NEW YORK – An historic California mission founded by the controversial St. Junípero Serra has announced that a bronze statue of the saint, removed in 2020 from the local city hall amid protests over Serra’s legacy, will be installed at the mission later this month, as work on its concrete base has already begun.

Serra, an 18th century Franciscan priest who founded nine missions in California, is considered a founding father of Catholicism on the West Coast. However, his legacy has also drawn fire from critics over the years who argue that he lent spiritual cover to the abuses of European colonialism against Native Americans.

Serra’s defenders have argued that the missionary did everything he could to protect people under his care, claiming today’s criticism is unjustified and anachronistic.

In 2020, the Ventura City Council unanimously approved a motion to permanently remove two statues of Serra from its San Buenaventura City Hall. One is a 9’-3” bronze piece that was located outside of city hall, while the other, which was located in the atrium, was a wooden replica put in the other place while the original was repaired in the early 1980s.

The bronze cast replaced an original 1936 concrete statue located in a small park overlooking downtown Ventura and the Pacific Ocean. In 1988, a group of student artists at the California Sculpture Center at the College of the Desert in Palm Desert created a bronze cast of the sculpture using the wood replica. The bronze cast was unveiled in front of Ventura City Hall at a ceremony on October 20, 1989.

As part of the 2020 motion to remove the statues, the city council agreed to relocate the bronze piece to Mission San Buenaventura, which was the last mission founded by Serra in 1782.

The vote followed multiple special public meetings that lasted more than seven hours and saw over 200 speakers weigh in on the display of the statues on public grounds. The meetings and vote came after an online petition was started to get the statues removed, which garnered almost 12,000 signatures.

In recent years, statues of Serra in other California cities had been vandalized or destroyed. And a mission he founded was also subject to an arson attack.

Serra was canonized by Pope Francis in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 23, 2015.

On June 19, 2020, then-Ventura Mayor Matt LaVere, Father Tom Elewaut, pastor of Mission San Buenaventura, and then-Chair Julie Tumanait of the Barbareño/Ventureño Band of Mission Indians (Chumash) issued a joint statement recommending the statue be moved to the mission.

The priority, according to the statement, was to provide an inclusive environment where all community voices could be heard and respected with the goal of honoring the cultural heritage of Ventura and its earliest residents.

The statue has been in storage ever since.

Of the news that the statue will relocate to the mission, Elewaut said the church is happy to have Serra back.

“We welcome back home the bronze image of St. Junípero Serra,” he said in Feb. 13 statement.

“On the ancestral land of the Chumash, Junípero Serra sought to be a spiritual father to the indigenous people in Alta California,” Elewaut said. “He defended their dignity and rights before Spanish magistrate.”

“It is fitting that his image will continue to invoke peaceful and open dialogue regarding the history of the indigenous people, the Mission era and Spanish conquest, the Mexican occupation, the Gold Rush, and finally California statehood in the United States of America, all of which have impacted and influenced the history of this land,” he said.

Joe Schroeder, Mayor of Ventura, said the relocation is the right solution to the controversy.

“The statue and mission hold significant historical importance for Ventura,” Schroeder said.

“Moving the St. Junipero Serra statue to the Mission Basilica San Buenaventura underscores our dedication to preserving our community’s rich history and honoring the legacy of our earliest residents,” he said.

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