Will Saint Junípero Serra have his day in court?

Note: A shorter version of the following appeared in California Catholic Daily with the title “Hearing against #IndigenousPeoples5 today in Marin County” on 2/22/2023. It can be read here.

It seems that Saint Junípero Serra (1713-1784), in certain circles the oft-criticized Catholic saint canonized by Pope Francis in 2015, will finally be having his day in court, or so it seems. The wheels of justice have been slowly turning since felony charges were filed in Marin County Superior Court on November 12, 2020 against the #IndigenousPeoples5, a reference coined by their allies, accused of the destruction of a statue of Saint Junípero Serra at Mission San Rafael Arcángel on October 12, 2020.

Saint Junípero Serra, the Mallorcan-born, 5’2”, Franciscan priest, entered San Diego in 1769 and founded Mission San Diego de Alcalá, the first of nine begun during his tenure as father president. He was 57 years old when he was given the opportunity to fulfill his dream, bringing the gospel to gentiles. Lately, he has been vilified.

California, home to over 11 million Catholics, has seen a rash of violence on statues of Saint Junípero Serra since the canonization. In addition to vandalism of public statues of Junípero Serra by angry mobs throughout California, they have also been desecrated on Catholic church property, at Mission Carmel, Old Mission Santa Barbara, Mission San Gabriel, Mission San Rafael, and most recently at Mission San Jose. Mission San Rafael is the only one that involved arrests.

On November 13, 2020, Catholic News Agency reported that Archbishop Salvatore J. Cordileone of San Francisco believed “the decision to prosecute five people on felony vandalism charges ‘represents the first time that any of the lawbreakers attacking statues of St. Junípero Serra and other acts of vandalism on Catholic Church property across California will be held accountable for their actions in a court of law.’” 

Archbishop Cordileone leads the Catholic Archdiocese of San Francisco, serving Marin, San Mateo and San Francisco counties.

Some have called for restorative justice. In a November 10, 2021 Marin Independent Journal commentary, Archbishop Cordileone replied to the call, “I would rejoice and be grateful to begin such a journey of reconciliation with the Serra statue vandals. However . . . I fear that this is not something in which they or their supporters are interested.” A December 17, 2020 El Tecolote article highlights just how uninterested supporters of the #IndigenousPeoples5 were in restorative justice. 

A preliminary hearing for the five defendants arrested for destruction of a statue of Saint Junípero Serra at Mission San Rafael Arcángel on October 12, 2020 was held in Marin County Superior Court on August 17, 2022 (People v. Aguilar, SC214700A). The next scheduled date is February 22, 2023, Ash Wednesday, at 9am. 

There are currently 109 federally recognized Indian tribes in California and more than fifty–five tribes in California that are unrecognized. In June 2021, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) announced that the creation of a comprehensive pastoral plan for Native Americans is underway. The last time such an endeavor was done was March 2003.

Sacheen Littlefeather, Apache, who declined Marlon Brando’s 1973 Oscar on his behalf, said of the five arrested for destruction of a statue of Saint Junípero Serra at Mission San Rafael Arcángel, “The legitimate federally recognized Native American Indian people of Marin County did not participate in, and knew nothing of the actions, nor did we sanction the destruction of the statue of Junipero Serra . . . . As a member of the Kateri Tekakwitha Catholic Circle, I would like to make it clear that we do not condone such behavior and we pray for all of those involved.” Littlefeather died at her Marin County home on October 2, 2022 at age 75.

According to author Richard Rodriguez, Saint Junípero Serra is worth defending. He sees himself as “. . . made by the missions” and goes on to write in his January 2018 First Things article “Padre Mestizo”, “We are called to his [Saint Junípero Serra’s] grave because of the strength of his resolve—a resolve he shared with thousands of missionaries. His great ambition, his deep desire, was to join his soul to the souls of Indians, many of whom fled his presence.” 

Saint Junípero Serra’s memory is worth defending against the brazenness of Ines Shiam Gardilcic, Victoria Eva Montanopena, Melissa Aguilar, Marjorie Nadeska Delgadillo, Moira Cribben Van de Walker. The year 2020 was a tough one, even for a Catholic saint. Saint Junípero Serra, who Pope Francis called “the evangelizer of the west in the United States”, has been taking it in the chin. Catholics (really anyone with the common good in mind) need to help him off the mat by demanding accountability from those involved. 

In 1999, three members of the Biotic Baking Brigade threw pies in the face of Mayor Willie Brown of San Francisco during a press conference. The activists did it to bring attention to their grievances over what they perceived as Brown’s mishandling of homelessness. They did time and the judge’s decision seemed to make possible future pie-throwing activists pause. When is the last time you heard of a pie being thrown at someone during a press conference? 

Hopefully the neglect of people learning history and the outrage that follows from such neglect will subside. When history is knowing some of the facts rather than the sum of facts, we are left with pie on our faces. 

UPDATE (2/27): The case has been granted a continuance until April 26 when the defendants are scheduled to appear at 9 a.m. in courtroom D.


Christian Clifford writes on the subject Catholic Church history in Spanish and Mexican California. His latest book is the Catholic Media Association Book Award recipient Pilgrimage: In Search of the REAL California Missions, the story of his 800-mile walk of the California Missions Trail. He can be reached at www.Missions1769.com.