USD professor offers a historical and religious perspective of St. Serra

Burns proposed adding a name to Serra Hall that would honor the native community. Walker Chuppe/The USD Vista

While some of the USD community has been trying to change the name of Serra Hall, others want his entire character to be taken into consideration


Celina Tebor | Feature Editor | USD Vista

 The American Indian & Indigenous Student Organization (AIISO) has been leading a charge to change the name of Serra Hall due to his association with the missionaries in Southern California that resulted in the death of thousands of native peoples. The move has triggered reactions from other areas in the university.

Jeffrey Burns, Ph.D., a professor and faculty member in the Center for Catholic Thought and Culture, illuminated other aspects of St. Serra’s work. Although he works for the university, Burns clarified that his comments are his personal opinions and are not those of University Communications, the Center for Catholic Thought and Culture, or USD at large.

Burns believes that those who want to change the name of Serra Hall do not know the whole story, and said that St. Serra is often blamed for the entirety of what happened in the California missions.

“I just wanted to point out who Serra was really,” Burns said. “In the current discussion, Serra is turned into a symbol of everything bad that happened in the Missions. [The mass death of natives] was actually because of diseases, and that was turned back on Serra. I want to turn it back to the person of Serra and not the symbol of Serra.”

Vice President of University Relations Tim O’Malley expressed that Burns’ perspective is similar to USD’s.

“The issues that the students are concerned about are certainly valid in terms of one aspect of California history,” O’Malley said. “But the fact is that the picture is much bigger than that. Our position might be that St. Junipero Serra himself may be seen as a symbol for the issues that come from the settling of missionaries in California.”

Burns believes it is important to understand that Serra’s motives were positive ones and that he acted with good intentions during the Missions.

“[Serra] basically believes he is bringing something very good and helping his vision and helping the natives and introducing them to Jesus,” Burns said. “He’s acting out of a love of God and a love of people.”

Burns explained why Serra Hall was named after St. Serra – his presence is one that is found all over California and not just at USD.

“Serra was ‘the apostle of California,’ because he introduced Catholicism to the state,” Burns said. “A biographer called him the founding father of California. You have him everywhere you go.”

While Burns claimed Serra may have had the best intentions, Serra’s way of spreading faith through missionaries is not used today. According to Burns, what is being celebrated is not his form of spreading the Word, but his passion and motive behind it.

“To be true to Serra is to observe what he was really like,” Burns said. “[The missions were running] 250 years ago, so he’s not a twenty-first-century person. Catholic work now isn’t the way Serra did it. For his time, he was a very passionate person and had a lot of love for the native peoples, so I hope that doesn’t get lost.”

Junior Maureen Cobile supports AIISO’s campaign, but is not planning on taking action.

“It’s just cool that they’re standing up for their culture and I think we should respect that,” Cobile said. “If my own culture was disrespected with a name of a building, I would support it and want everyone to support it. I’ll support them, but I’m not going to do anything about it.”

Although Burns does want the community to see all aspects of Serra’s character, he understood why many want the name of the hall to be changed.

“If I were Native American, I would be protesting it too,” Burns said. “I understand where [AIISO] is coming from. I think they’re rational in looking at the effect on the Native American community. It’s clear, there’s no sugarcoating that. I have no problem with what they’re doing.”

However, Burns believes removing Serra’s name from the hall would not be the best way to navigate the situation.

“The university will probably want to keep it as Serra because he was just named a saint,” Burns said. “Taking away that title would be a slap to the Catholic church.”

O’Malley explained how the process of changing the name of a building might occur.

“It would have to be a proposal that would go through the central administration of the university to the Board of Trustees,” O’Malley said.

O’Malley expressed that there is not a concrete set of steps to change the name of a building, however.

“Naming of facilities is generally put to the approval of the institution,” O’Malley said. ”I don’t think that there’s a prescription of steps needed to name or rename a facility.”

As an alternative to removing Serra’s name from the hall, Burns suggested adding a name and having two as a compromise. He proposed adding St. Kateri, an indigenous saint.

“What I would propose is doing something that includes everyone,” Burns said. “Include missionaries but also acknowledge the indigenous community. So change it to St. Serra and St. Kateri. Or you could pick a local indigenous name and add it to the hall, so then you’re trying to reach some kind of conciliation. We can’t correct the past, but we can move into the future with some kind of community.”

O’Malley expressed that a name change would be improbable.

“I just think it’s unlikely that the name would be changed,” O’Malley said. “We would not easily take a saint’s name off a building because a group of students object. It would have to be a broader reason than one particular cohort, one particular affinity group, one particular group, objecting.”

O’Malley does want students to believe their concerns are being heard, however.

“I think that continued dialogue is what would be most helpful,” O’Malley said. “We want students to feel as if their concerns are being addressed, it’s just the matter of how to do it.”

While AIISO wants to change the name of Serra Hall, Burns and O’Malley pointed out possible conflicts and problems that might occur if the hall changed names. They believe Serra was a complex person and want the USD community to acknowledge his complexity before making assumptions about his character. As the fight for the name change of Serra Hall continues, AIISO and others fighting for the cause may receive unanticipated pushback against their movement.