A baptism conducted by California mission friars is shown in a sketch displayed at the Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcala in San Diego July 27. This drawing is part of a collection of sketches depicting mission life by California artists A.B. Dodge and Alexander Harmer.
A cross on San Diego's Presidio Hill marks the site Blessed Junipero Serra chose for the first Alta California mission in 1769. On a clear day, the San Diego harbor can be seen from the spot. Mission San Diego de Alcala was relocated a few more miles inland in 1774.
Bishops, Franciscans vow to take new look at missions
Rev. Ken Laverone, OFM
The Sept. 23 canonization of Blessed Junipero Serra, founder of the California missions, will mark the end of one journey, and the beginning of another. The legacy of the debate that arose over the canonization — was Father Serra a well-intentioned evangelist or a suppressor of native people and their culture — will change the way the natives are depicted in exhibits and displays at the 19 California missions that are active Catholic parishes, and in the ways Catholic schoolchildren learn about Indians in third grade and missions in fourth grade.
"We truly believe Serra built the missions as places of evangelization and home for the Indians," Father Laverone said. "But many missions may have forgotten the home part."
"The Mission Era gave rise to modern California, but it also gave rise to controversy and to heartache when seen through the eyes of the First Californians," said Bishop Jaime Soto, president of the California Catholic Conference, in announcing earlier this month an 18-month plan to study the mission and school curriculum. "For many years, the Indian experience has been ignored or denied, replaced by an incomplete version of history focused more on European colonists than on the original Californians."
The California bishops are partnering with the Franciscans, the order to which Father Serra belonged, in the effort to change that. "Today, on the verge of Blessed Father Serra's canonization, the time has come to confront that incomplete history and to work with Native American educators, respected historians, Catholic school officials and others to change that and to reflect the best scholarship we can about that era," said Rev. Ken Laverone, OFM, provincial vicar of the Franciscan Province of St. Barbara, based in Oakland, and vice postulator for the Serra cause for canonization.
Andrew Galvan, an Ohlone Indian and curator at Mission Dolores, will lead the cultural study of the missions. Displays, signage and training materials for docents and guides will be under review.
An example of historical inaccuracy and cultural insensitivity in a museum exhibit often cited by Galvan in talks and interviews: Teepees are used in a graphic to show where nearby tribes lived.
California Indians did not live in teepees.
The cultural changes refer to the ancestors of the mission Indians as well. For Indians who have come to mission cemeteries to visit the graves of their loved ones, this could mark the end of the "Five dollars, please" from the clerks at the mission shops.
For Galvan, Serra's canonization has been part of his life's work. Starting as an assistant to Rev. Noel Moholy more than 30 years ago, Galvan has made almost a dozen trips to the Vatican in the cause. He will have a role in the canonization, carrying a relic of first saint to be canonized on American soil to the altar.
Father Laverone also will have a role in the canonization, reading a short biography of Father Serra, which he described as "quite an honor."
He, too, has roots in the missions. "My sixth-great-grandfather had been sent from Mission San Jose to oversee the building of Mission San Juan Bautista," he said.
For the last several years he has been involved in the cause of Serra's canonization. The missionary was beatified in 1988.
The biography he will read was written by Santa Clara University Professor Rose Marie Beebe and Robert M. Senkewicz, who spent almost a dozen years writing "Junípero Serra: California, Indians, and the Transformation of a Missionary."
"They end their book with four sermons Serra gave in Mallorca before beginning this evangelizing, telling where he's coming from long before he goes to California," Father Laverone said. "He was coming from a specific theological frame of reference typical of his time.
"His primary intention was to evangelize and baptize and bring the Good News to people who hadn't heard it before," he said.
"Nobody's saying Serra's perfect; no one is," he said. "He did a great thing. Despite difficulties with his health, he never stopped. He fulfilled what he felt God was calling him to do."
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