta was a three-story stucco building with a Spanish tile roof, and every night when I fell asleep next to my sister in our queen bed, I pretended we were in California. I pretended we were sleeping under the protection of the missions; that we would wake the next day to make acorn flour and pray in the dark and ride horses. I pretended Father Junipero Serra, the friendly and determined man who stood in bronze at the entrance to most missions, would smile as he roused us for our day’s work. I pretended in order to avoid the anxiety of being in a new place, and I pretended because I wanted it to be true.

The boy who would become Father Junipero Serra was born on the island of Mallorca in 1713. Miquel Josep Serra i Ferrer took the name “Junipero” when he became a member of the Franciscan order at age 16. Things might have gone very differently for Serra if the Jesuits–a different order within Catholicism–had not lost favor in the eyes of the Spanish king Carlos III. They were accused of turning their missions in New Spain into centers of commerce, making money for themselves and not for their country, and were viewed with increasing suspicion across Europe. The Jesuits were getting too powerful for the crown’s comfort, and Carlos ordered them removed from all Spanish territories. He sent an emissary to remove the Jesuits from power and entrusted the future of what would become the state of California to three men: an administrator, (José de Gálvez), an explorer (Gaspar de Portolá), and a Franciscan priest (Serra). Serra was by all accounts a small man, just over five feet in height, with a bad leg injury that caused him to limp later in life. He was a philosopher-priest who was greatly influenced by the theologian Duns Scotus, and yet chose to pursue a calling that took him out of a comfortable academic life and into the life of an ascetic missionary in 18th-century Mexico.

The idea was that Serra and his Franciscan brothers would found missions along a route, each located one day’s journey apart. The idea was that the missionaries would convert “the merciless Indian savages,” as the Declaration of Independence called them. The idea was that the missions would, after a period of ten years, be given to the care of laypeople and the land distributed among the native people.

The missions were expensive to found and maintain, but the Franciscans were committed not only to Indian conversion but also to civilizing an area of New Spain that had barely been explored by Europeans. The Franciscans came from Spain to Mexico and on to California, inspired by the Biblical commandment to “make disciples of all nations.” They wanted to bring commerce and literacy and skilled labor to an area (and a people) they saw as philistine. The buildings—twenty-one in all, when done—were works of art, built on the dreams of the Franciscans and the backs of the native population. Padres blessed the sites before the missions were built. The buildings, which were often constructed near erstwhile Indian settlements, were usually made of adobe, a mix of clay or mud and water that hardened in the California sun. Workers used crude tools to mill lumber, and aqueducts carried water from local springs. The sanctuaries featured ornate paintings and figures, and simple pews, with bell towers and arches for added flourishes.

The missions never were given over to laypeople–at least, not voluntarily. Instead, there were forced conversions and countless Indians who fled or tried to flee but were captured and returned to slavery in the service of the missions. There were Indian women who were raped by the men purporting to be their saviors, women who were infected with venereal diseases and then infected their husbands. Tens of thousands of Native Californians died of measles and other diseases harbored like weapons in the bodies of Spanish missionaries and soldiers. Serra, like all of his compatriots, thought Indians incapable of governing themselves, or making decisions about who to marry, how to worship, and how to work. Indians living near the missions were forcibly baptized, made to work on the mission grounds, and beaten if they did not obey. They are buried now, many of them, in unmarked graves beneath the mission cemeteries. One such grave, at Mission Dolores, holds the remains of 363 Indians who died of measles over the course of three days in 1806.

Pope Francis–he of the broad smile and “Who am I to judge?” response, beloved by all–is set to canonize Father Serra on a trip to the United States this fall. I don’t think anyone should be made a saint, which is part of the reason why I would never make a good Catholic. People are too fallible, too imperfect, to have their legacy be erased of blemishes. And the decision to canonize Serra is seen as putting a stamp of approval on the entire mission system. Serra had some good intentions and some good qualities: He was intelligent, obedient, assertive. He was also paternalistic and casual in the face of the loss of human life. The question of Serra’s legacy, which is complex, will be done away with when he is sainted. Sainthood doesn’t tell the whole truth. When I look back now on those photos of 13-year-old me, arm around Serra’s neck, I see how wrong it is to cast any person in bronze. Junipero Serra is beloved by many Catholics—and even a few Native Americans—but his name is synonymous with slavery and imperialism and even death.

Tony Spagnolo never learned that I wasn’t Catholic. Or if he did, I never told him. We were in different classes the next year, and didn’t cross paths much after that, and he played basketball at a Catholic college and I married a man I met at a Christian liberal arts college. Life never changes as much as you think it will, until it does. When my family moved to Illinois, it took years before I realized that my fate was inextricably linked with California’s, before I knew that my senior year of high school would be my last cold winter. I now live in San Francisco, eight blocks south of Mission Dolores. I pass the white adobe structure when I walk in my neighborhood and, on sunny days, the heat radiates from the walls out to me where I stand. My church now is not Catholic, but it is liturgical—we stand to pray and receive communion every week. I didn’t know that the missions would call me home, or how far the megachurch memories of my youth would fade into the past.

Every time I visit a mission, I tap my second and middle fingers on the font of Holy Water in the sanctuary and touch them to my forehead, my collarbone, my right shoulder, my left shoulder. I borrow a Catholic identity now only in private, and not to impress Tony or identify with my classmates, but because I have learned to see my Christianity as something more than a zero-sum game between denominations. The same impulse that makes me suspicious of sainthood is what has helped me to understand that different kind of Christianities are not so different, not necessarily. People are not all good or all bad. Protestant megachurches are not all good or all bad. Catholic missions, too, are a mix.

When Junipero Serra died in 1784 at the mission in Carmel, he had founded nine of the eventual twenty-one missions. Six thousand Native Americans had been baptized, new farming techniques had been introduced, and literacy was increasing. The native population at the missions was relatively small. As it expanded, after Serra’s death, European diseases spread and the population was decimated. Spanish livestock ate the food the Native Americans had grown on their own land, which drove them reluctantly into the missions, where they would be exposed to disease and beatings.

There was kindness at the missions, too, as there are dark places in my own faith. Junipero Serra spoke of his love for “the Indians” even as he called them his “children.” He was a murderer and a saint.

I visit the missions now and feel less like an orphan, but I am still grateful when no one else is around to see me make the sign of the cross in holy water. The lines between Catholic and Protestant blur for a moment, and I remember the bougainvillea outside, and I stand on slick Spanish tiles and exhale. A church is a church.

Laura Turner is a writer and editor living in San Francisco. She has written for Buzzfeed, Pacific Standard, and The Atlantic, and is interested in the intersection of religion and culture.