Letter to Pope Francis from Donna Schindler March 15, 2015

Pope Francis

Vatican City

March 12, 2015

Your Holiness,

After two centuries of struggling to heal since being enslaved by Franciscan priests, California mission tribes will be hit with another damaging blow: the upcoming canonization of Junipero Serra. As the founder of the California missions, Fr. Serra is responsible for a legacy of cruelty to native people– a legacy that has been covered up for over 200 years with the consequence of continued psychological trauma for descendants of the California Mission Indians.

Serra, a Franciscan priest born in Majorca, founded the first mission in Alta California in 1767.  In following years, he was instrumental in establishing nine more missions.  California natives were taken into the missions, often against their will, used as the workforce, and not allowed to leave. Serra’s plan was to convert the ‘savages’ to Christianity.  The Indians were subjected to extreme forms of torture, and tens of thousands died during the mission period.

Please consider the words of the late Rosalie Robertson, Kumayaay tribe,California mission Indian descendent, “There were lots of things done to the people.  One way they had …to get to the people was through the children. They would take the children up on the cliff and drop them down the cliff and kill them… …Where they threw the children down and killed them, they call that place the ‘Crying Rock’ today.”

Even a fellow Franciscan, Fr. Antonio de la Conception Horra, wrote in 1799 that “The treatment of the Indians is the most cruel I have ever read in history. For the slightest things they receive heavy floggings, are shackled, and put in the stocks, and treated with so much cruelty that they are kept whole days without a drink of water.”

To this day, Pope Francis, our  holy Catholic Church has not acknowledged its role in this shameful history. According to Rupert Costo, co-editor of “The Missions of California: A Legacy of Genocide”(1987), “Through the centuries, as the Inquistion waned and the Roman Catholic Church gained apostolic apologists, Serra has become a lodestone for the imperial guard of academic professionals, and the superstar of California’s dominant class history.” Elias Castillo writes in his book,“Cross of Thorns”, that Serra himself asked the padres if they needed more iron shackles and suggested they might give more lashes with the whip to the natives. Father Mariano Payeras, the last Spanish Padre Presidente of the missions, wrote to his superior in 1820 saying “All we have done to the Indians is consecrate them, baptize them and bury them.” Payeras indicated an effort must be made to cover up what they have done to the Indians.

Today descendants of California mission Indians still endure the consequences of what happened to their ancestors. The term ‘historical trauma’, also called the ‘soul wound’ by some native elders, refers to the phenomenon that those undergoing the hardships of the missions passed the suffering down to their children, grandchildren, and so forth. Epidemic rates of domestic violence, suicide, substance abuse and illnesses such as diabetes in Native people are linked to the traumas their ancestors endured.  Treating historical trauma is very difficult, and many lives are lost each year to suicide or destroyed by substance abuse (self-medicating) and domestic violence.

For you, our beloved Pope Francis, hero to the underprivileged, to deepen the severe wounding wrought by the missions by proclaiming Junipero Serra a saint is unfathomable. Twice in the last two years letters were sent to you by Valentin Lopez, Chairperson of the Amah Mutsun tribe, myself, and Bishop Francis Quinn, a highly revered bishop now retired in Sacramento, describing what really happened in the missions. Each time we received a note from your Substitute , saying that our concerns were noted and you would remember our intentions in your prayers.  We also met with California bishops, hoping to be invited to attend the annual Catholic Bishops Conference to talk about the need for healing to occur in regards to the missions. It didn’t happen.

I guess it’s not so surprising that our efforts failed. According to the book, “The Missions of California: A Legacy of Genocide”, in the 1980’s in Southern California where most Indians were Catholic at the time, some priests threatened “sanctions” against members of the church who spoke up against the canonization of Serra, and provided stories they had learned from their ancestors about what cruel treatment they had endured in the missions.

Acknowledging that Serra and the missions treated the Indians cruelly, making an apology, and offering reparation would help heal the soul of not only the mission Indians but the Catholic Church.  Making Serra a saint is a travesty. It will take two hundred more years for the mission Indians to heal if Serra is canonized, and many Catholics, including myself, will leave the church. Please reconsider your decision.  Lives are at stake.


With great respect,

Donna Schindler M.D.

Cross-Cultural Psychiatrist

Auburn, Ca, USA


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