‘Made Heroic Sacrifices’: Bishops Condemn Rioters That Vandalized, Toppled Junipero Serra Statues

California bishops are condemning rioters that defaced and toppled statues of Junipero Serra over the last few days.

Rioters toppled a statue of the Catholic saint in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park on Friday, knocked down another statue near Los Angeles’ Union Station on Saturday, and defaced several others around the state over the weekend. The California Catholic Conference of Bishops condemned the destructive acts on Monday.

“During the past week the specific question of removing statues of political, military and cultural leaders of the past has gained momentum,” the bishops said. “If this process is to be truly effective as a remedy for racism, it must discern carefully the entire contribution that the historical figure in question made to American life, especially in advancing the rights of marginalized peoples.”

“In calling for the removal of images of Saint Junipero Serra from public display in California, and in tearing down his statue in San Francisco and in Los Angeles, protesters have failed that test,” they continued.

Statues of Serra have been targeted for the 18th century priest’s ties to Spanish expansion in North America. Serra led the first group of missionaries into the area of California in 1769, and critics say he represents Spanish colonialism and contributed to Spanish abuses of Native Americans.

The Archbishop of San Francisco Salvatore Cordileone says that critics of the saint are wrong about his life:

St. Serra made heroic sacrifices to protect the indigenous people of California from their Spanish conquerors, especially the soldiers. Even with his infirmed leg which caused him such pain, he walked all the way to Mexico City to obtain special faculties of governance from the Viceroy of Spain in order to discipline the military who were abusing the Indians. And then he walked back to California.

And lest there be any doubt, we have a physical reminder to this day: everywhere there is a presidio (soldiers’ barracks) associated with a mission in the chain of 21 missions that he founded, the presidio is miles away from the mission itself and the school. St. Junipero Serra also offered them the best thing he had: the knowledge and love of Jesus Christ, which he and his fellow Franciscan friars did through education, health care, and training in the agrarian arts.

The attacks on Serra’s statues come as rioters have toppled and vandalized numerous statues across the country. The movement originally targeted Confederate statues over their ties to racism and slavery, but quickly moved beyond Confederate imagery to target past American presidents, such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, and other historical figures, such as Francis Scott Key and Christopher Columbus.

On Friday, rioters toppled a statue of the Union general and 18th president of the United States Ulysses S. Grant. Grant led the Union army to victory against the Confederacy and approved military force to fight members of the Ku Klux Klan who were attacking black people in the South.

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