California legislators renew push against Junipero Serra, saint and Hispanic 'founding father'

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The statue of Bl. Junipero Serra inside the National Statuary Hall in Washington, D.C. Credit: iwishmynamewasmarsha via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).

A statue of Franciscan missionary and saint-to-be Father Junipero Serra has stood in the U.S. Capitol since 1931, but its future may depend on an upcoming hearing in the California legislature and the success of a “Let's Save Serra” campaign.

The legislature could vote to remove the priest’s statue and replace it with a statue of astronaut Sally Ride, the first American woman to travel to space.

On June 30, the California Assembly’s Arts, Entertainment, Sports, Tourism and Internet Media Committee will hold a 10 a.m. hearing at the state capitol in Sacramento to consider the proposal, Senate Joint Resolution 4. The resolution has already passed the state senate, by a 22-10 vote.

Bl. Junipero Serra played a leading role in California history, helping to convert thousands of native Californians to Christianity and teaching them new technologies. The eighteenth century priest founded many of the missions that would go on to become the centers of major California cities.

In a May 2 homily, Pope Francis called Bl. Serra “one of the founding fathers of the United States, a saintly example of the Church’s universality, and special patron of the Hispanic people of the country.”

The Pope will canonize Father Serra Sept. 23 during his visit to Washington, D.C. The priest was beatified Sept. 25, 1988 by Saint John Paul II.

Bl. Serra’s statue is now in the U.S. Capitol’s National Statuary Hall Collection. His statue cradles a church in his left arm and holds a cross aloft in his outstretched right arm. The website of the Architect of the Capitol, which maintains the statue, describes Fr. Serra as “one of the most important Spanish missionaries in the New World.”

State legislatures have the authority to decide which two statues will represent their state.

The campaign to save Bl. Serra’s statue includes 'Salvemos a Serra', or 'Let's Save Serra', a Spanish-language site which has called on Californians to write their legislators in opposition to the resolution that would remove his statue.

“U.S. Hispanics need your support to maintain the presence of our first saint in the U.S. Capitol,” the website said.

'Salvemos a Serra' has also asked supporters of Bl. Serra to sign English- and Spanish-language petitions on the website CitizenGo.org. More than 46,000 have signed.

The petitions ask legislators to “defend the memory of this Founding Father of California who protected the Native Americans and had a key role in the formation of this country.”

The petitions were posted by Alejandro Bermudez, executive director of Catholic News Agency.

“In a state that counts Hispanics as its largest ethnic group, California’s elected leaders are about to banish the first and one of the only two Hispanics from statuary hall,” Bermudez said in a May 22 essay at the Latino media website NewsTaco.

“To add insult to injury, they plan to go on the record with this just in time to welcome the first Latin American pope in history to the United States,” he added. “It’s quite the insult to the Pope, who will visit the Capitol and canonize Serra during his September visit--making him the first saint to be named by a pope on American soil.”

Some activist groups have attacked Bl. Serra as a symbol of European colonialism and have characterized the missions as engaged in the forced labor of Native Americans, sometimes claiming Bl. Serra himself was abusive.

Many of Bl. Serra’s defenders vigorously dispute the claims, noting the many natives he helped during his life, and their outpouring of grief at his death.

If the resolution passes the California Assembly, it would still require the approval of state governor Jerry Brown.

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