SAN MATEO, CA — Christian Clifford, veteran Catholic school educator, has been on a quest to set the record straight when it comes to the founder of the California missions, Saint Junípero Serra. Canonized by Pope Francis in September 2015, Serra made headlines for many months leading up to the canonization. Some painted him in a disparaging light and Clifford knew that the evidence proved otherwise.
He shared, “Early in my research of Saint Junípero Serra, first to deepen my devotion and eventually to write two books about him, I came across the story of Pablo Tac and was deeply moved. Surprisingly, outside of academia very little has been written about him. His life story has the power to move hearts and minds. It shocked me that those who malign Serra’s reputation never bring Pablo Tac up. To me, it was Serra’s vision that impacted the amazing, yet short life of Pablo Tac. In other words, you would not have one without the other.”
Pablo Tac (1822-1841) was a Luiseño Indian. He was born and raised at Mission San Luis Rey de Francia, located in present-day Oceanside, California. At the age of ten, he left the Mission with Fr. Antonio Peyrí and another Luiseño boy, Agapito Amamix. Their destination was Rome. On September 23, 1834, Pablo and Agapito enrolled at the Urban College. There they learned how to be missionary priests, hoping to one day return home to minister to their fellow Luiseño.
Clifford, author of the only biography about Pablo Tac, hopes that bringing attention to Pablo Tac will lead to more research being done. He believes there must be more to discover about him beyond what we know.
Pablo Tac’s writings are the earliest from a California Indian. While in Rome studying for the Catholic priesthood, Pablo wrote a description of life as a mission Indian (Conversion of the San Luiseños of Alta California, c. 1835), gave a public recitation of a poem at the Polyglot Academy (c. January 1836), in Sequoyahesque fashion created a dictionary of the language of his people (Prima Linguae Californiensis Rudimenta a P. Tak proposita, c. February 1838), and wrote an account of the native peoples in Southern California (De Californiensibus, c. after 1838).
Clifford realizes that unlike the first North American Indian saint, Kateri Tekakwitha (1656-1680), Pablo is little known. That does not seem to slow him down, though. He was overjoyed when he met Catholic Luiseños in July 2019 at the Tekakwitha Conference in Sharonville, Ohio who are aware of Pablo and follow in his footsteps. Also, a hall at Mission San Luis Rey was named after Pablo in 2012 and in June 2021 it was decided that an Oceanside public elementary school will take his name. He is confident that once people are made aware of his short life that it inspires, as attested by the over 500 Catholics and people of good will who have signed the petition to nominate Pablo Tac for the cause of canonization, an electronic version of which can be found here. The campaign has not yet received the support of the San Luis Rey Band of Mission Indians or the Diocese of San Diego.
Clifford’s intention for writing Meet Pablo Tac was to weave the story of Pablo Tac back into the narrative of the California missions. He said, “Pablo’s life is good news, but bittersweet. My hope is that every fourth grader in California [the year students in the state study native and colonial history] will know the name Pablo Tac. He is a great role model—persevering during difficult times and accomplishing more by his teen years than most do in a lifetime. Most importantly, Pablo loved God. ” Clifford, who finished walking the 800-mile California Missions Trail in the summer of 2020, made it a point to pray to and draw inspiration from both Saint Junípero Serra and Pablo Tac.