Catholics step up fight to keep Serra statue

A Father Junipero Serra statue rests on the Mission San Juan Capistrano grounds.
(Brittany Woolsey, Daily Pilot)

Orange County Catholics are forming a nonprofit organization to support their effort to keep a statue of Father Junipero Serra standing in the National Statuary Hall in Washington, D.C.

State Sen. Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens) in February proposed replacing the statue of the missionary, which has represented California in the hall inside the U.S. Capitol since 1931, with one of the first American woman in space, the late astronaut Sally Ride.

Serra supporters at Mission San Juan Capistrano — the seventh of the nine missions that he founded in the 1700s — said the prospect of seeing the statue removed comes as a shock.

Pope Francis, who plans to visit the United States in September, has expressed a desire to canonize Serra.

“That’s a slap in the face to the Holy Father,” said Mechelle Lawrence-Adams, executive director at Mission San Juan Capistrano. “He’s never been to this country. He’s trying to raise Father Serra’s presence nationwide, so we just don’t see him as just a California figure, not only from a religious standpoint, but also a historical standpoint.”

Lawrence-Adams said the mission has tried to reach out to Lara, sending him more than 350 letters, phone calls and emails, all of which, she added, have gone unanswered.

“We serve more than 4,000 of his district students every year on field trips, and we felt that he could have at least returned one of our phone calls,” she said.

Lara did not respond to requests for comment.

Lawrence-Adams said the mission is working to create the nonprofit group Save Father Serra to raise awareness. Serra supporters already have an active Facebook page.

Members, Lawrence-Adams said, include teachers and “movers and shakers” from O.C. and the rest of the state who “feel that moving the statue without a plan for where it’s going is semi-irresponsible.”

The pope’s upcoming visit has created a sense of urgency among the statue’s advocates.

“The timing is really worth questioning because why would you have Pope Francis, who, regardless of your faith tradition, who has brought so many people to discuss the Catholic Church today in the 21st century and has brought so much positive discussion in his historic visit here, why would you go and remove the very saint he is coming out here to canonize?” said Lawrence-Adams, a member of the nonprofit group.

“To me, it’s a political motivation. It’s not serving this community, and it’s not serving the state of California effectively.”

Not all are in favor of honoring Serra because of the way Spanish missionaries treated the Indians, who were forced into labor, flogged when they disobeyed, made to practice Christianity and forbidden from practicing their native customs. Many perished from the diseases that traveled with the Europeans to North American.

“During the Spanish colonial and the Mexican period we lost 90% of the Indians in California,” Ron Andrade, director of Los Angeles City/County Native American Indian Commission, told The Times in January. “Serra was no saint to us.”

Lawrence-Adams said hers is not an either-or discussion about whether Serra or Ride, a Los Angeles native who died in 2012, is more worthy of placement in the hall of statues inside the nation’s Capitol.

“If Sally Ride was really in need of a statue, let’s have a plan in place for the taxpayers of the state because removing the statue is going to cost money, the creation of the Sally Ride statue is going to cost money, and what’s going to happen to the Father Serra statue?” she said. “There should be a plan for that statue before the taxpayers are asked to fund anything else.”

State Sen. Pat Bates (R-San Juan Capistrano) drafted an amendment to Lara’s proposal that calls for a funding source for the Ride statue to be found, through private money, before the Serra statue could be moved.

That would keep the Serra statue in place during the pope’s visit and also allow time to find a new location for it, Lawrence-Adams said. She added that she would be in favor of placing it at Mission San Juan Capistrano or have it make stops on a tour of the 21 California missions.

Bates, a former Orange County supervisor, said she agrees with Lara that Ride should be recognized.

“Her recognition should be expanded and elevated into an icon in space exploration, and that’s why it would be proper not to put Father Serra against Sally Ride,” she said. “They each deserve a place of recognition and honor.”

Bates’ amendment failed on the Senate floor and is on its way to being presented to the Assembly.