ROME — Although Pope Francis doesn’t arrive in Washington, DC for his US debut until late September, a Vatican spokesman said Monday the trip will actually begin more than four months earlier when the pontiff visits Rome’s main American seminary May 2.

Francis is heading to the Pontifical North American College (NAC) for a Mass in honor of Junipero Serra, an 18th-century Spanish Franciscan celebrated as the founder of the Church on the West Coast of the United States, but also derided by critics as the “Columbus of California” for his role in decimating the native population.

Francis will formally declare Serra a saint during his American trip, which will take him to DC, New York, and Philadelphia for a Vatican-sponsored meeting of families Sept 23-27.

The pope’s outing to the NAC is organized by the Vatican’s Pontifical Commission for Latin America as well as the college. The event will be presided over by Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet, president of the Vatican’s Commission for Latin America, who’s also head of the Congregation for Bishops. Archbishop José Gómez of Los Angeles will be on hand as a representative of the California bishops.

Founded in 1859 under Pope Pius IX, the NAC is the main residence for roughly 250 American seminarians studying for the priesthood in various Roman universities. The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, defined Francis’ brief visit as the beginning of the pope’s trip to the States.

It may also be a preview of controversy likely to swirl when Francis canonizes Serra, a Franciscan priest who founded nine missions from San Diego to San Francisco during the 18th century. Native Americans and others claim that he imposed Christianity on the region, wiped out native populations, and enslaved converts to the faith.

During a press conference in Rome Monday, Church officials defined Serra as a man who made mistakes, but also a historical figure who defended natives from Spanish colonizers like no one else.

Uruguayan layman Guzman Carriquiry, secretary of the Vatican’s Commission for Latin America, said that as a saint, Serra will help the Latino community in the US not to feel like “barely tolerated foreigners,” but to recognize themselves in continuity with Hispanics who have lived in the country for centuries.

“It will also show them that they can be Americans without renouncing their Latino and Catholic values and identities,” he said.

The canonization of the Franciscan missionary comes as the US Senate considers removing his statue from the National Statuary Hall in the Capitol. The image of Serra has been there since 1931, representing California, but should the bid succeed, it will be replaced by astronaut Sally Ride.

The idea was proposed by California state Sen. Ricardo Lara, a Los Angeles Democrat who wants to replace a bronze statue of Serra with a monument honoring the late Ride, the nation’s first female astronaut. Lara, who is gay, said Ride would become “the first member of the LGBT community” to be honored in Statuary Hall.

Carriquiry said removing Serra’s statue wouldn’t be a particularly polite welcome for Pope Francis. Morover, he asked, what would it mean to try to bury the memory of an extraordinary Hispanic, one with Catholic and missionary roots?

“What does it mean that a state with such a big Hispanic presence wants to eliminate the only Hispanic from the Capitol?” Carriquiry asked.

He also defended Serra’s historical reputation.

“These accusations don’t survive a confrontation against the historic research concerning the life and deeds of Serra,” Carriquiry said.

Of the estimated 70,000 natives who lived in the region in Serra’s era, Carriquiry said, at least 7,000 willingly moved into the missions he founded.

Monsignor James Checchio, rector of the American seminary, said that welcoming Francis is “a particular joy.” He said that many pontiffs have visited the NAC, located barely a mile from the Vatican, including St. John Paul II, Blessed Paul VI, Saint John XXIII, and Pius XII.

“We offer no apologies for having as our mission the formation of priests who are particularly committed” to the papacy, Checchio said during Monday’s press conference.