Church Members on Mission to Get City’s Serra Statue


As artistic fame goes, Father Junipero Serra has his fair share.

From Majorca to Mexico, giant statues of the short Franciscan priest grace numerous plazas and parks. But in San Buenaventura--the city where Serra established his last mission in 1782--an artistic brouhaha is brewing.

Six years after the community raised enough money to have a group of artisans painstakingly carve Serra’s likeness into a nine-foot wooden statue, a proposal is afoot to move the icon from a room inside City Hall to a church in another city.

Members of the Padre Serra Parish in Camarillo want to give the replica of their namesake a new home, and the county’s museum director intends to soon ask city leaders to consider such a move.


But merely the suggestion of relocating one of the city’s several Serra statues has outraged some residents and city leaders.

“The people here don’t want it to leave the city of Ventura,” said Councilman Jim Monahan. “There is no reason for it to leave City Hall.”

No formal proposal is on the table, city officials said Tuesday. Though such a request is expected to reach city leaders later this week.

“We are working on a nice orderly bureaucratic procedure to see if the city would like to give us the statue and we, in turn, would loan the statue to the Padre Serra church,” said Ed Robings, director of the Ventura County Museum of History and Art. “I think that would be very appropriate.”

A team of eight carvers spent 10,000 man-hours creating the Serra replica, which a group of student artists from the California Sculpture Center in Palm Desert used to mold a bronze cast in 1988.


That metal statue, a long-sought duplicate of a weathering concrete Serra, stands in a plaza in front of City Hall. Inside the building, its 800-pound wooden twin stands protected from rain and fog in a covered atrium.

On Tuesday, the replica of the 18th-Century California missionary looked a little like Hawaii’s King Kamehameha after being dressed in a grass skirt and a plastic lei for Halloween.

“If there was only one I would never think of taking it out of the city,” Robings said, "(But) how many fairly large Father Serra statues does one entity need?”

The idea of relocating one of the city’s twin Serra statues raises the ire of those who toiled over the 14-month-long project.

Ventura civic boosters raised $100,000 for the project by selling T-shirts, hats and pins. Crvers scraped and whittled the replica using 1,200 pounds of basswood from a Great Lakes-area forest, and 1,800 measurements were taken from the original concrete statue.

“The blood, sweat and tears that made that statue are in the wooden statue that is in that atrium,” said Monahan, who was the city’s mayor at the time.


And for a city whose testaments to public art are limited, the idea of letting a statue leave town is unconscionable.

“Artistically,” Monahan acknowledged, “we are lacking a great deal.”

But the concept of loaning the duplicate Serra to the church has been favorably received by some residents, who feel the wooden statue has been shoved in a corner of City Hall and culturally neglected.

“We had a hard time finding a place to put the wooden one anyway,” said former Mayor John McWherter, who supports the proposal.

“I don’t think it has even been dusted since it has been in City Hall,” he said. “I think that it would be great thing if it could be in the religious church with the same name. I am sure they would take care of it.”

City officials said the atrium was never considered a permanent home for the statue. And Robings said at the time the bronze statue on California Street was unveiled, there were discussions about moving the wooden one to the museum.

One problem in deciding the artwork’s fate, however, is that the two men who were most involved in the project both have died and no one can recall what the wooden statue’s actual destiny was supposed to be.

But the widow of former Ventura City Councilman Russ Burns said her husband would have adamantly opposed moving the wooden Serra to a church.

“I am very upset,” Audrey Burns said in an interview Tuesday. “I have knots in my stomach over it. He never meant it to be a religious statue, he meant it to be a historical one.”

For his part. the Rev. Liam Kidney said the parish does not want to create a rift in the Ventura arts and cultural community. He said he has no intention of asking for the statue, but would eagerly accept it.

“I don’t want to get caught in a controversy,” Kidney said. “I just think . . . if they would like a home for it we would be willing to do that.”