Watch CBS News

Historian Weighs In On Pope's Surprise Decision To Canonize A Controversial Californian Friar

LOS ANGELES ( — Pope Francis promises to canonize a missionary who brought Christianity to the Western United States in the 1700s.

Friar Junipero Serra will be proclaimed a saint when the pope visits the U.S. in September.

"I was happy and surprised that the Holy Father Pope Francis announced the canonization of blessed Junipero Serra," said Archbishop Jose Gomez of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. "It's a great joy for all of us in California, and in the United States, and, for that matter, for the universal church, because [he] was a blessed man."

The Franciscan friar hailed from Spain and founded missions across California.

"It's amazing. No words, I can't describe; it's beautiful," said a parishioner at San Gabriel Mission Church.

Parishioner Alfonso Perez said: "That's nice. That's great. That surprises me, you know, because you've got to be a great man to be canonized by the pope."

Not everyone CBS2/KCAL9 reporter Amy Johnson spoke with was supportive of the decision.

"I'm kind of surprised because Father Serra was instrumental in the maltreatment of the Indians," said John Fantz, Museum Guardian for the San Gabriel Mission, referring to the Native American community. "We have enough saints. We have enough saints."

UC Riverside history Prof. Steven Hackel, considered one of the world's leading scholars on Junipero Serra, said the friar played a huge role in the state's history. Many experts consider his book "Junipero Serra: California's Founding Father" is the definitive reference on Father Serra's life.

According to Hackel, "Had Serra not come to California in 1769, certainly other Franciscans would have. But he had the will, the administrative skill, the driving force to establish many missions in California.

"His greatest accomplishments were, in a sense, establishing California as a region, which, in theory, had a common language, a common religion, and was linked together through a series of roads and missions and presidios."

Hackel also confirms Serra was a controversial figure because of the treatment of Native Americans that was permitted at the time.

"Spanking or some sort of physical aggressiveness that was their way of correcting wayward people. And, of course, in today's world we would consider that to be unacceptable," the professor said.

"I also should add that missions were, at their worst, unhealthy places where native peoples died in large numbers. In that, I think those two things, the physical coercion, the diseases introduced by Spaniards that really ran rampant in missions and reduced native peoples, I think that's probably at the heart of the resistance, or the opposition to Serra and his vision."

While Serra may not have participated in this kind of aggressive behavior, it appears he didn't discourage it in others.

Nonetheless, there are many in the Catholic community, including Gomez, who are excited to celebrate Serra's canonization and hope the pope will extend his visit from the East Coast to include California. Francis' visit currently includes Philadelphia, New York and Washington D.C.

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.