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The Catholic Church: A Major Player in the Making of Los Angeles

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WHO ARE THE REAL ANGELINOS? (An Ongoing Series)-We cannot talk about the history of Los Angeles without discussing the influence the CatholicChurch has had on its development.  This article, as part of the ongoing series, “Who Are the Real Angelinos?” will highlight many of the interesting facets that embrace this view. 

To begin, we have to go back to the Spanish Empire when the Spanish were convinced they had a “Manifest Destiny” of their own to fulfill.  They believed it was their duty to conquer the New World, and in so doing, encourage (by force, if necessary) the Native Americans they found here to become Catholic.  If it took kidnapping, deprivations, psychological and physical mistreatment, and forced conversion, “saving souls was worth destroying bodies.” 

During the process, the rituals and practices of Catholicism became melded with those of the indigenous peoples and, together, a “Southwestern” hybrid of Catholicism emerged—somewhat similar to what is practiced in Los Angeles churches today.  This fusion is distinctly different from European or even Mexican theology.  One example is the prominent place the Virgin of Guadalupe has been given in Catholic practice here, especially within the Latino community.  

Powerful influences of the Church over the development of California and (by extension) Los Angeles are found in where many of our major cities were located, the placement of the roads and highways that connect them, and the style of architecture (wooden structures were replaced with brick and stone for permanence, and future artwork reflected both the didactic and devotional stylings from that period).  Since then, many homes, shopping centers, and executive buildings have designed their facilities to emulate that distinctive style. 

Franciscan Father Junipero Serra (nominated for and soon-to-be-granted sainthood) is a well-known figure in California history. Every Californian elementary school child studies about him and his contributions (despite some being controversial). 

In 1769 Serra founded in San Diego what became the first among 21 missions laid out along the El Camino Real (otherwise known as the Royal or King’s Highway)—most of which is now Routes 101 and 1.  These roadways (then and now) extended across the state from the south (San Diego) to the north (San Francisco). 

These missions (many also serving as military posts) gave Spain dominion over Alta (upper) California at a time when England and Russia were similarly competing for a foothold here (think of Fort Ross north of San Francisco with its fur and other trade).  The last mission was erected in 1823 in what is now the County of Los Angeles, a region which was assigned two in all:  San Gabriel and San Fernando. 

Not far from the San Fernando Mission is a Catholic High School named after Archbishop Alemany, a prominent priest in the mid-1800s.  Under his guidance, he oversaw the establishment and management of a number of orphanages, hospitals, colleges, convents, academies, and parish churches—many of which exist today. 

Settlers at the mission complexes brought European fruit, vegetables, cattle, horses, ranching, and contemporary technology to California—none of which were indigenous to this region.

An ugly side of what transpired during this period is that the “system” also inadvertently (I hope) introduced diseases to the native population for which these victims had no natural immunity.  Thus, many became ill and suffered—too many of whom eventually died.  

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The over-arching concept for Spain was that it could benefit by converting natives not only into Catholics but also into tax-paying citizens.  To become a citizen at the time, it was necessary to convert to the established religion and to become fluent Spanish-speakers.  They also had to learn a vocational skill which would contribute to the larger community and from which the “mother country” would ultimately benefit. 

Eventually, of course, because of the gold rush of the mid-1800s and the Mexican-American War of 1846 (during which time  John C. Fremont and his troops took from Spain its control over Alta California  territory), the relatively new United States of America genuinely believed it was “destined” to rule from “sea to shining sea.”  When California became a state in 1850, Los Angeles became an even more prominent, significant, and powerful community within its borders. 

The self-important, “entitled” descendants of white Europeans had to be repeatedly reminded of the noteworthy Papal Bull previously issued by Pope Paul III in 1537 in which he declared once-and-for-all that “Indians [considered by many] as non-humans and therefore not worthy of baptism would  here in out be considered people with immortal souls and should neither be enslaved nor deprived of their personal holdings.”  For far too many, it was often “inconvenient” to adhere to rulings disseminated by the Bishop of Rome and his successors (despite consequential religious penalties) and thus such proclamations were generally ignored. 

In those early days, the priests were paternalistic in their treatment of the indigenous natives (much the way Southern planters looked at their own relationship with their slaves).  The upshot?  Being treated as helpless children made these ill-treated persons often doubt their own innate abilities.  They were robbed of their self-confidence and became dependent on their “superiors”—a view that was ingrained in them and that has led many succeeding generations to feel inferior and helpless in controlling their own destinies.  Some of these attitudes have led many Latino Catholics to doubt the trustworthiness of their leaders—both religious and political

--and therefore have become reticent to take advantage of the hard-fought for franchise and/or even to participate in events developed for community camaraderie.  

Currently, however, many are diligently working to turn this pattern around.  Thus we see a surge of highly qualified, highly educated men and women emerge from the Latino population to become leaders in education, research, medicine, law, and politics. 

In a positive light, the Catholic Church (unlike the Protestant) has taught its communicants that freedom is an entitlement and that earthly rewards for righteous behavior are possible for the living, right--here on earth!  Out of this thinking came the concept of Liberation Theology which “began as a movement within [parts of] the Catholic Church in Latin America. . . as a moral reaction to the poverty caused by social injustice” there and elsewhere. 

Our own Blase Bonpane (who currently can be heard on KPFK) has long been a proponent of this belief system.  He (a former priest) and his wife Theresa (a former nun) founded the Office of the Americas (located in Los Angeles).  Its purpose is to eliminate illegal and immoral domestic and foreign U. S. policies and to secure human rights for all those from whom such entitlements have been purloined.  Their goals apply across the world, whether in Asia or Africa but especially throughout the Americas (I met Mr. Bonpane in Nicaragua), and, of course, that includes California and, by inference, Los Angeles. 

There is another person within the Catholic Church who really stands out.  This Renaissance woman has recently popped up on our horizon—Sister Simone Campbell (photo right) who was born locally in Santa Monica but whose influence has reached across the nation and beyond our shores.  She is a poet, a trained lawyer (former editor of the UC Davis Law Review), and a lobbyist—all skills which serve her well.  Her commitment is to achieve social and economic justice for all. 

No longer dressed in the habits of yesteryear, she is a progressive leader in every sense of the word.  Her teachings have certainly exerted at least some influence on and shaped much of the thinking regarding recent considerations promulgated by the outstanding new Pope, Francis I (head of the Roman Catholic Church).  Along with other Catholic leaders, they have been pushing (together and separately) for all-inclusive outreach which includes issues affecting women and the LGBT community and for taking responsibility for keeping the size of families to a manageable number.  They have been breaking new ground with issues on equality, justice, and mercy as well as concern for the environment and living wages.  The results of the programs they are endorsing certainly affect all of us.  

The Pope and Sister Simone, themselves, seem to be active and open proponents of Liberation Theology.  It is comforting to hear the Pope state, “Who are we to judge” others who think or behave differently.  After all, God loves and welcomes everyone. 

Sister Simone is famous for her Nuns on the Bus Project (part of the Network Program she founded).  These sisters have gone around the country engaging in outspoken and forthright dialogues as they advocate for the least among us.  Too often forgotten by many (but not by these leaders), the poor and the formerly incarcerated have received special attention from Sister Simone and her colleagues who are together helping to re-integrate them into society.  Their other concerns include the following: encouraging voter participation; holding candidates responsible; standing up against Big Money; reducing the wealth gap; advocating for healthcare for all; protecting immigrant rights, promoting non-violent solutions to conflict. 

The Archdiocese in Los Angeles has and continues to play a significant role in our City—not only overseeing religious practice but advocating for social, economic, and political equality as well.  It sees itself as an entity whose purpose extends far beyond teaching religious faith. 

Indeed, we can see not only how influential the Church has been and continues to be in Los Angeles, but we are also witnessing a significant change for the better in its ability to find solutions for the many problems that still plague us. 

Regardless of our religious preferences, we must give credit to and be appreciative for all that the Church has contributed to what our City was and is and how it will eventually evolve as it moves forward in the near and distant future.

 

(Rosemary Jenkins is a Democratic activist and chair of the Northeast Valley Green Alliance. Jenkins has written A Quick-and=Easy Reference to Correct Grammar and Composition, Leticia in Her Wedding Dress and Other Poems, and Vignettes for Understanding Literary and Related Concepts.  She also writes for CityWatch.  This piece is part of an ongoing CityWatch series … Who Are The Real Angelinos … exploring the myriad peoples and cultures that define Los Angeles.)

-cw

 

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CityWatch

Vol 13 Issue 10

Pub: Feb 3, 2015