Junipero Serra’s Carmel Mission to be restored for historic site’s 250th anniversary

A $4 million restoration project is expected to be completed in time for the mission’s 250th anniversary this fall. 

Visitors walk next to a sculpture paying homage to Junipero Serra at the Carmel Mission, Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2015, in Carmel-By-The-Sea, Calif. The 18th-century missionary who brought Catholicism to the American West Coast was elevated to sainthood by Pope Francis in the first canonization on U.S. soil. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

(RNS) — After a difficult year in which the early Californian missionary was vilified as a slaver and a toxic proselytizer and his statues were pulled down in raucous demonstrations, Junipero Serra is getting a little support.

A $4 million restoration project at the Carmel Mission, founded in 1771 by the 18th-century Franciscan priest and saint, is expected to be completed in time for the mission’s 250th anniversary this fall. 

In February, the nonprofit Carmel Mission Foundation announced it was awarded a $1.8 million grant from the Hind Foundation to go toward the restoration project.

RELATED: Who is Junipero Serra and why are California protesters toppling statues of this saint?

The funds will go toward revamping the Downie Museum and Basilica Forecourt at the historic mission, a 22-acre complex with 11 historical structures and five museums, as well as Serra’s final resting place, according to the Carmel Mission Foundation.

Linda Gardner, office manager for the Carmel Mission Foundation, told the Catholic News Agency she was hopeful that the repairs could also help restore the area’s tourist-driven economy that was impacted by the COVID-19 business closures. In normal times, Gardner told CNA, the mission and museums draw more than 300,000 visitors a year.

The historic Carmel Mission in Carmel-By-The-Sea, California. Photo by Burkhard Muecke/Creative Commons

The historic Carmel Mission in Carmel-By-The-Sea, California. Photo by Burkhard Muecke/Creative Commons

Last summer, in the demonstrations that followed the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, statues of Serra in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, in downtown Los Angeles and in Ventura, California, were torn down as Californians re-evaluated Serra, who led the Catholic Church’s missionary efforts among Native Americans on the West Coast.

“Serra is not the historical hero people thought when this landmark statue to him was erected, one of many throughout California, as a historical emblem, he is toxic and should be removed,” read a petition that led Ventura’s mayor to agree to take down the Serra statue there.

In response, Los Angeles Archbishop José Gómez, in the Los Angeles Times, said Serra was an inspiration. “He preached God’s compassion, fought for the dignity of women and the rights of America’s native peoples, and he was probably the first person in the Americas to make a moral case against capital punishment,” Gómez said.

Others said Serra’s actions needed to be judged against the context of his time.

The 1,157 square-foot Downie Museum adobe, completed in 1921, is believed to have been built on the site of Serra’s second church, the Jacal, from 1773-1776, the Carmel Mission Foundation said. It was also used as headquarters for the mission system. From there, Serra directed the building of seven other missions in California, according to the National Park Service.

RELATED: Thousands sign petition in support of five charged in Junipero Serra statue toppling

As part of the remodeling, restrooms will be relocated to a new facility in the main courtyard to double the museum space. New ADA restrooms will be built. Expanded museum space will highlight the restoration story of the Carmel Mission from the 1770s to the present day. Grading and paving will restore the Basilica Forecourt for more accessible step-free pathways throughout the garden, basilica and museums, among other renovations.

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