Under cover of darkness on the morning of July 23, the city of Ventura removed the statue of Junipero Serra that stood in front of city hall and shipped it off to an undisclosed storage facility. A lawsuit filed earlier this week challenges the validity of the city council’s vote to remove the statue.

The city council voted unanimously on July 15 to remove the bronze statue from in front of city hall and the identical wooden statue from the interior of the building. After hearing hours of public comment in support of and opposition to the statue and Junipero Serra himself, with many people calling Serra a “monster” or “rapist” who has no place in Ventura, some council members couched their votes in terms of inclusivity and “hearing” the people who claimed to be hurt by the statue’s presence.

The Coalition for Historical Integrity filed a lawsuit on July 21 and asked for a restraining order against the city to prevent it from removing the statue. The lawsuit challenges the validity of the city council’s vote to remove the bronze statue, primarily on the basis that the city sidestepped rules for historic resources by simply declaring the statue was not a landmark. The petition presents pages of evidence that the city formally recognized the monument as a historic landmark in 1973, repeatedly affirmed that designation in official documents, and did not question the historic designation until June of this year.

In the city’s response to the coalition’s petition, the city public works director, Phil Nelson, filed a declaration that the statue was at “serious risk of damage,” having been splashed with paint a month ago. The statue was under 24-hour camera surveillance and surrounded by a double layer of fencing, locked with bolts and chains. He declared under penalty of perjury that the city had “a high level of concern” that the statue would be damaged if left in its present location and that he was in charge of removing, storing, and “ultimately” relocating the statue. Phil Nelson is an ordained Catholic deacon, serving at St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Ojai.

The court denied the coalition’s request for a restraining order, adopting the city’s argument that it was necessary to remove the statue for its own safety. The city did not acknowledge the fact that the wooden statue inside city hall, although in no danger of vandalism, is slated for removal. The lawsuit continues and could result in a finding that the city council’s vote to remove the bronze statue was illegal.

At 3 am on Thursday, city workers blocked off the street in front of city hall. A handful of pro- Serra Catholics who had heard a rumor about the statue’s removal gathered at its base. The city erected barricades, caution tape, and lighting in a matter of minutes. The police ushered the Catholics away from the statue’s base, but when Skyline Crane Rental arrived, several Catholics, ignoring the requests of the police, returned to the statue to talk to the crane operators and beg them not to be a part of the destruction.

One Serra supporter told Skyline’s CEO, Bob Cullen, that being part of the mob that takes down statues would be bad for his business. He responded that he was glad to be part of the movement and that those people who opposed the removals are the minority and not in charge anymore. Cullen led the dismantling of the statue with his own hands. Deacon Phil Nelson was present, supervising. A few anti-Serra protesters watched, video-recording and burning incense.

Despite the pleas of the pro-Serra contingent, the city and crane company had the statue unbolted, lifted off, wrapped in blankets, and tied onto a flatbed truck within two hours. The Catholics prayed the rosary and held American flags and images of Junipero Serra.

Separately, Ventura County announced a plan to redesign the county seal. The county is considering removing the image of Junipero Serra but is awaiting a recommendation from the Diversity and Inclusion Task Force.

California Catholic exclusive written by Mary Rose.