Action Again Raises Questions : Police Are Without Leads to Serra Museum Vandals

Times Staff Writer

White patches of fresh paint covered the walls outside the Junipero Serra Museum in Presidio Park on Monday, but they could not hide the spray-painted words beneath.

"Serra Saint or Killer?" was spray-painted on the museum wall. The Father Junipero Serra statue was dripping with red paint. Throughout the 40-acre park were spray-painted messages that called Serra a "Genocidal Maniac," a "Murderous Lying Scum" and asked the rhetorical question: "Was Serra a saint? Then so was Hitler!"

All this was the work of vandals who Sunday protested a celebration to honor the beatification of Franciscan monk Junipero Serra. The museum, the statue and other parts of the verdant park that looks out over Mission Valley were defaced the same day that Serra was beatified at the Vatican, a Catholic procedure that brings a religious figure one step from sainthood.

On Monday, about 30 art students using water colors on canvas to paint the adobe-walled mission near the museum seemed intent on their art despite the words "Killer not a Saint" lurking behind them.

No Leads to Culprit

"This park belongs to everyone," said Irene Barker, applying strokes to her canvas. "What right do these people have scribbling all over these walls? It's like coming into people's homes and scribbling on their walls."

San Diego police spokesman Dave Cohen said Monday that authorities have no leads to the graffiti culprits. It's difficult to find vandals, he said, because they work under cover of night when there are no witnesses.

But the event raised again the old questions about Father Serra's role in early California settlement.

Serra came from Spain in 1767 to San Diego, where he founded his first mission. Under his leadership, Franciscans eventually established 21 California missions, some of which marked the first European settlements in California.

Those who oppose the canonization of Serra argue that the strong-willed Franciscan monk contributed to Indian enslavement and forced Christianity upon them. Others, however, are convinced that Serra's work was beneficial to the Indians.

"Father Serra really loved the Indians," said Gladys Luhman, a San Diego Historical Society spokeswoman. "He was known to move missions because soldiers were harassing Indian girls."

Hundreds of Deaths

Richard Oglesby, professor of history at UC Santa Barbara, said Serra, intending to "civilize" Indians, Christianized them and changed their diets to European, resulting in hundreds of Indian deaths from food poisoning. Also, European diseases were introduced to the Indian culture, killing thousands more. "But you can't punish him for his ignorance," Oglesby said.

"Serra did not personally kill or intend to kill Indians. (But), in his efforts, he ended up destroying the Indian way of life. Indian women and men were separated. There was no communication between the two. But that was strictly according the European practice of that time."

As far as Serra being an "Indian Killer," Oglesby said, "there is nowhere demonstrated that's what he wanted to do." On the other hand, he said, Serra was no saint--at least in personality.

"Serra was a tough, crusty old buzzard," Oglesby said. "He was too hard-nosed a politician to be considered a saint."

He said Serra fought bitterly with the Spanish viceroy to get supplies he needed to maintain settlements, and he got them. He called Serra a "tough cookie," but said to call him a "Genocidal Maniac" is dangerous.

"Those are highly influential words," he continued. "It's more opinion than information. Serra was neither saint nor devil; he was somewhere in between."

Museum officials said Monday that it will cost hundreds of dollars and take several weeks to clean up the graffiti.

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