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Statue of controversial missionary Junipero Serra could get booted from U.S. Capitol

This statue of Father Junipero Serra was given to the National Statuary Hall Collection by California in 1931.
This statue of Father Junipero Serra was given to the National Statuary Hall Collection by California in 1931.

Photo courtesy of Architect of the Capitol

This statue of Father Junipero Serra was given to the National Statuary Hall Collection by California in 1931.

WASHINGTON (RNS) Junipero Serra, the 18th-century Franciscan missionary who’s set to be declared a saint later this year despite protests from Native American groups, could lose his place of honor in the U.S. Capitol if a California lawmaker has his way.

State Sen. Ricardo Lara, an openly gay Los Angeles Democrat, wants to replace a bronze statue of Serra with a monument honoring the late Sally Ride, the nation’s first female astronaut. Lara said Ride would become “the first member of the LGBT community” to be honored in Statuary Hall.

Each state is allowed two statues to represent local heroes; California’s other statue is of former President Ronald Reagan, who joined the collection in 2009, replacing a monument to itinerant preacher Thomas Starr King. The King and Serra statues were added in 1931.

“Dr. Sally Ride is a California native, American hero and stratospheric trailblazer who devoted her life to pushing the limits of space and inspiring young girls to succeed in math and science careers,” Lara said in a statement. “She is the embodiment of the American dream.”

The move follows controversy over Serra’s legacy as the founder of the California mission system. His sharpest critics say he was part of an imperial conquest that beat and enslaved Native Americans, raped their women, and destroyed their culture by forcing them to abandon their traditional language, diet, dress and other customs and rites.

Lara’s statement makes little mention of Serra’s divisive legacy; he told the Los Angeles Times that Serra was a “controversial figure,” but his bill is about honoring Ride and “recognizing the invaluable contributions of an accomplished Californian and American pioneer.”

Astronaut Sally Ride sits in the aft flight deck mission specialist's seat during de-orbit preparations in this NASA handout photo released June 18, 2013. Photo courtesy of  REUTERS/NASA/Handout via Reuters *Editors: This photo is not available to republish.

Astronaut Sally Ride sits in the aft flight deck mission specialist’s seat during de-orbit preparations in this NASA handout photo released June 18, 2013. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/NASA/Handout via Reuters
*Editors: This photo is not available to republish.

Lara’s bill would relocate the Serra statue to the California Capitol in Sacramento, where visitors “can enjoy it and be reminded of his significant historical impact upon our state.”

Catholic leaders have largely defended Serra’s legacy, even as they acknowledge the questions. “He lived in a very difficult time and he did the best he could under very difficult circumstances,” the Rev. Edward Benioff, who oversees evangelism for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, told the local NBC affiliate. Pope Francis has hailed him as an icon of the church’s missionary focus.

Monsignor Francis J. Weber, a former archivist at the San Fernando Mission in Mission Hills, Calif., defended Serra’s work, saying he tried to separate the missionary and military aspect of the Spanish colonization. He taught natives in their own language and walked to Mexico City to secure a bill of rights for the natives.

The criticism of Serra, Weber said, is really criticism of the Catholic Church’s evangelism efforts.

“It was the first contact that the Europeans made with the Native Americans,” Weber told Catholic News Agency. “California today is what he started it out to be. Things have progressed a lot in 200 years, but he set the foundation.”

YS/AMB END ECKSTROM

About the author

Kevin Eckstrom

Kevin Eckstrom joined the Religion News Service staff in 2000 and became editor-in-chief in 2006.

21 Comments

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  • Of course, there are dozens of other astronauts. Of course, they’re less…interesting because they did not get divorced, or die childless, or have a 20-odd year history of sodomy.

    Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon, had a lengthy military career (including time as a fighter pilot in Korea), and was as extensively educated as Dr. Ride. For transgressive cachet, he also has a history of dipsomania and of making himself the meat and potatoes of divorce lawyers. Maybe we should swap out Ride and Serra and put in Aldrin instead.

  • He’s also still alive. I think these statues are supposed to honor dead people.
    But, you know, he won’t die childless and has never engaged in sodomy (*), so clearly that overrides any other concerns.

    (*) Sodomy between men and women is, of course, unthinkable.

  • Alan Shepard is deceased. He also retired to California and was buried there. Trouble is, he was married for 53 years and raised several daughters, so is a person of no interest.

  • But he is not a California native either (from NH) nor a newcomer who was instrumental to the development of the state like Father Serra.

    That being said, I would have no problem with statues to either Aldrin or Shepard. Maybe legislators in NH and NJ could come up with reasons for them.

  • Why not replace Serra with a statue of Ronald McNair? He would be one (I suspect) of very few African American in the gallery, he worked at Hughes Research Labs in Malibu as an accomplished laser physicist, and he would probably be the first Ba’hai honored.

  • Junipero Serra’s statue in the nation’s capitol building should be replaced, but with the statue of Thomas Starr King (1824-1864), which was there until 2006, when it was replaced by that of Ronald Reagan. King was credited by Abe Lincoln for keeping California in the Union during the Civil War. Serra died in 1784, before the US Constitution was written. His statue is an offense to California’s Native Americans and not worthy to replace the statue of King. The removal of King’s statue was engineered by Republican state senator Dennis Hollingsworth, who claimed not to know who King was, even though mountain peaks, streets and parks in the state are named after him. — Edd Doerr (arlinc.org)

  • Now that is a suggestion which actually makes sense given the context.
    Sounds like a good idea.

    Write your Congressman.

  • Yeah, you could. Of course, there are masses of astronauts and nearly all of them were high achievers in some realm (military or academic). The distinguishing feature would be this person or that person’s communal partisanship, which is not a valid basis for this sort of thing.

  • Perhaps because California was still a Spanish or Mexican possession in 1784? I believe the Mexican Was was circa 1846? So while Serra may be a part of the history of California, he’s not a part of the history of California as one of the United States.

  • How about going back and reading the article. Buzz was not from California as the requirement states. Put your religious hate and BS away. There may have been other astronauts from California but they did not have the impact that Sally had. By the way,Buzz was not put in charge of Apollo 11 because he was a drunk . Buzz was also married THREE times and divorced THREE times. Screw you and your brainwashed mentality

  • Why nobody thought of replacing Reagan’s statue? He impoverished and killed millions

  • So, do you think your country historical roots are not relevant? Really?
    Most of european countries weren’t politically consolidated until 1500s or hundreds of years later. The concept of “nation” wasn’t born until 18th century. So do you think all european relevant people before these centuries are not important? That they mustn’t be honored by their present countries? I hope you’re not serious…

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