A statue of Junipero Serra holding a mission is part of the Grand Retablo inside Mission Basilica San Juan Capistrano.

Did you know?

• After Mission San Juan Capistrano is opened at 9 a.m. daily, the bells are tolled seven times in honor of being the seventh of Father Junipero Serra’s nine missions.

• Serra Chapel is the only chapel where Serra celebrated Mass that is still standing today.

SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO – The pope’s surprise announcement this week that Father Junipero Serra will be made a saint is prompting speculation about a papal visit to California, including possibly to the historic Orange County city where he established Mission San Juan Capistrano.

San Juan Capistrano has deep ties to Serra.

The mission’s Serra Chapel is the only chapel still in existence where he delivered a Mass, and his likeness is on the city’s official seal. Garments and other relics that once belonged to Serra are still housed at the mission. And two of the city’s high schools are named for him, along with a main arterial I-5 on- and off-ramp, a park and a plaza.

Mission Basilica San Juan Capistrano also is the only place in the region where the pope can celebrate Mass; Pope John Paul II proclaimed it a basilica in 2000, the only one on the West Coast…

… No official travel plans have been released, but Pope Francis said Thursday that he’d be canonizing Serra, founder of nine California missions, during his trip to the United States in September for the upcoming World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia.

“His announcement caught virtually everyone by surprise,” the Rev. Monsignor Arthur Holquin, pastor of Mission San Juan Capistrano from 2003 until last year, wrote in an email.

“We were not anticipating it at all. I had to chuckle when I happily heard the news. It was ‘typical’ Pope Francis!”

Not everyone is as excited.

Native Americans long have protested the attempts to canonize Serra, and people sometimes protest him outside Mission San Juan Capistrano on Columbus Day.

Teresa Romero, chairwoman of the Juaneño Band of Mission Indians, whose ancestors built the mission after Serra took over their land, said many California Indians “view the canonization of Junipero Serra as a travesty.”

“What message is being sent to the human traffickers of today when the Church blesses slave traffickers of the past?” Romero asked in an email to the Register. “We believe in much of the work Pope Francis is doing, but as far as Serra is concerned, the most we can offer is forgiveness should the Church ever ask.”

But Jerry Nieblas, a San Juan Capistrano historian and member of the Juaneño Band of Mission Indians faction 84B, said that he developed a respect for Serra after learning the oral history of Serra’s work through Nieblas’ grandmother.

“I think the news from the Holy Father is fantastic and is long overdue,” Nieblas said. “Serra left his country, came to a new world that he knew nothing about and started establishing missions. This man left a legacy.”

Nieblas said that it was the Spanish soldiers who were responsible for the atrocities committed against Native Americans and that Serra was an outspoken critic of the crown.

“There were probably bad priests back then, but Father Serra was a great man,” Nieblas said.

Holquin said canonization is not the church’s declaration that a person is without sin.

“One should be very careful not to extrapolate from these isolated character flaws and see in them the totality of Serra’s character and persona,” Holquin said.

“He was so much more than these isolated moments in his biography.”

Romero disagreed.

“While Serra did much to expand the Church, we can not and should not turn a blind eye to what he did to the Native populations up and down California,” she wrote.

“To enslave our people in the name of Christianity and then sanctify the man responsible for it is an unspeakable injustice.”

Serra brought the Christian message to California in the 18th century during the Spanish Expansion.

In 2013, Mission San Juan Capistrano officials began ringing the bells seven times every morning at 9 in honor of Serra’s 300th birthday and the mission’s place as the seventh of his nine missions.

Asked what she believes the chances are of the pope visiting San Juan Capistrano, Mechelle Lawrence Adams, the mission’s executive director, said, “I am an optimist.”

She said that it’s too soon to say what events the mission will host, but she’s certain there will be some.

“Whatever happens will be good for California and great for the first nine missions,” Lawrence Adams said. OC Register