California city will remove St. Junipero Serra statue from public grounds

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

The city council of Ventura, California has voted to remove a statue of St. Junipero Serra from the grounds of city hall, amid riots and protests in other California cities that have resulted in the destruction of several statues of the saint in recent months.

The Ventura city Council voted 6-0 Wednesday evening to remove a bronze statue from outside city hall and a wooden replica  inside the building, the LA Times reported.

The bronze statue of Serra is a 1989 replica of a 1936 concrete piece. Though the council's resolution did not specify when the removal would take place, it declared that the intended destination of the statues would be the city's San Buenaventura mission church, which St. Serra himself founded in the 18th century.

The vote coincided with Pope Francis' July 15 announcement that the San Buenaventura mission church would be elevated to the status of minor basilica.

Across the country in recent months, protestors and rioters have pulled down statues of historic figures- some depicting Confederate figures, as part of a call to end systemic racism, but also some depicting abolitionists, and others such as George Washington and Ulysses S. Grant.

Despite Serra's record of defending the rights of indigenous peoples, statues of the saint have become focal points for protests and demonstrations across California in recent weeks, with images of the saint being torn down or vandalized in protest of California's colonial past.

A statue of the saint was torn down in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, on June 19 by a crowd of about 100 people, and on the same day a statue of the saint was torn down in Los Angeles.

Rioters pulled down and defaced a statue of Serra in Sacramento on July 4, inspiring a local Catholic to set up a makeshift shrine to Serra on the statue's empty plinth July 5, and lead other Catholics in cleaning graffiti from the site.

A massive fire on July 11 devastated the mission church of San Gabriel, which Serra founded, in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. The cause of the fire has not yet been announced, but it is being investigated as arson.

San Buenaventura had announced in June its intention to work with local officials and indigenous tribal leaders to see a Serra statue outside Ventura City Hall moved to "a non-public location."

Elders of the Chumash Native American tribe had met in late June with Ventura Mayor Matt Lavere and Fr. Tom Elewaut, pastor of the San Buenaventura mission church.

"The three of us are confident that a peaceful resolution regarding the Father Junipero Serra statue can be reached, without uncivil discourse and character assassination, much less vandalism of a designated landmark," the parties said in a June 18 joint statement.

"We all believe that the removal of the statue should be accomplished without force, without anger, and through a collaborative, peaceful process. This process has already commenced through our initial meeting and we look forward to continuing the discussion with the community to help guide further action on this."

A similar statue of Serra was beheaded at the Old Mission Santa Barbara in 2017, and red paint was used to graffiti the mission in 2018, Ventura's ABC affiliate reported.

Other California missions such as San Luis Obispo and San Gabriel had in June moved their statues "out of public view" amid fears rioters may tear them down.

The University of San Diego, a Catholic university, told CNA on Tuesday that it has placed a statue of St. Junipero Serra in storage.

Some California activists view Serra, an 18th-century Franciscan missionary, as having contributed to the destruction of Native American way of life through his founding of the first nine of California's mission churches, many of which would form the cores of what are today the state's biggest cities- such as San Diego, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.

A native of Petra Mallorca in Spain, Serra was a renowned scholar who gave up his academic career to become a missionary in North America.

While many activists today associate Serra with the many abuses that the Native Americans suffered after contact with Europeans, biographies and historical records suggest that Serra actually advocated on behalf of the Natives against the Spanish military and against encroaching European settlement.

Serra specifically advocated for the rights of Native peoples, at one point drafting a 33 point "bill of rights" for the Native Americans living in the mission settlements and walking all the way from California to Mexico City to present it to the viceroy. Many of the Natives he converted wept and mourned him upon his death in 1784.

Pope Francis canonized Serra in Washington, D.C. on Sept. 23, 2015, saying that "Junípero sought to defend the dignity of the native community, to protect it from those who had mistreated and abused it."

Several of California's bishops, including Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco, Jaime Soto of Sacramento, and others have released statements in support of Serra and of a rational dialogue about the statues.

Cordileone said in a statement June 20 that he did not want to "deny that historical wrongs have occurred, even by people of good will, and healing of memories and reparation is much needed. But just as historical wrongs cannot be righted by keeping them hidden, neither can they be righted by re-writing the history."

The archbishop praised the saint's missionary zeal: "St. Junipero Serra also offered them the best thing he had: the knowledge and love of Jesus Christ, which he and his fellow Franciscan friars did through education, health care, and training in the agrarian arts."

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On Tuesday in Miami, a parish statue of Christ was beheaded, while in Colorado Springs, a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary was graffitied. Over the weekend, a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary was attacked this weekend at a parish in Chattanooga, Tennessee, while in Boston, a statue of Mary was set on fire, and in Brooklyn, a statue was tagged with the word "IDOL" in black spray paint.

A Catholic parish in Ocala, Florida burned over the weekend, and a Florida man has been charged with arson.

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