On A Mission


I find myself on a mission. It has to do with separating truths from tall tales about the California mission system in general, and Mission San Gabriel in particular. Because things just got complicated. I am thankful for that.

About 20 years ago, my then-4th-grade daughter had the mandatory elementary school project to learn about how and why the California mission system was created. We picked the nearby Mission San Gabriel. Convenient, accessible holy ground.

Drove over, soaked it all in, read up on its history—established in 1771 —report done.

It was a warm and fuzzy reminder how I did the same kind of thing growing up in Southern California. In the late 1960s, my report was on Mission San Juan Capistrano—that fun, touristy place with the song about the swallows returning. Now, the whole thing is hard to swallow.

Back at Mission San Gabriel for the latest incarnation of the Good Friday journey on the L.A. Catholic Worker’s Via Crucis, the exercise shook my reference points and challenged my naivety. It was a jolt to the soul.

On an intellectual level, this was not new news. Back in 2015, we saved a New York Times opinion piece focused on the pre-canonized Rev. Junípero Serra with the headline “California’s Saint, and a Church’s Sins.”

The well-researched essay referenced a website created by the Archdiocese of Los Angeles—it seems to no longer exist—in which Fr. Serra’s method of using Native Americans in the creation of the missions was justified by the logic: If the Spanish colonists had not moved in to claim the region, even with all the secular terror it was to exert in getting it done, other countries such as England, Russia, “or another imperial power” would have done it. Either way, the Indigenous tribes could have suffered a far worse fate. They were converted to Catholicism and made citizens of Spain.They got a better deal. So peace be with their souls.

In the summer of 2020, an assignment for Angelus News sent me back to this topic. I reported on how the Ventura City Council debated the future a nine-foot bronze Serra statue that had to be hidden away from vandals. What was causing this? Outrage over not having history acknowledged and addressed.

The church found a compromise. It could be rehoused at Mission San Buenaventura (founded by Serra in 1782), in part because that site was conveniently elevated by Pope Francis to the rank of minor basilica. It was now a safer haven on the church’s private property. No more public nuisance.

L.A. Archbishop Gomez said at the time he was pleased the city conducted a “thoughtful and respectful public discourse” on the matter. He also said those “attacking St. Junípero’s good name and vandalizing his memorials do not know his true character or the actual historical record.”

Actually, all we had to do was hear the pain and sorrow in the voices by those part of the Ventura council public forums. One had to be empathetic to hear the grief as they explained how that statue had been a trigger for them based on how their ancestors were treated.

At the meeting, Ventura Council member Lorrie Brown asked: What would Junípero Serra do in this situation?

“I will use the words of another speaker who quoted Serra as saying, ‘Ever forward, never back,’ if we’re going to move forward this deliberation about placement of the statues,” she concluded.

It does not feel quite that simple. Going forward for decades, we have told our schoolchildren a convenient, quasi-authentic account that feels more like a paint-by-number kit found in a mission parish gift store. There is a grave need to go back and fact check.

On this new L.A. Catholic Worker pilgrimage, we walked a road of tears. It was a physical challenge to go station to station—San Gabriel City Hall, the millrace facility, a former monastery for Dominican sisters across from the Grape Vine Arbor, the homestead of property owner Don Juan Lopez.

In the context of Jesus Christ’s procession to his human death, we asked for forgiveness.

The fourth station in front of the modest mission cemetery was not just profoundly moving, but something that made us move toward more than some perfunctory action.

At this traffic-busy confluence next to Mission Road and Junípero Serra Drive, we wanted to be part of the resurrection.

The mission itself sat behind a fenced gate because of a recent act of arson—add that to its history of floods, epidemics and earthquakes. A statue of Serra had been tucked away for years, last seen splattered in red paint and nearly decapitated.

Fr. John Molyneux, pastor at Mission San Gabriel, said at the time of that statue vandalism: “The California Catholic Conference of Bishops reminds us that the historical truth is that St. Serra repeatedly pressed the Spanish authorities for better treatment of the Native American community. We recognize and understand that for some, he has become a symbol of the dehumanization of the Native American community. We at Mission San Gabriel are committed to continuing dialogue with our Native American representatives in order to achieve a peaceful and just partnership.”

It seems like an honorable way to start a thoughtful and respectful public discourse, as Archbishop Gomez once asked. But when and where? Why does it still seem that we are giving more disingenuous lip service to Indigenous victims?

Someday, I will bring my daughter back to visit Mission San Gabriel. Older and wiser. Her children may get a better understanding of what really happened in the name of Catholicism, and reparations can work for healing and moving forward in a dignified way.

Tom Hoffarth is a native Southern California journalist and a member of American Martyrs Catholic Church.

Permanent link to this article: https://www.lacatholicworker.org/wp/2022/06/01/on-a-mission/

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