Protesters gathered outside Mission Dolores to decry Pope Francis's decision to canonize Junipero Serra. Photo by Joe Rivano Barros.

Some 100 people protested outside of Mission Dolores church Wednesday afternoon against the pope’s same-day canonization of Junipero Serra, an 18th-century priest who established the California mission system and has been criticized for his role in the brutal treatment and death of tens of thousands of Native Americans.

“I am here standing for the Ohlone ancestors that were slaughtered for the crime of being indigenous,” said Native American participant Zephyr Elise, referring to the California tribe that lost around 90 percent of its members due to the Spanish mission system. She says Pope Francis’s recent apology for colonization is insufficient given the canonization of Serra.

“It feels as if Manifest Destiny is still in play. Our voices and our pain are still not recognized as valid,” she said. “His apology feels meaningless in light of the canonization of what our California relatives would consider a Hitler.”

Marcus Arama, another participant, agreed: “I’m Ohlone and I’m here to tell the church that they didn’t get my soul and they didn’t kill my people. Despite everything they did, we are still here.”

The protest began at 1:15 p.m. to coincide with the canonization occurring at 4:15 p.m. in Washington, D.C. A crowd gathered around Mission Dolores, listening to speakers and basking in the incense lit nearby. Speakers admonished the pope for his decision and called for it to be revoked.

“I am one of the many Christians that is against what is going on in Washington, D.C. right now,” said one of the speakers. “And we will work to reverse that decision.”

Serra founded the first nine Spanish mission in California, including Mission Dolores, by employing Native American labor. Workers suffered back-breaking conditions, and any who escaped were captured and tortured by Spanish soldiers, though the Catholic Church has pointed out there’s no evidence Serra himself carried out a beating.

Protesters were unimpressed with the explanation.

“The Catholic Church is a highly hypocritical institution, and this is a manifestation of that hypocrisy,” said Arama. “That [the pope] would apologize on the one hand and make the priest who did this awful things into a saint.”

Arama also spoke to the oft-repeated description of Serra as the “first Hispanic saint,” saying the Latino community can find better idols than Serra.

“What is a Hispanic but an Indian who’s been mixed with a Spaniard?” Arama said. “I think there are better Hispanic role models than a murderer of their ancestors.”

Even other Christians came out to oppose the move by the pope.

“I’m also here representing the church to say that there are some of us against the canonization of Junipero Serra,” said Nikira Hernandez, a minister-in-training with the United Church of Christ, a liberal denomination. “As people of faith we need to say ‘No’ and ‘Never again.’”

And Vincent Medina, an assistant curator at Mission Dolores who is both Ohlone and Catholic, told the Chronicle Tuesday that he would speak at the canonization in Washington, D.C. in his native tongue, Chochenyo, despite his fervent opposition to the decision.

At least one protester anticipated the move, saying the pope would likely meet with a Native American or two after the ceremony to ameliorate the controversy.

“If that happens, somebody drank the Kool-Aid,” Arama said.

Wounded Knee, an activist with the American Indian Movement who said that “the truth must be told” about “what [Junipero Serra] did to the Indian people in this country,” said the pope ought to follow his own teachings in this matter.

“They have good words in the Ten Commandments,” he said. “Thou shalt not lie, thou shalt not steal, thou shalt not kill. And yet what have they done?”

Francisco Herrera, community activist and mayoral candidate, speaks against the canonization. Photo by Joe Rivano Barros.
Speakers at the Junipero Serra protest outside Mission Dolores. Photo by Joe Rivano Barros.
“Canonization for Dummies.” Photo by Joe Rivano Barros.
Members of the American Indian Movement were present along with others to protest the canonization of Junipero Serra. Photo by Joe Rivano Barros.

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