California Cancels the Saint Who Helped Found It

COMMENTARY: The vacuum created by the empty space that used to bear a statue of St. Junípero Serra in Ventura is palpable.

St. Junipero Serra statue that once stood in front of Ventura's from City Hall.
St. Junipero Serra statue that once stood in front of Ventura's from City Hall. (photo: Cbl62/CC BY-SA 4.0)

Visiting the California beach town of Ventura for the umpteenth time since 2001, my family could sense that something was palpably different. We could feel it. We could see it (or not see it) in the streets and places. Actually, that something was quite literally gone. It was no more. That something is St. Junípero Serra. His monument, the centerpiece of this historic town, has been removed. 

St. Junípero has been erased by the mobs of the cancel culture.

I wrote here last year about my experiences with St. Junípero and Ventura. My first encounter in June 2001 was before he was a saint and before I was a Catholic. My family and I (only four of us then) each day that summer would walk by the huge bronze statue of Serra outside the Ventura City Hall. We had rented a house on a nearby hill while I was in the area doing research on Ronald Reagan at the Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley and at the Reagan Ranch Center in Santa Barbara. Ventura was the perfect beach town in between the two. 

Our choice of location was a good one. We had expected coffee shops, restaurants, bookstores and beaches, but not Junípero Serra. I was from Pennsylvania, familiar with beach towns on the East Coast, and I wasn’t Catholic. I did not know about Father Junípero Serra, the Apostle of California, the 18th-century Spanish Franciscan who was a founder of this huge state and accomplished the monumental feat of evangelizing this vast territory and bringing Christianity here. He’s the reason that so many towns in this state bear the name of a saint. Learning about him was to learn about that patrimony, and to teach my children the same. Likewise for the parents and children of this town and most populated state. 

This is history, often for better or worse. You cannot and should not erase it.

Father Serra himself joined the ranks of the saints, canonized in September 2015 when Pope Francis visited the United States for the first time. 

“Junípero Serra left his native land and its way of life,” said Francis. “He was excited about blazing trails, going forth to meet many people, learning and valuing their particular customs and ways of life.” 

And rather than mistreating Native Americans, as so many other settlers had done, Father Serra was credited by Francis for having “sought to defend the dignity of the native community, to protect it from those who had mistreated and abused it.”

The bishop of this area, Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles, was thrilled that “the first Hispanic pope is coming to America to give us our first Hispanic saint.” He echoed Pope Francis’ high praise, saying that Father Serra had possessed a “deep love for the native peoples he had come to evangelize.” Archbishop Gomez underscored that particular aspect of the Franciscan missionary: “In his appeals, he said some truly remarkable things about human dignity, human rights and the mercy of God.”

But unfortunately, such is not the view of St. Junípero by the woke, by those educated by our modern universities and by social media. In their collective judgment, the Franciscan saint and California co-founder was nothing short of a genocidal racist, a “white” European colonizer and supremacist and slaver whose men and missions subjugated the Indigenous tribes that they raped and pillaged and shackled. The attackers became committed to that vicious narrative and to their desire to physically rip down the saint wherever possible. 

now-empty space outside Ventura City Hall where the statue of Junipero Serra long stood. Paul Kengor
Now-empty space outside Ventura City Hall where the statue of Junipero Serra long stood.

Thus, St. Junípero’s statue was stalked throughout California last summer. It became the target of the mobs, which up and down the California coast went mission to mission vandalizing, desecrating, spray-painting, noosing, blow-torching and generally destroying monuments to the saint. 

About a half-hour north in Santa Barbara, the statue of St. Junípero that had stood outside the beautiful mission church he founded there was spray-painted red and beheaded. Yes, beheaded, in the dark of night. One imagines that it takes a lot of work to behead a bronze statue. But the Serra-haters were committed. They were literally out for the saint’s head. 

With the statue outside Ventura City Hall in the crosshairs, and an incensed mob gathering daily and growing in emotion and anger by the hour, the local authorities eventually decided to remove the statue to protect it from destruction or from someone getting hurt in the toppling.

Of course, one wonders why authorities in these situations couldn’t simply arrest those hellbent on destroying public property. If I personally grabbed a spray can and did some graffiti to a town building, maybe with a cute little expression of love for my wife on Valentine’s Day, I would be arrested immediately, no doubt fined and surely jailed if I refused to stop. But lawlessly yanking down a massive monument is apparently an action not to be stopped in modern America. 

The authorities apparently did not have the will to halt the aggrieved when it came to the Apostle of California. Ironically, in the end, in Ventura, the authorities themselves ended up taking down Serra. The mob got what it wanted.

The mob won.

And so, arriving here in August 2021, approaching the monument to St. Junípero I had walked by so often before, the strangely large empty space suddenly struck me: Yep, I said to myself, he’s gone. Off to the warehouse to satisfy the mob.

It was actually my second time in as many days that I encountered the vacated space of the canceled saint. I have been visiting a particularly poignant little chapel in central California since that first summer I visited in 2001. This chapel has a special place in my heart for reasons that I can’t say, lest the mob take to Twitter to assemble at the chapel with cell phones and torches. I will leave the church nameless to protect it. Who knows who might arrive with chains?

Statue of Saint Junipero Serra is no longer in front of San Buenaventura City Hall
Statue of Saint Junipero Serra is no longer in front of San Buenaventura City Hall.

That chapel once displayed a bone relic of St. Junípero inside the floor at the entrance. When my host first admiringly showed it to me 20 years ago, he explained to me who the saint was. He also noted that Father Serra was not “yet” a saint. My host had a special veneration for the Franciscan missionary. He had pulled some strings to acquire that relic.

Just prior to visiting the chapel this August 2021, I had been informed by a family member of a young girl who needed a miracle. Maybe it was time to call upon a literal piece of St. Junípero. No luck. When we got to the chapel, the bone relic in the floor for decades was gone. It looks like it was removed for the safety of not only the relic but perhaps the chapel as a whole. The cultural revolutionaries might have hopped in with sledgehammer and pick-axe, and pulverized the relic and gleefully tossed it over the canyon.

All in the name of tolerance, of course.

So, here we are in America in 2021 — in fact, in California, in 2021. Drive up and down the West Coast in this massive state and pretty much everything is named for a saint, from San Francisco to Santa Barbara to Ventura (St. Bonaventure). And really, none of that would be the case at all if not for one particular saint, St. Junípero Serra. Not that many Californians today will even learn that.

And yet, this saintly priest has been purged throughout this state, including at nearly every mission that he built in not only founding Christianity in California but, actually, founding California. The mob got the saint. The mob won.

St. Junípero Serra, canceled.