US Bishop decries destruction of St. Junipero Serra statue

Bishop Jamie Soto criticizes the destruction of the statue of St. Junipero Serra in Sacramento, California, and urges protesters to build up the community, not tear it down.

By Devin Watkins

A crowd in Sacramento, California’s state capital, destroyed a statue of St. Junipero Serra on the evening of 4 July.

One protester burnt the statue’s face, before the group toppled the statue and struck it with a sledgehammer. Local news outlets reported that the crowd chanted, “Rise up, my people, rise up” as they jumped and danced on the Saint’s image.

California Highway Police intervened to disperse the group, and has launched an investigation.

Dialogue over vandalism

Bishop Jamie Soto of Sacramento responded to the act of vandalism with a statement on Sunday.

“The group’s actions may have been meant to draw attention to the sorrowful, angry memories over California’s past, but this act of vandalism does little to build the future,” he said.

The Bishop added that the “strenuous labor of overcoming the plague of racism should not be toppled by nocturnal looting.”

“Dialogue,” he said, “should not abdicate to vandalism.”

Who was Fr. Serra?

St. Junipero Serra was a Catholic missionary priest from Spain (1713-1784) who belonged to the Franciscan Order.

He founded several Spanish missions in California, helping to convert thousands of Native Americans to Christianity and introducing new agricultural techniques.

Pope Francis canonized Fr. Serra on 25 September 2015 in Washington D.C., during his Apostolic Journey to the United States.

Some have criticized the Saint’s legacy and called him a symbol of European colonialists.

Denouncing evils of colonial period

Bishop Soto recognized the “heartbreaking legacy” of the colonial period.

“There is no question that California’s indigenous people endured great suffering during the colonial period and then later faced the horror of government-sanctioned genocide under the nascent State of California.”

At the same time, Bishop Soto said Fr. Serra worked under the colonial system but “denounced its evils and worked to protect the dignity of native peoples.”

“His holiness as a missionary should not be measured by his own failures to stop the exploitation or even his own personal faults,” he said.

Build community, not tearing it down

The Sacramento statue of St. Serra is the third to be torn down in California by demonstrators in recent weeks.

One was toppled in San Francisco and another in Los Angeles, both on 19 June.

“All monuments are imperfect as are our efforts to live up to America’s founding ideals,” concluded Bishop Soto. “The primary task is to build up our community, not tear it down.”