HomeUSSt. Junípero Serra statue targeted by protests in 2020 is now settled...

St. Junípero Serra statue targeted by protests in 2020 is now settled in a new home

View of Father Serra Statue and California Street from steps of Ventura City Hall. / Credit: Cbl62/wikimedia. CC BY SA 4.0

CNA Staff, Jul 1, 2024 / 11:35 am (CNA).

Today, July 1, is the feast day of St. Junípero Serra, the 18th-century Spanish Franciscan priest who brought Catholicism to California. 

Lending his name and patronage to countless churches, streets, buildings, schools, and parks in the Golden State — as well as to the longest of the four ongoing National Eucharistic Pilgrimage routes — Serra changed California’s land and people forever through the mission system, which planted long-lasting Catholic churches all along the U.S. West Coast. 

The mission system was far from perfect, however, and Serra’s memory is not universally celebrated. For decades, critics of the mission system, and Serra in particular, have sought to remove his name and image from public view. 

Amid a national debate and sometimes violent reckoning on race and racism in 2020, Serra was singled out by California activists as a symbol of colonialism and oppression. In some places, activists took matters into their own hands and succeeded in publicly defacing and tearing down several statues of Serra, while other statues were quietly and preemptively moved in order to protect them. 

One statue of Serra, however, stands today as a symbol of cooperation between the Church and Serra’s critics. A 9-foot-tall, 3,000-pound bronze statue of the saint currently displayed at Mission San Buenaventura was moved there from city hall, after four years in storage, earlier this year. 

The mission church in Ventura, founded by the saint, had announced its intention in mid-2020 to work with local officials and Indigenous tribal leaders to move the statue from city hall, where it had stood since 1989, to “a nonpublic location.” Protestors had earlier rallied at the bronze statue, calling for it to be torn down, but Chumash Native American tribe elders were adamant that they wanted a peaceful solution. 

As reported by Angelus News in March, the statue finally found a new home when it was installed at the mission that Serra had founded in 1782.

In 2020, amid fears the statue would be torn down, elders of the Chumash tribe met with Ventura Mayor Matt LaVere and Father Thomas Elewaut, pastor of the mission. The three met for hours at city hall, ultimately releasing a joint statement agreeing that the statue should be peacefully moved. In July 2020, the statue was quietly removed from its place in front of city hall and placed in storage.

Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles later praised the parties’ actions as “a model for thoughtful and respectful public discourse that includes civil authorities, Indigenous leaders, representatives of the Church, and the community at large.”

Who was St. Junípero Serra?

Born on the island of Petra Mallorca in Spain in 1713, Serra joined the Franciscans and quickly gained prominence as both a scholar and professor. He chose to give up his academic career to become a missionary in the territory of New Spain, in which Spanish colonizers had already been active for over two centuries.

By the time Serra arrived in North America, the territory of New Spain already encompassed all of present-day Mexico as well as a huge chunk of the present-day U.S., mostly in the West but also Florida, Cuba, and even parts of Canada.

Traveling almost everywhere on foot and practicing various forms of self-mortification, Serra founded mission churches all along the coast. Many of the missions would later form the cores of what are today the state’s biggest cities, such as San Diego, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.

The missions were a communal venture between the friars and Native leaders, though the Natives who joined the mission were not often permitted to leave freely, were sometimes subjected to corporal punishment, and suffered decimated numbers due to a lack of immunity to various European diseases. Nevertheless, the Spanish taught the Natives new agricultural techniques as well as instruction in the faith, performing thousands of baptisms.

Serra on many occasions defended the Natives against the Spanish military, who committed the worst abuses against the Native populations after the Spanish government ceased sending funding. Serra at one point drafted a 33-point “bill of rights” for the Native Americans living in the mission settlements and walked all the way from California to Mexico City in ill health to present it to the viceroy.

“Unlike many of us today, Serra was a man on a mission,” prominent California archeologist Rubén Mendoza told CNA in 2020.

“He was absolutely determined to [facilitate] the salvation of Indigenous communities. And while for some that may be seen as an intrusion, for Serra in his time, that was seen as one of the most benevolent things one could do — to give one’s life over to others, and that’s what he did.”

Similarly, Gomez noted in a 2020 letter that the worst abuses against the Native Americans in California took place after the age of the missions ended, when the Catholic friars were powerless to protect the Natives from the Spanish military and from the state’s burgeoning American population. 

“[T]he tragic ruin of native populations occurred long after St. Junípero was gone and the missions were closed or ‘secularized.’ Serious scholars conclude that St. Junípero himself was a gentle man and there were no physical abuses or forced conversions while he was president of the mission system,” Gomez wrote. 

“St. Junípero did not impose Christianity, he proposed it. For him, the greatest gift he could offer was to bring people to the encounter with Jesus Christ. Living in the missions was always voluntary, and in the end just 10%-20% of California’s Native population ever joined him.”

Today, despite having many prominent Native critics, other people of Native descent vigorously defend Serra’s legacy. 

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