The basilica was built in 1986 to accommodate the growing Catholic community, which outgrew the mission’s smaller Serra Chapel. The Mission San Juan Capistrano was established by Serra in 1776.
Serra statues are among numerous depictions of historic figures pulled down in the past week amid ongoing protests and riots throughout the country. While some protests have torn down the statues of Confederate figures, as part of a call to end systemic racism, other statues have also been torn down from prominent locations, including one of George Washington.
During the eighteenth century, Serra founded nine Catholic missions in the area that would later become California, many of those missions would go on to become the centers of major California cities.
Serra helped to convert thousands of native Californians to Christianity and taught them new agricultural technologies. Critics have lambasted Serra as a symbol of European colonialism and said the missions engaged in the forced labor of Native Americans, sometimes claiming Bl. Serra himself was abusive.
But Serra’s defenders say that Serra was actually an advocate for native people and a champion of human rights. They note the many native people he helped during his life, and their outpouring of grief at his death.
Biographers note that Serra frequently intervened for native people when they faced persecution from Spanish authorities. In one case, the priest intervened to spare the lives of several California natives who had attacked a Spanish outpost.
Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco issued a June 20 statement highlighting the saint’s good works, saying, “St. Serra made heroic sacrifices to protect the indigenous people of California from their Spanish conquerors, especially the soldiers…”
“For the past 800 years, the various Franciscan orders of brothers, sisters and priests that trace their inspiration back to him have been exemplary of not only serving, but identifying with, the poor and downtrodden and giving them their rightful dignity as children of God,” the archbishop said.
The California Catholic Conference of Bishops similarly defended Serra, saying, “The historical truth is that Serra repeatedly pressed the Spanish authorities for better treatment of the Native American communities. Serra was not simply a man of his times.”
“In working with Native Americans, he was a man ahead of his times who made great sacrifices to defend and serve the indigenous population and work against an oppression that extends far beyond the mission era,” they said.
“And if that is not enough to legitimate a public statue in the state that he did so much to create, then virtually every historical figure from our nation's past will have to be removed for their failings measured in the light of today's standards.”