In 1782, Saint Junípero Serra founded his final mission—San Buenaventura—in what is now the city of Ventura, California. In 1833, the Mexican government confiscated the land and sold it to ranchers. By 1936, over 100 years after the Mexican secularization act and almost a century after becoming part of the United States, Ventura residents erected a statue dedicated to the great saint, who one pope called “one of the founding fathers of the United States” and who millions refer to as the “Apostle of California.” Then, in 1989, the concrete statue, which fell into disrepair, was replaced by the famous bronze replica that stood in front of the city hall until the early morning hours of July 23 of this year.
Why did the city remove the statue of their founder, which was proudly displayed for 84 years?
According to Gregory Diaz, Ventura’s City Attorney, the decision was made to “protect a public asset by removing the same for safekeeping.” The city became a hotbed for violent anti-Catholic protestors who vowed to tear the statue down. To give the city council the legal authority to remove the sculpture, the activists declared that it was not a historic landmark.
However, the city went farther and removed a wooden replica of the statue inside the city hall. Bob Cullen, CEO of Skyline Crane Rental, who was hired by the city to remove the outside statue, allegedly made blatantly anti-Catholic remarks as he was removing it.
Certainly, the city council did base its decision on the rabid anti-Saint-Serra protestors. However, this was likely not done only out of fear of displeasing them, as some city officials claim. It appears that the city council agrees with the protestors, as evidenced by their unanimous decision to remove both the outdoor statue and the wooden replica. Additionally, there are also movements to remove images of Saint Serra from the Ventura County seal and the Ventura city police insignia.
Responding to the vile attacks on the legacy of this great saint, crowds have been regularly gathering at the base of the statue to defend that important piece of Church history and California patrimony. Even after the removal of the statues, they have not backed down and have redoubled their efforts. A “Defend Serra” rally will be taking place on August 15. The TFP’s caravan had organized an event in the area.
Despite the number of people that have publicly demonstrated (and continue to do so) in favor of the statue, the city has ignored their pleas and sided with outside agitators.
Thankfully, a local group has started a lawsuit against the city’s decision to remove the statue. The organization, which is called the Coalition for Historical Integrity, filed their suit on July 21. The suit skillfully attacks the city council’s false declaration that the statue was not a historic landmark.
“[S]ince 1989 until this [July], the city identified the bronze Father Serra statue as City Landmark No. 3,” the suit claims, referencing the city’s own historic landmark designation of the statue. It further showed how the city identified it officially as such in 2007 in its Downtown Specific Plan and again in a statement of the mayor in June of this year.
This same coalition is behind the continued organizing in favor of Saint Serra.
To further the weight of the legal struggle against the city government, Limandri and Jonna LLP—a law firm associated with the Thomas More Society—issued its own letter to county and city officials. In addition to offering legal precedent in support of the statue from both federal and state cases, the letter also threatens further legal action should the county and city authorities remove any more images or references to the saint. This is not idle talk, as the same firm provided legal counsel in the successful defense of the Mt. Soledad Cross in San Diego.
The letter concurred with the positions of several California bishops who have identified the removal of the statues as being part of a recent string of anti-Catholic attacks following the George Floyd riots. Among the other incidents referenced were the defacing of a basilica in Minneapolis, the vandalizing of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City, the disfiguring of the Mt. Rubidoux Cross, the burning of the San Gabriel mission, the demolishing of other Saint Serra statues at the hands of unruly mobs, and an arson attack on a Florida church while the priest and parishioners were inside.
Furthermore, even bishops, such as Archbishop José Horacio Gomez and Bishop Robert Barron of the Los Angeles Archdiocese, have denounced the ahistorical libel against Saint Serra. In combating the false accusations of “rape” and “genocide” against the canonized saint who lived his life in chastity and poverty, the prelates pointed out how he was a great defender of the indigenous people. Among many examples, Archbishop Gomez recounted that “Saint Junipero was 60 years old when he traveled 2,000 miles from Carmel to Mexico City to protest the injustices of the [military] and demand that authorities adopt a ‘bill of rights’ that he had written for the native peoples.”
Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone added that he made this journey both ways on foot while suffering from “a painful ulcerated leg.”
Actions like these made Saint Junipero widely revered by the Catholic Native American population.
According to Tony Cerda, chief of the Rumsen/Ohlone people (Carmel Mission Indians,) “[Junipero Serra] protected our people and supported their full human rights against the politicians and the military with a total disregard for his own life and safety.”
Fr. Jerome Nieblas—the first Juaneno Indian to be ordained a priest—added, “Father Serra brought our people to this day. I think Serra would be proud… the [canonization has the] full support and backing of the Juaneno people.”
Although the litigation against the city government will likely be drawn out for a while, the fact that scores of people continue to rally in defense of Saint Serra’s legacy, combined with extensive legal pressure, sends a clear message:
Catholics and Californians will not stand by as their history and culture are destroyed.
Saint Junipero Serra, Pray for California!