Thanks to the presence of a small band of Catholics, a “Tear Down Junipero Serra” event in front of Ventura City Hall on Saturday concluded with the bronze statue of Padre Serra standing unharmed.
Up and down California, mobs are destroying statues of Junipero Serra, canonized in 2015, along with statues of other prominent and not-so-prominent historical figures. Vandals toppled and destroyed statues of the saint in San Francisco and Los Angeles on Friday and Saturday.
Acknowledging the “groundswell” of enthusiasm for removing the statue, Ventura mayor Matt LaVere, San Buenaventura mission pastor Father Tom Elewaut, and the tribal chair of the Barbareno/Ventureno Band of Mission Indians Julie Tumamait Stenslie released a joint statement ahead of the scheduled Tear Down Junipero Serra event.
“The three of us are confident that a peaceful resolution regarding the Father Junipero Serra statue can be reached, without uncivil discourse and character assassination, much less vandalism of a designated landmark,” the statement said.
Junipero Serra founded the city of Ventura in 1782 when he established the mission of San Buenaventura, and his statue has stood in front of the city hall since 1936. The city installed a bronze statue in 1989 to replace the deteriorating original.
On Saturday, when the event organizers unfurled their “Father Genocide” banner, Serra supporters had already discreetly surrounded the statue’s pedestal and held up signs reading: “I ♥ Padre Serra,” “Save Serra,” and “Serra: Defender of the Chumash.” Father Elewaut and a handful of supporters stood across the street, praying.
Over the next hour, the crowd swelled to about 200, including about 50 supporters of the statue. Some supporters gathered to the side and prayed the rosary despite taunts and threats from some event participants.
The speakers voiced divergent opinions on how to remove the statue. Chumash leader Tumamait Stenslie called for peace and understanding and said that no one should have an us-versus-them mentality. She praised Father Elewaut’s understanding. Before Father Elewaut was allowed to speak, someone read a statement from one of the event’s organizers who could not be present due to his participation in the group tearing down Father Serra’s statue in Los Angeles. Among other things, the organizer’s statement said that the Church must publicly acknowledge its participation in the genocide of the indigenous people of California and that it must name every Chumash person buried in the mission’s cemetery. Father Elewaut acknowledged the pain of the Chumash people but said the history of Junipero Serra is not as black and white as it was being painted. Participants heckled and booed him.
Another speaker said that at some unspecified time she had worked for the Franciscans and had been directed to go through their archives to destroy the records of the horrific abuses Father Serra and other padres had committed against the Chumash. She said that the day she finished, she quit her job and also left the Church. The statement, as were all statements that disparaged Catholicism, met with wild applause.
Most speakers began by listing their Chumash ancestry. Some demanded that the statue “come down today.” Others said that it should be removed legally in conjunction with the city. One speaker told the crowd that the Chumash were working to get the statue down and to tear it down would be disrespectful to them, “we don’t need white saviors.” In between most speakers, the crowd broke into a chant of “tear it down.”
Event participants harassed and taunted those in support of the statue, disparaging the opinions, religion, race, and personal appearance of those they disagreed with. A man singled out a young supporter holding an American flag and shouted that the supporter had yelled “White power.” Immediately a swirling mass of people screamed at him to say it again, on video, and accused him of cowardice for refusing to do so and for saying he had said nothing of the kind. Others accused a supporter of spitting on them and she was immediately encircled, verbally abused, and scratched. One woman raced up, ripped signs away from two supporters at the base of the statue, and was dragged away, clawing, throwing things, and screaming obscenities. One man leaped up and spat on the statue, but Tumamait Stenslie, who was nearby arranging sage and eagle feathers, scolded him.
When the first speaker directly called for the statue to be torn down by the crowd, several statue supporters called the police. The 911 dispatchers told them to leave the area if they felt unsafe. No police came.
As the event wore on with the statue still undamaged, some speakers tried to work the crowd into a frenzy. When one asked, “Who’s with me?” for tearing down the statue at that moment, and pointed the way, the crowd made a rush. The supporters closed ranks around the pedestal and stared down a man brandishing a metal stake at the head of the crowd. He swung it threateningly until one of the supporters grabbed hold of it. Meanwhile, another supporter ran down the street to a parked squad car and asked the police to come closer. A few cars pulled up with lights and sirens, cooling the fervor of the crowd.
The organizers argued openly about whether they should make another push to destroy the statue, but one insisted that they couldn’t do it in front of the police. The crowd began to disperse.
Three hours after the first supporters gathered, only scattered groups remained at the park around Father Serra’s statue.
Fr. Elewaut told KEYT news that the archdiocese of Los Angeles is open to moving the statue to the grounds of the mission.
The California Catholic Conference released a statement on the removal of Father Serra statues in the state and quoted Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone’s defense of Serra and his “heroic sacrifices to protect the indigenous people of California from their Spanish conquerors.”
The city of Ventura told the Los Angeles Times that it has no timeline for the removal of the statue and has pledged to allow the people of Ventura to participate in future decisions concerning the statue.
This story was written for California Catholic Daily by Mary Rose.