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Why Junípero Serra
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Enlightening perspective on how
the Church treated
Native Americans

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placeholder September 21, 2015   •   VOL. 53, NO. 16   •   Oakland, CA
Letters from Readers

Visitors tour the ruins of the Great Stone Church in late July at Mission San Juan Capistrano in San Juan Capistrano. Constructed between 1797 and 1806, the church was destroyed in an 1812 earthquake. Forty Indian neophytes attending Mass were killed in the collapse.
Nancy Wiechec/cns


Rev. David K. O'Rourke, OP

Enlightening perspective on how
the Church treated Native Americans

For many years I've been looking into the beginning of forced labor in the New World in the years following the discovery of America. One of the first things I realized was that the first settlers, English Protestant and Spanish Catholic alike, set up a form of coerced labor unlike anything that had existed in the Europe they came from.

In those years the taxes alone on Virginia tobacco and Mexican silver accounted for one-third of the income to the English and Spanish crowns — the equivalent of millions and millions of dollars. With wealth this great available in the fields of Virginia and under the Mexican hills, the settlers set out to find the labor to exploit it. And they found it — in the poor from the London slums exported as indentured labor, on the coast of Africa, and in the towns and cities of Mexico.

A thousand miles north of the Mexican mines explorers found another rough land that looked so much like silver-rich Zacetecas they called it New Mexico. But the settlers found nothing. It was a total bust — cold, miserable and no mineral wealth. But then later, farther north, from an unexplored coastal land that no one wanted called California, came reports of Russians, French and English settlements. The reports terrified the Spanish crown since these nations were already working to break the Spanish hold on Mexico and its Caribbean colonies.

So the Spaniards determined to plant their flag in California before anyone else got there. They weren't looking for profit. There wouldn't be any, just the opposite. And there were no mineral or natural resources. Just poor land and poorer Natives. Poor or not, it would be Spanish. They would recreate a series of settlements along the coast, settlements we now know as the missions.

We think of the missions as religious institutions presided over by the padres. They weren't. Two weeks ago an article in the New York Times said that Father Serra had soldiers with him. That is not true.

What we know as the missions were new, government towns with Spain's three traditional authorities: civil, military and religious. And the mistrustful royal government, always fearing settler revolts, imposed laws that actually set the three authorities against each other, with the intention of keeping them weak so that no one could seize power from the crown.

There were soldiers in the missions — but under the command of the military commander, just as Serra as religious superior was responsible for the religious life and education. And over both, resolving any disputes between them was an equally weak viceroy who himself had to refer any serious decisions to the Royal Commission, two months away by ship in Spain.

It is in this context of divided and adversarial authority that we have to see the life and work of Father Serra. Spanish law insisted — on paper — that the king's Native subjects be respected, treated humanely and taught the faith. But in the eyes of the government they counted for little. With them at the bottom were the poorly paid, disrespected and mistreated soldiers.

And it is with them that Father Serra found his ministry. He became their advocate. He advocated for the Natives and for the soldiers, writing to the governor for food for the natives, mass supplies for the Churches and pleading for decent officers for the mistreated soldiers.

He wrote to the viceroy that the soldiers' salaries, if and when they were paid, were too small to support a family. And in the military commissary, where they had to shop, the prices were so exorbitant for the little that arrived that they ate up the soldiers' tiny income. Father Serra also encouraged the unmarried soldiers to marry the Native women, proposing that they then could be given a plot of land and a cow.

The Natives' basic humanity was recognized in the official roles they were given in the Mass and liturgies, as singers and acolytes. They were baptized, catechized, taught the music for the liturgies, and some actually became catechists. We know some names of Natives in the missions, and in the mission remains and records we can see something about their housing and daily life.

In Virginia during those very same years, by contrast, it was a crime to teach religion to the African slaves, to baptize them and to teach them to read or write. Anything associated with human status was denied them. George Washington brought household slaves with him to Philadelphia during his eight years as president. They are almost never mentioned.

But slaves who were in Pennsylvania for six months became legally free. So Washington had his slaves taken out across the Pennsylvania border twice a year so that the six-month freedom rule would not apply to them.

Father Serra writes positively about the Natives he came across. On his long northward walk from Loreto to San Diego he came across naked Indians in Vellicata. He describes them in his diary as "entirely naked like Adam in Paradise before the fall." He writes that they treated him "as confidently as if they had known us all their lives." And told them that if they were in need, they were to ask, not steal, and he gave them dried figs and raisins.

Small things. But if we see them in the context of the dehumanized slavery and Native American repression that set the tone for life in the new United States during these very same years, perhaps not so small.

(Father David K. O'Rourke, OP, wrote "How America's First Settlers Invented Chattel Slavery" (Peter Lang Publishing, 2005) and a book currently at the press on how we have sanitized our American history of slavery. He is parochial administrator at Our Lady of Mercy Parish in Point Richmond and defender of the bond for the diocesan Department of Canon Law/Marriage Tribunal.)


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