After a fire ripped through the church at Mission San Gabriel Arcángel on Saturday, July 11, firefighters said there was no immediate evidence to indicate arson.
While the missions are still beloved by many people of faith, Saturday’s blaze came as their legacy throughout California have been called into question.
The San Gabriel Mission, founded in 1771, was the fourth of what would become 21 Spanish missions in modern-day California, all established with the goal of converting Native Americans to Christianity and expanding the Spanish empire.
Junípero Serra, who founded the first nine missions including the San Gabriel Mission, has come under criticism in recent weeks as part of a broader reckoning with racial injustice across the country.
Statues of the 18th century priest, whom Pope Francis canonized in 2015, have been toppled and vandalized throughout Southern California as activists have pointed out the enslavement and genocide of Native Americans that were associated with the missions.
Most Reverend José H. Gomez, Archbishop of Los Angeles, wrote in a letter late last month that he has “come to understand how the image of Father Serra and the missions evokes painful memories for some people.”
But, Gomez said, “The real St. Junípero fought a colonial system where natives were regarded as ‘barbarians’ and ‘savages,’ whose only value was to serve the appetites of the white man.
“St. Junípero did not impose Christianity, he proposed it,” Gomez added. “For him, the greatest gift he could offer was to bring people to the encounter with Jesus Christ.”
During a protest at the Mission San Fernando Rey de España in Mission Hills late last month, speakers called Serra an invader of indigenous land and likened the mission to a “concentration camp.”
“We felt the necessity to come out here today,” said Cozkacuauhtli Huitzilzenteotl, 48, of Pacoima. “We saw the urgency. This invader here before us — Junípero Serra — the first mission was in 1769, and they built them all the way until 1823, and that’s genocide.
“Before this was the U.S., it was Mexico. Before it was Mexico, it was indigenous lands.”
Serra first set out to establish the missions, along with soldier Gaspar de Portola, in May 1769, along with 11 other soldiers, five muleteers, 12 Christian Indians, 200 cattle, 163 mules and some horses.
It is unknown what the Native American population was before being exposed to European settlers in California. Some estimate the number to be about 300,000; after the Gold Rush in the mid-1800s, the Native American population was less than 30,000.
The last of the 21 missions, the San Francisco Solano de Sonoma, was built in 1823, 39 years after Serra’s death.
When Mexico won its independence from Spain, it planned to return the 21 Franciscan missions in California to the Native Americans, but most mission lands ended up in the hands of wealthy local residents during the 1830s. The Native Americans, to a large extent, were removed from the former mission properties or left to fend for themselves.
Most of the missions were returned to the Catholic Church after California became part of the United States in 1850.
Criticism of the missions’ legacy isn’t new to officials at the Mission San Gabriel Arcángel. In 2017, surveillance footage caught a man jumping onto the pedestal of a Serra statue on the property and trying to decapitate it with an electric saw before dousing it in red paint.
The mission has been working on “how we are displaying our history and the best ways to tell the story with more sensitivity and working toward a healing process,” Terri Huerta, the mission’s director of development and communication, said last month.
As the San Gabriel mission approached its 250th anniversary, Huerta said, officials there hoped to put some of the symbols like the Serra statue into greater context. Questions of historical representations have become more urgent, she added.
Source: Orange County Register