Pope Francis Makes Saint of Controversial Missionary

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By Tracy Connor and Jon Schuppe

Pope Francis on Wednesday made a saint of a controversial 18th century missionary who converted thousands of Native Americans to Catholicism.

The canonization ceremony, the first on U.S. soil, was held at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington on the second day of Francis' three-city American tour.

Related: Saint or Sinner? Pope Courts Controversy With Canonization of Junipero Serra

Francis has praised the missionary, Junipero Serra, who spread Christianity through what is now California, as "the evangelizer of the Western United States" and a "founding father" of the country.

"He was the embodiment of a church which goes forth, a church that sets out to bring everywhere the reconciling tenderness of God," Francis said during the canonization, which he gave in Spanish in front of more than 20,000 people.

But many Native Americans have opposed the move, saying he destroyed their ancestors' traditions and culture, spreading disease and enslaving converts.

The Vatican and Serra supporters argue that he saved natives from Spanish soldiers.

The drive to make Serra a saint began in the 1930s, and he was beatified in 1988. But Francis fast-tracked his canonization, allowing it to go forward on the strength of only one miracle: a nun cured of lupus after praying to Serra.

Critics say the canonization will weaken Francis' reputation as a champion of the powerless and undermine his 2014 apology for colonizers' sins against the indigenous people of the Americas. Some scholars theorize that Francis' choosing Serra for sainthood is a way of teaching Americans about their own painful treatment of Native Americans and blacks — and to nudge the country toward adopting a more sympathetic view of immigrants.

John Reyna, 45, of Lee's Summit, Missouri, is a Lakota Indian who scored a ticket to the mass from a friend. He said some of his relatives have "very mixed feelings" about sainthood for Serra, but he supports the canonization.

"I can't undo history," he said. "But I can work to heal."

While he understands the complaints about the Spanish missionaries, he believes Serra "taught the Indians a lot of things, survival skills that allowed them to function in a rapidly changing world."

And many of the people gathered at the ceremony were not very aware of Serra — they simply want to see the pope.

"I told my kids this is my rock concert," said Mary Beth Gawthrop, 65, a floral designer from White Plains, Maryland, who won a ticket in a church raffle and braved a 2.5-hour security line to snag a spot on a lawn high above the outdoor seating for the Mass.

"I just wanted to be near the pope," she said. "I know I'm never gonna get to Rome so this is my bucket list."

The crowd ran across the lawn outside the basilica to follow the Popemobile from behind the barricades, a sea of cellphones held aloft. One child jumped up and down, screaming, "I see him!"

Fatima Contreras, 14, from Fort Washington, Maryland, said she thought she would only see him on the Jumbotron. But she was shocked to see Francis drive past her twice, just a few yards away.

"I started crying," she said. "He looked so happy. His happiness is contagious. I felt so emotional. I will never forget this."

Theresa Day, 33, brought her six children from Tallahassee, Florida to attend Wednesday's mass and ceremony. Beforehand, they squeezed to the front of the lines to watch the papal parade. "He blessed us right where we were standing," Day said.

She called it a miracle.

Associated Press contributed.