WASHINGTON, Sept. 23 (UPI) -- Pope Francis on Wednesday canonized a Spanish Franciscan friar who performed Catholic church work up and down California -- and sparked controversy among Native Americans that is still debated two centuries later.
Francis led the canonization Wednesday afternoon at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C.
The ceremony marked the first time in history a member of the Catholic Church was sainted on American soil. Serra also becomes the first Hispanic saint.
"Junípero sought to defend the dignity of the native community, to protect it from those who had mistreated and abused it," the pontiff said. "Junipero Serra left his native land and its way of life.
"He was excited about blazing trails, going forth to meet many people, learning and valuing their particular customs and ways of life."
However, Serra's new sainthood has received anything but universal praise.
In California, where the former friar established numerous Catholic missions in the 1700s, he is still remembered for building those missions in a manner that led to the demise of Native American tribes who were already on the land.
"My objection and the objection of many California Indians is that he is being honored for in fact dishonoring many of our California ancestors. The missions ended up killing about 90 percent of the California Indians present at the time of missionization, creating all kinds of cultural and emotional baggage that we still carry to this day," Deborah Miranda, a member of the Ohlone Costanoan Esselen Nation of California, said. "It's not a question of attacking the Catholic Church or attacking Pope Francis. It's about making sure that the truth is heard and that injustices are not continued on into the 21st century."
"We're stunned and we're in disbelief," Valentin Lopez, chairman of California's Amah Mutsun Tribal Band, told CNN Wednesday.
The pope was welcomed to the White House earlier Wednesday -- becoming just the third pontiff to do so. The other two were Pope John Paul II in 1979 and Pope Benedict XVI in 2008.
Thursday, Pope Francis will become the first Catholic leader to address a joint session of Congress before departing for New York City.