In the United States, the protests over racial injustice are turning their sights on statues of alleged oppressors, including a celebrated Spanish Franciscan missionary that a hundred rioters attacked on June 19, 2020, in San Francisco.
The statue of Junipero Serra carrying the cross erected in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco was overthrown and trampled on by the vandals.
Born in 1713 in Majorca, Spain, this Franciscan missionary left his country in 1749 for the new world. He was 36 years old, and undertook the perilous crossing of the Atlantic to go to Mexico City where he taught philosophy in the college of the city. A missionary at heart, he left at the age of 55 to go to present-day California, then called New Spain.
Apostle and Father of California
With 15 Franciscan religious, he founded a dozen missions, which are the origins of important urban centers, such as San Diego. In 1774, on a mule, he accompanied a military expedition which established a post on a magnificent bay. Dedicated to Saint Francis of Assisi, the place would become San Francisco. Nicknamed the apostle and father of California, Junipero Serra died in 1784 in Monterrey, in northeast Mexico.
Militant activists who overthrew the missionary’s statue took advantage of protests after the death of George Floyd, an African American who was killed by the Minneapolis police. They claim to justify their crime in the name of the fight against “European colonialism” of which Junipero Serra is, in their eyes, one of the symbols.
Yet the historical truth is quite different: Fr. Serra was not only a zealous missionary in the service of the Church, but the evangelizer and defender of the indigenous peoples, faced with the abuses of which they could be victims. He even interceded in their favor after the attack on a Spanish outpost.
In the aftermath of this act of vandalism, Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone, Archbishop of San Francisco, expressed his concern in the face of “crowds who make their own law.” He asked for “The memorialization of historic figures merits an honest and fair discussion as to how and to whom such honor should be given.” Without the Catholic missionaries, Christian civilization and the divine faith could not have spread to pull people out of the darkness of ignorance and barbarism.
The United States Conference of Bishops reacted on June 22 by deploring the insult brought against a missionary “ahead of his time” who knew how to defend the native peoples. They concluded their statement with irony by saying that the vandals had “certainly failed their history exam.”