Catholic Saint Gets Whacked on his Feast Day

Written by on July 1, 2020

St. Junípero Serra
November 24, 1713 – August 28, 1784
Feast Day: July 1

God only knows if it’s coincidence or providence that St. Junípero Serra’s name is making national news this week as activists and mobs seek to remove his likeness from many public spaces in California where he is commemorated by statues. As of Wednesday, July 1st, many public sculptures of Serra have been maimed or torn down by angry crowds.[1]

San Junípero Serra was a Franciscan missionary responsible for founding nine missions in what is now California. The sites of these missions include modern-day metropolises San Diego and San Francisco. The saint was canonized by Pope Francis in 2015—the first to be canonized on American soil and the first noted Hispanic American saint.

Serra’s critics claim he is a symbol of Spanish colonialism that harmed the native populations and forced foreign language, culture and religion on peaceful peoples. His champions claim he played an important role in advocating for those same people to the dominant powers at the time, i.e., Spanish Conquistadors.

Critics would have you believe that Serra and the Conquistadors were practically indistinguishable in terms of their attitude and impact. Historians would point out that he risked his life to travel hundreds of miles by foot to meet with military commanders to negotiate the “Regulation,” an agreement which protected the Indians and missions. This agreement served as “the basis for the first significant legislation in California, a ‘Bill of Rights’ for Native Americans.” [2]

The California Catholic Conference of Bishops stated: “[Serra] 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. 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 nations past will have to be removed for their failings measured in the light of today’s standards.” [3]

Salvatore Joseph Cordileone, archbishop of San Francisco, gave a complete picture of the statue controversy in his stirring article in the Washington Post, Statues of Saint Junípero Serra deserve to stay.

Regardless of your view on Serra’s life, the statues are significant—so significant they became targets. Statues bearing Serra’s likeness were prominently placed throughout the region, rendered by various artists in various materials and styles. Compare the bronze statue by artist Ettore Cadorin, a gift from California to the National Statuary Hall at the U.S.Capital in 1931, to Louis DuBois’ concrete sculpture of 1976 in Hillsborough, California.The latter is positioned in view of Interstate 280 named the Junípero Serra Freeway. These two works demonstrate differences in style that reflect the time period, purpose and location of the sculptures.

San Junípero Serra by artist Ettore Cadorin c. 1931 bronze
San Junípero Serra by artist Ettore Cadorin, a gift from California to the National Statuary Hall at the U.S.Capitol in 1931, bronze

The near life-size Ettore piece depicts Serra raising a cross with one hand in a triumphant gesture, and a miniature building in the other. These symbols represent his fame as a missionary. Most would consider this work to meet expectations of a traditional, commemorative statue that could be placed in an indoor or outdoor setting for reflection in close proximity. Whereas the enormous Serra of Hillsborough was designed to be viewed from a distance in a dynamic pose meant to capture Serra’s intrepid endeavor. The artist’s interpretation includes contemporary materials and a stylized as opposed to a realistic sense of proportions.

San Junípero Serra by artist Louis DuBois; Hillsborough, California; 1976; concrete

The effort that went into constructing these statues far exceeds that required to destroy them, and the processes by which they were instituted more democratic than the mob-mentality demanding their removal. For this reason, multiple statues of Serra have been preemptively removed by their guardians to prevent vandalism, like the type recently committed throughout the state. Multiple statues of Serra have been toppled and defaced by protesters.

Whether or not protesters have legitimate claims regarding the historical nature of Serra’s missions is secondary to the devolving dialogue on race relations provoked by vandals. It is important to remember that not all opponents of these statues approve of the vandals’ methods of removal. Likewise, there is still a case to be made for Junípero Serra as worthy of recognition, should civil dialogue resume with due process. Regardless, it’s irrefutable that Catholicism is in the spotlight of the national discussion. This connection couldn’t be more overt on the feast day of San Junípero Serra, directly targeted via public art.[4]

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