Taking Down St. Junípero Serra

COMMENTARY: Mobs bent on erasing US history in California have focused their ire on the saintly Spanish missionary.

Statue of St. Junipero Serra at the Ventura (California) City Hall
Statue of St. Junipero Serra at the Ventura (California) City Hall (photo: Sh)

It was June 2001, our first trip to California. We had driven down the coast and settled into a quaint little pink-and-green house in the beach town of Ventura. I was in the area for several weeks to do research on Ronald Reagan at the Reagan Library and the Reagan Ranch Center.

My family was much smaller in those days. It was only myself, my wife, and two boys, ages 5 and 3. Our house was on a hillside behind Ventura City Hall. Every day we strolled the boys down the hill into town and to the beach. We always passed a huge statue of St. Junípero Serra.

I had heard of the Spanish missionary, but that was it. I wasn’t Catholic. We came to learn that he was nothing less than a founder of California, and really, an unappreciated pioneer of this nation. The 18th-century Spanish Franciscan built the famous mission churches throughout the state. He also built Christianity in the area, evangelizing a giant territory. California cities today have saints’ names because of St. Junípero and his missionaries: San Francisco (St. Francis), Santa Clara (St. Clare), San Diego (St. Didacus), Santa Barbara (St. Barbara), and on and on. Ventura is named for St. Bonaventure.

Passing the statue of St. Junípero Serra became a teachable moment to our kids in those days and in subsequent visits in the years ahead.

Well, not anymore. That statue is coming down. They’re removing Junípero Serra from the Ventura City Hall.

A joint statement was issued by Father Tom Elewaut, priest at the San Buenaventura Mission Church, Ventura Mayor Matt LaVere and Julie Tumamait-Stenslie, a leader with the Chumash indigenous tribe and the Ventureño/Barbareño band of Mission Indians.

“The three of us are confident that a peaceful resolution regarding the Father Junípero Serra statue can be reached, without uncivil discourse and character assassination, much less vandalism of a designated landmark,” the statement reads.

“The energy now shouldn’t be anger,” said Tumamait-Stenslie, ironically, regarding a situation driven by anger. Though Serra “is an iconic figure representing a lot of history,” her Chumash people feel otherwise: “That was a very dark time for our family, and it continues past the missionization [era]. It went on … and it continues.”

St. Junípero’s critics have done nothing short of link him to genocidal racism.

Ben Leaños of the nearby town of Camarillo, one of those demanding the removal of the statue, stated: “We’ve been seeing around the country and the world statues of racist and genocidal people being taken down and we think it’s time that happens in Ventura.”

Well, it’s happening. Goodbye, St. Junípero Serra, the Apostle of California.

For the record, I met Father Tom Elewaut the last time I attended Mass at the Buenaventura Mission Church. I spent some time with him. He is a good and level-headed priest, who no doubt is trying to keep the lid on a volatile situation. The decision by Father Elewaut and the mayor to acquiesce to protester demands was surely made in large part to avert disaster. It’s only a matter of time before a throng comes for the statue with spray-paint and a noose. At this white-hot, toxic moment in U.S. history, it’s apparently deemed best to shelve the likeness of the iconic missionary to prevent it from vandalism and desecration.

Not coincidentally, Ventura’s decision comes as news arrives that revolutionaries in San Francisco’s Golden State Park had pulled down a statue of St. Junípero there — a stoic monument of the man holding a life-size crucifix. St. Junípero was a victim, along with a statue of Ulysses S. Grant, the Union general who (ironically) defeated the Confederacy during the Civil War before going to battle against the KKK and fighting for the right of black Americans to vote. (Why Grant was taken down is anyone’s guess. My explanation would be colossal historical ignorance by the vandals.)

Likewise, the statue of St. Junípero Serra was toppled last week at Father Serra Park in Los Angeles.

They are literally out for the saint’s head throughout California. In September 2017 the statue of the saint outside the Santa Barbara Mission was splashed with red paint and beheaded. (I was there three weeks prior with my family.)

Thus, the Ventura decision looks downright charitable, an act of mercy for Father Serra. In fact, the Ventura dismantling crew might want to move rapidly before the mob comes soon with torches.

All of which makes me wonder what Pope Francis would think of this. He canonized St. Junípero Serra in September 2015 while in Washington, D.C. During that ceremony, he remarked that “Junípero Serra left his native land and its way of life. He was excited about blazing trails, going forth to meet many people, learning and valuing their particular customs and ways of life.”

According to the Holy Father, Father Serra not only did not mistreat Native Americans but “sought to defend the dignity of the native community, to protect it from those who had mistreated and abused it.”

Vehemently disagreeing with Pope Francis was Valentin Lopez, chairman of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band, from California’s Monterey Bay area, who told CNN at the time that his people were “stunned” and “in disbelief” at the Pope’s words: “We believe saints are supposed to be people who followed in the life of Jesus Christ and the words of Jesus Christ. There was no Jesus Christ lifestyle at the missions.”

That seems a strikingly judgmental assessment from someone urging tolerance. Can Lopez really know there was no Christian lifestyle at the missions?

Los Angeles Archbishop José Gomez has stood behind Father Serra. He was thrilled by Pope Francis’s canonization of him:

“The first Hispanic pope is coming to America to give us our first Hispanic saint. This is not a coincidence.”

Archbishop Gomez said that the Father Serra canonization was “the most important dimension of the Pope’s visit” to the United States that September 2015.

The Mexico-born archbishop seconded Pope Francis’ high praise, saying that Father Serra had “deep love for the native peoples he had come to evangelize.” He added: “In his appeals, he said some truly remarkable things about human dignity, human rights and the mercy of God.”

Archbishop Gomez rightly hails St. Junípero as an overlooked American founder. Particularly significant, St. Junípero was a spiritual founder of a nation with deep religious roots.

“Remembering St. Junípero and the first missionaries changes how we remember our national story,” said Archbishop Gomez in 2017. “It reminds us that America’s first beginnings were not political. America’s first beginnings were spiritual.”

That was true not only of the religious people who landed on the East Coast, from Columbus to the Mayflower Pilgrims, but of Father Junípero Serra and those on the West Coast, who have been neglected in U.S. history books.

Unfortunately, these sentiments will not assuage the attackers. To the contrary, it’s that very religious patrimony that some of them militate against.

Many Americans initially thought that statue attacks were expressions of righteous anger at Confederate symbols. We’re well past that. We’ve quickly gone from statues of Confederate generals to Columbus, George Washington, Francis Scott Key, Ulysses S. Grant and now Catholic saints. (Incidentally, totally untouched is Margaret Sanger, who actually spoke to the KKK, had a Negro Project and preached “race improvement.”)

What’s next?

Well, I hate to give the revolutionaries any ideas, but I’m reminded of a favorite historical-spiritual stop of ours in Ventura, namely the large cross erected by Father Serra above the city more than 200 years ago. It’s called the Serra Cross. The location is Serra Cross Park.

Will it get the noose, the saw, the spray-can? Why wouldn’t it? After all, that cross is the very symbol of the evangelization efforts of St. Junípero Serra and his missions.

How long before the mob demands the cross come down? A heads-up to Ventura officials: You might want to pack up the cross, too.

Paul Kengor is professor of political science at Grove City College in Grove City, Pennsylvania.

His books include A Pope and a President, The Divine Plan and The Politically Incorrect Guide to Communism.