Valley Catholic leaders react to planned canonization of Junipero Serra

FRESNO, Calif. (KFSN) -- Catholic leaders in the Central Valley are applauding news from Pope Francis that he will declare Junipero Serra a saint in September. Serra is known by many for founding nine of California's missions.

A large mural featuring Junipero Serra hangs on the wall of Saint Anthony of Padua Church in Northwest Fresno. He's best known for being the founder of nine of California's first missions, including San Juan Capistrano and Mission San Luis Obispo. He's featured at Saint Anthony's in front of the Mission Basilica San Diego.

News of Pope Francis' announcement that he will declare Serra a saint has many Catholics in Fresno excited. Father Dan Avila from Our Lady of Victory Church said, "It's kind of a fulfillment of a long expected event because he's so central to the history of California." Father Avila says his work was also crucial to the development of the Catholic faith in California.

His work, though, comes with some controversy. Some feel he mistreated Native Americans as he converted them to Christianity. At Our Lady of Victory Church, he's portrayed in a stained glass artwork baptizing a baby with a Native American kneeling nearby. Avila said, "That was his desire, to bring the Christian faith to them. His efforts, I think, were more protective of them than endangering."

Serra's canonization likely won't be discussed during mass this weekend. Many people say they'll wait for a more official announcement. Pope Francis says he will go through the ceremony to recognize Junipero Serra as a saint in September, during his first visit to the United States. Father Avila says he may travel to the East coast to witness the historic event, if it happens there. Father Avila said, "For our Catholics, he's not just an historical figure, not just a founder of missions, but a man of faith, a man of zeal, of great sacrifice."

As for whether Serra's entrance into sainthood will be discussed during most fourth grader's mission building projects in California, Father Avila says it's unlikely, but his sainthood will be revered in Christian curriculum.

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