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Culture and Identity

Central Coast tribal members discuss their views on St. Serra

Lisa Osborn

Pope Francis has declared a controversial figure in California history a saint. During a visit to Washington DC this week, the Pontiff canonized Father Junipero Serra, the Spanish Franciscan priest is known as of the father of the California Mission System.

At 5 foot two, Serra, who is recognized by his flowing brown robe and deeply receding hairline is credited with baptizing about 10 percent of California’s indigenous peoples, many against their will.

While some Native American groups have held demonstrations protesting the pending canonization, the feelings among tribal members about this sensitive subject vary from elation to disappointment.

Santa Barbara native Ernestine Ygnacio De Soto is a descendent of the Barbareño (Santa Barbara) band of Chumash Indians. 

While she was raised by her mother in a strict Catholic home, Ernestine herself didn’t become a true believer in the power of Father Serra and the Church until her adult daughter came down with a life threatening form of pneumonia.

The Franciscan priests at Old mission Santa Barbara prayed over her daughter, and she survived. Ernestine says that’s when she accepted the fact that Father Serra was a miracle worker and that she was in favor of him being canonized.

Julie Tumamait Stenslie , an elder with the Barbareño – Ventureño band of Chumash Indians feels differently. Julie embraces her native spirituality, which she says she wasn’t encouraged to ask her parents about when she was growing up.

Tumamait Stenslie’s parents and grandparents were practicing Catholics, perhaps in part so they would fit in with their community.

“It was either that or face the shunning or alienation of family members or friends,” she said.

Tumamait Stenslie says the destruction shame and pain of what her ancestors went through during the mission period in California continues today. 

Credit Lisa Osborn
Julie Tumamait Stenslie, an elder with the Barbareño – Ventureño band of Chumash Mission Indians feeds chickens in the front yard of her home in Ojai.

“The mission, that whole system and the treatment of our families, put us on a disadvantage of not having the ability to stand up for ourselves.”

Deacon William Ditewig with the Dioses of Monterey told KCBX News why Pope Francis has deemed Father Serra worthy of sainthood.

“He’s looking for people who were courageous pioneers, who were going into hazardous areas – unknown areas – and putting their lives on the line to proclaim Christ and Christ’s message … and Christ’s love to the world,” said Dietwig. 

Deacon Ditewig explains that being a saint is not about being a ‘perfect person.’ It’s more about being someone worthy of imitation.

Father Serra spent time and was laid to rest at The Carmel Mission, the first headquarters of the California Mission System. The Carmel Mission Foundation is in the process of raising $20 million to complete the restoration of 11 remaining historic structures and courtyards in the 22 acre Carmel Mission complex.

For more information on the history of the Chumash Indians, visit the Santa Barbara Natural History Museum.

KCBX News thanks the Carmel Mission Foundation and the Santa Barbara Natural History Museum for their assistance with this story.