An illustration of Saint Junipero Serra. / Public domain.
Los Angeles, Calif., Nov 24, 2021 / 18:04 pm (CNA).
A statue of Saint Junipero Serra must return to the Loyola Marymount University campus, an alumni group has said in a letter and petition to the president of the Los Angeles-area Catholic university.
St. Junipero Serra “recently completed the lengthy and rigorous examination process involved in becoming a canonized saint,” Marcos Chavira, a Loyola Marymount University 1995 graduate, said in an open letter to university president Timothy Snyder, posted at the Renew LMU website.
“Regardless of what any committee may recommend to you, we hope your decision about this statue does not further erode our Catholic identity,” Chavira said.
He cited Pope Francis’ words about Serra during a Sept. 23, 2015 canonization Mass. Serra “sought to defend the dignity of the native community, to protect it from those who had mistreated and abused it,” the pope said.
Chavira’s letter to Snyder cited recent comments from Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles and Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco.
Serra “defended indigenous people’s humanity, decried the abuse of indigenous women, and argued against imposing the death penalty on natives who had burned down a mission and murdered one of his friends,” the archbishops wrote in a Sept. 12 essay for the Wall Street Journal. “At age 60, ill and with a chronically sore leg, Serra traveled 2,000 miles to Mexico City to demand that authorities adopt a native bill of rights he had written.”
The statue dates back to the 1990s, when it was placed outside the campus library as a gift of William H. Hannon, a Catholic philanthropist and passionate admirer of Serra. Hannon was a major benefactor of the campus, an honorary trustee, and regent emeritus. Many campus buildings are named for him at the university, which claims affiliation with both the Society of Jesus and the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary.
In a Nov. 24 statement to CNA, the university said: “In summer of 2020, the statue of Rev. Serra on LMU's Westchester campus was removed to conduct repairs. When the campus reopened from the pandemic in fall of 2021, the university convened a task force to invite feedback from the community and to develop recommendations on future plans. No final decisions have been made, and the university remains committed to a thoughtful process of open dialogue.”
Chavira said Snyder’s choice to remove the statue was “one more step you have made towards LMU losing its distinctive identity and becoming just like any secular school.”
“With all due respect to some on campus who see things differently, the statue of St. Junípero Serra should be returned to a place of honor,” Chavira said. “The saint’s statue should be accompanied by exactly the same contextualization, historical perspective, and critical evaluation that accompanies all the other statues, plaques, memorials, and quotations in stone on campus from figures including Winston Churchill, Martin Luther King, Jr, Mahatma Gandhi, Bill Gates, St. Ignatius of Loyola, and the Virgin Mary.”
“That is to say, none,” Chavira added. “For these figures, we do not publicly document their real or alleged sins, or the sins of those associated with them, near their sites of commemoration.”
Renew LMU has objected to the new mission statement of the university’s liberal arts college, which dropped wording that expresses a “commitment to Roman Catholicism and the Judaeo-Christian tradition.” The alumni group was also critical of the university for allowing a student group to hold an on-campus fundraiser for Planned Parenthood at the campus’ Roski Dining Hall.
Chavira referred to this event in his letter.
“If a Planned Parenthood fundraiser can be held at LMU in Roski, certainly a statue of this country’s first Hispanic saint canonized by the first Hispanic pope can be in a place of honor and respect at LMU,” he said. “If you wish to have the statue placed inside, so as to lessen the likelihood of vandalism, it should be in a place of high visibility as it was before. We suggest putting it in Roski.”
Renew LMU has asked supporters of the Serra statue to add their name to Chavira’s letter at its website, RenewLMU.com. The alumni group describes itself as “an alliance of students, alumni, faculty, donors, and other LMU supporters who seek to strengthen LMU’s Catholic mission and identity.” CNA sought comment from RenewLMU but did not receive a response by deadline.
Serra, a Franciscan friar from Spain, left a prestigious university chair in Majorca for what is now the United States in 1749. He founded a system of missions to evangelize the Indigenous in modern-day California. He celebrated more than 6,000 baptisms and 5,000 confirmations, and the missions are at the historic center of many of the state’s cities.
While he was lionized through much of the 20th century, critics have since lambasted Serra as a symbol of European colonialism. They said the missions engaged in the forced labor of Native Americans, sometimes claiming Serra himself was abusive.
Serra’s defenders point to the priest’s advocacy for native people and a champion of human rights. They note that he often found himself at odds with Spanish authorities over mistreatment of native people, and the native communities themselves showed an outpouring of grief at his death. They said Serra is wrongly blamed for injustices that came after his death.
Last year, the death of Minnesota man George Floyd during his arrest by a police officer, who was later convicted of his murder, led to racial tensions, protests against police brutality, and riots. In California, protesters and vandals targeted statues of Serra on the grounds that he represented colonialism and oppression of Native Americans. Some state and local lawmakers renewed previous efforts to remove images of Serra from public parks and other official places, and many succeeded.
The Los Angeles-area San Gabriel Mission, which Serra founded in 1771, burned in a devastating fire on July 11, 2020. The alleged arsonist, 57-year-old John David Corey, faces two felony counts in connection with the fire. He was known to the mission and had quarreled with staff members in the past. He reportedly harbored anger toward the Catholic Church.
On Nov. 4, Loyola Marymount University hosted a discussion about Serra linked to the observance of Indigenous Heritage Month, the university news site LMU This Week reported.
At the discussion Robert M. Senkewicz, emeritus history professor at Santa Clara University, cited both a letter from Serra seeking mercy for indigenous people who had attacked a mission and another letter instructing harsh punishment for indigenous people who had left a mission and were returned by force. He depicted the Catholic mission presence and the Spanish military presence as mutually reinforcing and said Catholic evangelization efforts accepted the use of force. Mexican and Californian representations of this time of history erased the indigenous peoples’ experiences, Senkewicz said.
Cecilia González-Andrieu, a Loyola Marymount professor of theological studies, said that the missions are now in mainly Latino neighborhoods, but she said there is no devotion to Serra at these places. Edgar Perez, a member of the Gabrielino-Tongva people, said the mission system planted the seeds for policies to separate indigenous people from their language and religion and lands. Serra is an integral part of that history, he said.
Than Povi Martinez, a sophomore dance major at Loyola Marymount from the Tewa Pueblo People of San Ildefonso in New Mexico, said Serra’s statue should be permanently removed. According to LMU This Week, she said the statue represents pain and racism and such representations trigger trauma.
Among the critics of Serra are the Indigenous Student Union of LMU. A petition on Change.org attributed to the group had 243 signatures as of Wednesday afternoon. The petition said Serra’s statue should “stay off of our LMU campus.”
“One of our founding goals at ISU has been the removal of the Junipero Serra statue on LMU’s campus,” the petition said. “We see this as just one step acknowledging that LMU currently resides on stolen land of the Tongva Tribe and taking action towards making our campus a safe and welcoming place for Indigenous people and others of marginalized identities and backgrounds.”
“We demand that the statue stay off campus and that the education surrounding Christian colonization be conducted through a different, more intentional manner that centers the lives of our community members of Indigenous and/or marginalized backgrounds,” the group continued. “If the university is truly committed to ongoing efforts to increase diversity and inclusion within our institution, the Junipero Serra statue would be kept off our campus.”
Dr. Reuben Mendoza, an archeologist and professor at California State University-Monterey Bay, who has studied the missions for more than 25 years, told CNA last year that Serra was motivated by a missionary zeal to bring salvation to the Native people through the Catholic faith, rather than by genocidal, racist, or opportunistic motivations.
“Serra writes excitedly about how he had finally found his life's calling, and that he would give his life to these people and their salvation,” Mendoza said.
Fr. Tom Elewaut, pastor of the Old Mission Basilica of San Buenaventura in Ventura, told CNA last year that indigenous people are not uniformly critical of Serra.
“There is substantial evidence that among the Chumash that St. Junipero Serra is revered and respected for his contributions to our country,” said Elewaut. “Their voices have not been heard or respected. Their voices should have equal weight and import.”
Some indigenous Americans, both in Ventura and Santa Barbara, are “appalled by the character assassination of St. Junipero Serra,” the priest reported.