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This Is the California Friar the Pope Is About to Canonize

2 minute read

Months of planning have gone into Pope Francis’ visit to the United States—but that’s nothing. One of his stops has been in the making for eight decades. On Wednesday, at a Mass in Washington, D.C., the Pope is planning to officially canonize a new saint with an appropriately American story: Junipero Serra.

Serra’s beatification was set in motion in the 1930s. As TIME explained then, Serra and his followers were responsible for building of 21 missions in California. Jesuits had visited the region earlier, but in the 1770s they were replaced by Franciscans led by the Spanish-born Serra:

With a party of 15 he visited the missions of Lower California, then struck north into new and unsaved territory. At San Diego in 1769 he established Upper California’s first mission which was, like all the others, a civil as well as a spiritual outpost. A mission consisted of a church, a residence of the fathers, a presidio or military guard, shops and workrooms in which to instruct Indians in the arts of civilization. Continuing northward. Fray Junipero by 1782 completed his rosary of missions and was given the power of confirmation which usually is possessed only by bishops. During three years, despite a crippled leg and an ailment in his much abused chest. Fray Junipero revisited all the California missions, confirmed 5,309 Indians. In 1784 Junipero Serra died, was buried at San Carlos Borromeo mission near Carmel on the fog-swept Monterey peninsula.

Though there’s no question of Serra’s influence on American Catholicism, his canonization is not without conflict: many of those Native Americans were converted by force, and some see the celebration of Serra’s legacy as an affront to the local cultures the missions set out to change. Others see his story as illustrative of the power of faith in America’s complicated past, and representative of California’s blend of indigenous and Spanish history.

The Wednesday Mass won’t be the only time Serra and the Pope cross paths this week: Pope Francis plans to visit the U.S. Capitol on Thursday. The Capitol’s statuary hall is home to a bronze statue of Serra, which was presented by the state of California in 1931.

Read the full story from 1937, here in the TIME Vault: Sainthood for Serra?

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Write to Lily Rothman at lily.rothman@time.com