LOS ANGELES — Throughout the past weeks, vandals have destroyed and defaced statues across the United States. Memorials to historical figures on both public and private property have been defaced with paint, toppled, or removed entirely. Statues of Mary and the saints are among the damaged, leaving Catholics with questions of how to respond.
“I think the statue-toppling did begin as part of the Black Lives Matter movement and was focused on the Confederate statues,” V. Bradley Lewis, a professor at The Catholic University of America, told the Register. “But it has clearly taken on its own momentum now, and any statue of a person held to be at odds with contemporary political opinions seems to be fair game.”
Bishop Donald Hying of Madison, Wisconsin, was one of the first bishops to publicly denounce the destruction of statues and memorials, saying, “I cannot remain silent.” He released a letter decrying the vandalism. “The secular iconoclasm of the current moment will not bring reconciliation, peace and healing,” he wrote. “Such violence will only perpetuate the prejudice and hatred it ostensibly seeks to end.”
Even statues on church grounds are a target. St. Patrick’s Church in Joliet, Illinois, reported that vandals destroyed a small statue of the Blessed Virgin in front of the parish rectory during the night on June 23. The church pledged to replace the statue and build a grotto to protect it in the future. “We ask that you take this as a call to pray even more fervently for the conversion of hearts,” a representative of the church said on the church’s Facebook page.
National news outlets reported on San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone’s prayer service and exorcism in Golden Gate Park at the site of a destroyed statue of St. Junípero Serra. Archbishop Cordileone said the service was in response to “an act of sacrilege.”
Exorcism in San Francisco
Dominican Father Christopher Wetzel, the parochial vicar at St. Dominic Catholic Church in San Francisco, attended the prayer service. He told the Register that while the decision to pray an exorcism at a particular site is up to the local bishop, Catholics “should not shy away from using all of the powerful instruments of grace which God has given to the Church, including exorcism.”
Archbishop Cordileone led the faithful in a Rosary before praying Pope Leo XIII’s exorcism prayer, also known as the Original Prayer to St. Michael. He recited it in Latin and then sprinkled the site with holy water.
“I believe that prayers and priestly blessings are always the appropriate response to vandalization of holy things and images of saints,” Father Wetzel said. “I would encourage everyone to pray at these sites for peace and justice, particularly for the native Californians so beloved by St. Junípero Serra.”
Archbishop Cordileone urged the faithful to continue praying and learn about the Church’s role in California history.
“I would ask our people to pray and to fast and then to inform themselves,” the archbishop said in a June 27 video responding to the statue’s destruction. “There’s a lot of ignorance of the real history, so I would ask our people to learn about the history of Father Serra, of the missions, of the whole history of the Church, so they can appreciate the great legacy the Church has given us, given the world.”
“So much truth, beauty and goodness,” Archbishop Cordileone added. “It’s a wonderful legacy that we should be proud of. There are those who want to make us feel ashamed of it. We have every reason to be proud of it, but, also, we have to approach living our Christian life with humility and to continue to give goodness to the world and to give the world beauty and truth, with the help of the grace of God.”
In other California cities, mobs have destroyed statues of St. Junípero Serra in Los Angeles and Sacramento, as well as San Francisco, and Church authorities have removed other statues of him for safekeeping. St. Junípero is a significant figure in California history, having established the first nine of California’s 21 missions, several of which were the foundations for California’s major cities. The vandals accuse the Franciscan missionary of committing rape, genocide and other atrocities.
However, Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles released a letter defending the reputation of St. Junépero and condemning the wanton destruction of his statues, saying that “those attacking St. Junípero’s good name and vandalizing his memorials do not know his true character or the actual historical record.”
“The sad truth is that, beginning decades ago, activists started ‘revising’ history to make St. Junípero the focus of all the abuses committed against California’s indigenous peoples,” Archbishop Gomez said. “But the crimes and abuses that our saint is blamed for — slanders that are spread widely today over the internet and sometimes repeated by public figures — actually happened long after his death.”
Archbishop Gomez praised the city of Ventura for its response to threats against the statue of Serra in front of its city hall. He and said that the city can be a “model for thoughtful and respectful public discourse.” After an event to tear down the statue was thwarted by a small group of Catholics, who physically surrounded the statue to protect it, Ventura announced a city council meeting to vote on the future of the statue of its founder.
During the meeting, many members of the public said that St. Junípero’s statue should be removed because he was a Catholic and they believe the Catholic Church is a racist organization. Other speakers said the statue should remain because to remove it would contribute to the slander of a good man.
Despite being limited to one minute for each speaker, the public spoke for four hours. Due to possible legal violations by the city, the mayor recused himself from the public hearing, and the city council scheduled another special meeting on the statue to vote on its removal.
The city has erected protective fencing around the statue until a decision is made.
Auxiliary Bishop Robert Barron of Los Angeles, the founder of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries, led a Rosary in front of the statue on the Fourth of July and blessed those standing vigil to protect it.
“The true historical record is clear on this point,” the California Catholic Conference said in a statement after protesters destroyed another statue of St. Junípero in Sacramento at the state Capitol. “St. Junípero loved and bravely defended the Native peoples, even writing a bill of rights to protect them from the ambitions of the Spanish colonizers.”
St. Louis Defended
In St. Louis, vandals and Catholics clashed at the base of a statue of the city’s namesake. After Muslim convert and political activist Umar Lee created a petition to have the statue removed, the Gateway Pundit, a conservative blog, announced a public Rosary in support of St. Louis and the statue. Lee then announced a counterprotest, calling those planning to attend the prayer event “White Nationalists.”
Maria Miloscia heard about the Rosary from her brother, Father Samuel Miloscia, a priest of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Missouri. She and her siblings arrived early, and when she saw Lee distributing red spray paint to the counterprotesters, she placed herself against the statue’s pedestal. “I thought to myself, they’re going to desecrate the statue,” Miloscia said. “I made a split-second resolution — if they want to use spray paint on the statue, they’re going to have to get through me.”
While physically protecting the statue’s pedestal, Miloscia prayed the Rosary and sang the Salve Regina. “I was praying that no one would get hurt — on either side — but also that no one would hurt my family and nobody would hurt the statue.”
Protesters shoved the praying participants and blew air horns to disrupt the Rosary and wrote in chalk on the pedestal, but never used the spray paint.
Miloscia said she saw at least six priests at the event. At one point, Lee allowed Father Stephen Schumacher, a priest of the Archdiocese of St. Louis, to use his bullhorn to answer questions about the life of St. Louis. Father Schumacher defended the life of the French king and sketched the basic history of northern Africa for the protesters accusing St. Louis of killing Africans.
“St. Louis was a man who willed to use his kingship to do good for his people,” Father Schumacher said. The crowd booed at his words and allowed him only a few minutes to speak.
Catholics have been meeting at the base of the St. Louis statue every evening for weeks.
“We’re praying for peace; we’re praying for conversion of hearts on both sides and unity in the city, as well as the safety and protection of what we hold dear,” Miloscia said. “Most Catholics are there because they don’t want any desecration to happen. They’ve seen what happened in California and elsewhere, where statues are being desecrated or torn down. I think they’re concerned about that, less so because of the statue and more so because of the precedent it sets and the anti-Catholicism it justifies.”
The Archdiocese of St. Louis issued a statement championing the saint and emphasizing his charity toward the poor and the sick.
“For Catholics, St. Louis is an example of an imperfect man who strived to live a life modeled after the life of Jesus Christ,” a statement from the archdiocese reads. “For St. Louisans, he is a model for how we should care for our fellow citizen and a namesake with whom we should be proud to identify.”
Register correspondent Mary Rose Short writes from Southern California.