A year before Junipero Serra was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1988, the California missions the Franciscan priest had founded in the 18th century exhumed his body and collected his left ulna.
The arm bone was sent to a Brigidine Sisters’ convent in Rome, where it was pulverized into small flakes the size of a nailhead, then placed in plastic containers and sealed with red wax.
Those flakes are now a revered part of Catholic faith — the relics of a saint — after Pope Francis canonized Serra in a mass Wednesday at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington.
It marked the first canonization on U.S. soil, and analysts said it underscored both the pontiff’s desire to highlight evangelists and the importance of the Hispanic community in the growth of the church in the U.S.
But it’s not without controversy, as Serra was part of the Spanish conquest of the west, founding nine of California’s mission churches responsible for converting the native people. While Hispanics view the canonization as a point of pride, some American Indians vehemently object, saying Serra was part of a system that forced religious conversions, suppressed Indian culture and left hundreds of thousands of them dead.
Pope Francis rejected those accusations against Serra during his homily Wednesday, acknowledging “mistreatment and wrongs” that are still remembered today, but saying the Franciscan missionary priest was a voice for the Indians.
“He was the embodiment of a church which goes forth — a church which sets out everywhere the reconciling tenderness of God,” the pontiff said. “Junipero sought to defend the dignity of the native community, to protect it from those who have mistreated and abused it.”
“I think the reason Pope Francis picked Serra from history, sort of lifted him out of 300 years of history, dusted him off and made him a saint, [is] Serra is just an amazing figure for our times, our complicated, difficult, morally fraught times, where people have difficulty acting where they’re afraid of doing the wrong thing or the opposite — they don’t care at all,” said Gregory Orfalea, writer-in-residence at Westmont College in Santa Barbara and author of “Journey to the Sun,” a 2014 book about Serra and the California missions.
Serra’s role in California history was already secure well before his sainthood. Roads and schools bear his name, and children study him in class.
But even at his death, those around him revered him and probably had his eventual sainthood on their minds. As his death neared, his colleagues took snippets of his hair, pieces of his clothing, books out of his personal collection or pieces of his handkerchiefs as relics.
The doctor who was ministering to him at his death was given a whole handkerchief, and later said he expected to cure more people through the power of that piece of cloth than through all of his medical books and supplies combined, Mr. Orfalea said.
It was an early sign that relics of Serra would prove to be in demand.
Saints’ relics are among the most misunderstood parts of the Catholic faith.
Church scholars say relics aren’t magic talismans but reminders of the holiness of particular men and women and inspirations to prayer. Indeed, sainthood itself, according to church teaching, is the confirmation that someone has already entered heaven — and two confirmed miracles attributable to the saint’s intercession are usually needed as proof.
In Serra’s case, the first miracle came after a nun in St. Louis, Sister Mary Boniface Dyrda, was stunningly cured of lupus, defying doctors’ expectations. At the suggestion of Franciscan Priest Marion Habig, a Serra biographer, Sister Mary’s fellow nuns had begun praying to Serra.
Andrew Galvan, historian and curator at Old Mission Dolores in San Francisco and one of Serra’s biggest backers for canonization, was present in 1987 when the Vatican reviewed the case. Church officials verified with the theologians that the nuns were in fact praying for Serra’s intercession, not that of any other saints, and then verified with doctors that there was no medical explanation for her recovery.
And then the officials turned to Sister Mary, whose reply echoed that of the blind beggar whom Jesus cured.
“She says, ‘I don’t know what happened. They told me I was dying, I asked them to pray to Serra, and here I am,’” Mr. Galvan recalled her saying.
Pope Francis waived the need for a second posthumous miracle in Serra’s case, declaring that his holy life itself was proof of sainthood.
It was during the process of beatification that Serra relics became an issue.
All of the ones from his death, such as his clothing and hair, had disappeared into history — though some second-order relics, such as the priestly stole and cross he was buried with in 1784, were taken during a 1944 exhumation, and are on display at Carmel Mission, where he’s buried.
But the church wanted first-order relics — vials of blood or pieces of bone from the saint himself.
So another exhumation — at least the third Serra has undergone — was conducted in 1987. Serra’s left ulna was removed and turned over to the convent in Rome, which produced the bone flakes, sealed in the small containers with red wax.
“As long as that seal remains intact, then this is a true authentic relic of Junipero Serra,” Mr. Galvan said.
Each of the California bishops was given a Serra relic, and some were given away in exchange for donations — part of what Mr. Galvan bemoaned as the “relic rush” of 1990.
A Serra devotee who attended the beatification ceremony in 1988 was dying and had asked for one of the relics. Father Noel Francis Moholy, Mr. Galvan’s mentor and the man who led the canonization effort until his death in 1998, gave him one.
The man wrote in his newsletter that relics were available, and that started a series of stories. Moholy had to repeatedly push back against reports that relics were for sale — “you can’t buy a relic, you can make a donation, [and] even Donald Trump doesn’t have enough money to buy a relic,” Mr. Galvan says.
Mr. Galvan said there won’t be any repeat of the relic rush. Now that Serra is canonized, the relics that remain in storage by the missions are being kept to give to churches.
The canonization is still deeply controversial for California Indians.
A group of Indians, academics and a former Franciscan friar are staging protests in Washington and New York this week over the canonization, saying Serra’s “policies unequivocally led to atrocities against our ancestors.”
“He and his fellow friars effectively and intentionally destroyed the culture, spiritual beliefs and the environment of our ancestors,” the objectors said in a statement announcing the protests. “Serra was preoccupied with saving souls, but he never cared for the flesh and bodies of our ancestors, or their pain and their sufferings.”
The protesters said Serra’s canonization seems to be an attempt to exonerate “those responsible for crimes against our ancestors from any guilt, and provide justification for all sins, crimes and offenses.”
Mr. Galvan, who is himself a member of the Ohlone people and possibly Serra’s biggest booster, said it’s divided his family. His cousin, Vincent Medina, who is also his assistant curator at Mission Dolores, is opposed to sainthood.
But both men took part in Wednesday’s canonization mass: Mr. Galvan carried the reliquary with the bone chip that was blessed during the ceremony, while Mr. Medina delivered a reading at the mass, translated into the Chochenyo Ohlone language.
Mr. Medina had struggled with being part of the mass, but was convinced by relatives who said it was a beautiful statement of support for his people, and pointed to the tens of millions who would hear an all-but-extinct language.
Mr. Orfalea, the Serra biographer, said he does question Serra’s use of corporal punishment on Indians, which was a common technique at the time — though it would be stopped as a tool for conversions several decades after Serra’s death.
But Mr. Orfalea said the priest not only spared the Indians a worse fate, but was actually a great advocate on their behalf. When one of his missionary priests was murdered by Indians, Serra not only got the culprits released from prison, but would later go on to baptize and confirm some of them in the Catholic faith. And when Serra encountered a military commander who refused to discipline troops who were raping Indian women, Serra traveled to make an appeal to the viceroy, who ousted the commander.
“He spoke truth to power, and not a lot of religious leaders do that. He was not afraid of mixing it up in political circles for what he felt was the moral right,” Mr. Orfalea said. “I look at Francis, he’s spoken truth to power to the Vatican Curia, the Vatican bank, to those who would deny global warming, to those who do not appreciate the injustice of abortion.”
For Mr. Galvan, canonization of Serra is just the beginning of the journey.
He said the church now must use the focus on Serra to reach out to Indians in California. He said he hopes Pope Francis visits California soon — possibly in conjunction with a future trip to Mexico — and makes the rounds of the missions, acknowledging the church’s role in assisting colonialism but also asserting the forgiveness the church teaches.
“That’s what Junipero Serra is about, is the pathway,” Mr. Galvan said.