Since 1931, the statue of Father Junipero Serra has stood in the U.S. Capitol building, one of California’s two submissions to Statuary Hall. But a proposal to remove Serra is sparking angry debate in the state legislature — a debate made all the more heated because Pope Francis will make the eighteenth-century Franciscan monk a saint when he visits Washington in September.
Earlier this month, the state Senate voted along party lines to replace Serra’s statue with one honoring Sally Ride, the California native and the first American woman in space. The vote pitted Catholics and Hispanic activists against women’s rights groups, gay and lesbian activists and Native American groups.
Father Serra is a hero to many Californians who consider him one of the founders of the state’s modern boundaries. Born in Majorca in 1713, he traveled to the New World as a missionary, and established the first missions in what would become California’s major cities — San Diego, San Francisco, San Luis Obispo and Santa Clara, among others.
But to the Native American descendants of those Serra converted, his legacy is far more polarizing. Some who converted were beaten and shackled in the missions. Within half a century of Serra’s arrival, the native population dropped by a third. Entire native cultures disappeared.
“The enslavement and forced conversion of our Native American people into the mission systems was a despicable thing,” said Lorena Levine, a member of the Big Pine Paiute Tribe and a board member of the Inter-Tribal Council of California. “Our people were enslaved, raped, murdered and treated as animals in the name of progress, our ways of life were sacrificed in the name of religion and it is time that the genocide that occurred on American soil is recognized as such, rather than dismissed as bitter rantings from a defeated people”
Native American groups have staged protests in the months since the Vatican announced that Serra would be canonized.
But senators who voted to keep Serra in place said they did so to honor someone who built modern California.
“Without his migration into California, I’m not sure we’d be a state today,” said Sen. Jeff Stone (R), who voted against replacing Serra. “You just can’t take away the years of history that Father Serra has contributed to the state.”
Stone and other Serra supporters also say the timing is unfortunate. When Pope Francis visits Washington in September, he will hold a Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, at Catholic University, when he will canonize Serra. The following day, Francis will address a joint session of Congress.
“It’s bad timing. It seems kind of rude to bring this up and act on it right when Junipero Serra” is on the verge of being made a saint, said Kevin Eckery, a Sacramento political strategist who supports keeping Serra in the halls of Congress.
The Vatican’s Apostolic Nunciature, its official representative to the United States government, declined to comment for this story.
Even Serra’s supporters hail Ride as an icon, both for women and for the gay and lesbian community. Ride, who died in 2012, made history in 1983 when she became the first American woman in space, aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger. Ride spent a total of 343 hours in space. After her death, Ride’s obituary identified her partner as Tam O’Shaughnessy, who now serves as chief executive of a foundation in Ride’s name.
State Sen. Ricardo Lara (D), who sponsored the measure to replace Serra’s statue with one of Ride, said in a statement that Ride would “inspire young girls and LGBT youth who will finally see themselves depicted in the U.S. Capitol.”
Lara did not respond to several efforts to reach him.
But Serra’s supporters say the missionary contributed more to California, while Ride was a national figure.
Stone called Ride “without a doubt a U.S. hero.” But, he said: “Did she have an indelible impact on the state of California, the way Father Serra did? No, she didn’t. Did she have an indelible impact on national history? Yes, she did.”
The state Assembly is likely to take up the measure to add Ride to Statuary Hall some time this year, said John Casey, a spokesman for Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins (D). Atkins has co-sponsored the Assembly’s version of the bill. She points out that the bill would bring Serra’s statue back to Sacramento, where it would be given a place of prominence in the Capitol building.
Gov. Jerry Brown (D), who studied to become a Catholic priest early in his life, has not said whether he would sign a measure to swap the two statues. State law does not require his signature on the joint resolution, though federal law requires the governor to formally seek to replace a statue.
Replacing a statue in Statuary Hall isn’t unprecedented: Five states, including California, have substituted their statues. (In 2006, California substituted a statue of Ronald Reagan for one of Thomas Starr King, a 19th century anti-slavery minister credited with preventing California from becoming a separate nation during the Civil War. King’s statue, which was donated to Statuary Hall at the same time as Serra’s, was replaced in 2009, three years after the California legislature voted to replace him with Reagan.)
And Serra, who will become the 14th American canonized by a pope, wouldn’t be the only saint in Statuary Hall. In 2009, Pope Benedict XVI canonized St. Damien de Veuster, or Father Damien, whose statue is one of Hawaii’s two contributions to Statuary Hall.
But Republicans are left scratching their heads over the timing, and the decision to dedicate the legislature’s time to something so controversial while California faces so many other challenges.
“We have a state with significant problems,” Stone said. “Why are we even addressing this issue? Why does this rise to the level of importance that Senator Lara thinks it should have?”