Where Does the Statue Controversy End?

(originally published Oct. 26, 2017  in Catholic San Francisco)

The San Francisco Arts Commission voted unanimously on October 2 to recommend to the San Francisco Historic Preservation Commission the possible removal of the “Early Days” sculpture of the Pioneer Monument”. One of the three figures on the sculpture is a Franciscan priest. The timing of the push to remove the “Early Days” statue of the Pioneer Monument in San Francisco coincided with the removal of Confederate statues in the South, anti-Columbus Day news, when many were celebrating National Hispanic Heritage Month, and the recent vandalism of memorials of the 18th century Franciscan, Saint Junípero Serra, who brought Catholic Christianity to California. Are those demanding removal of “Early Days” barking up the wrong tree?

Saint Junípero Serra, the founder of the California missions knew history and wanted to distance himself from the conquistadors and encomienda system. He wanted to change hearts and minds with the Gospel, not the sword. His heroics were recognized by the monument’s benefactors in 1894 with a portrait medallion near the “Early Days” statue. Dr. George Yagi, Jr., professor of history at San Joaquin Delta College, is not the first to argue how Junípero Serra defended the California Mission Indians against Spanish military abuse.  Like any institution, the California missions had its saints and sinners and all types in-between. The greatest tragedy was an unintended consequence of the cultural exchange—the majority of the Mission Indians died due to diseases to which they had no immunity. 

The plaque “California Native Americans” added in 1994 to the Pioneer Monument rightly notes that pre-contact with Europeans, the California Indian population was estimated to be 300,000. Historian James A. Sandos argued in Converting California that the overall population dropped 21 percent by 1830, just before Mexico took possession of California. Regarding the Indians in the area of mission influence, he notes from 1770-1830, the population declined from 65,000 to 17,000, a loss of 74 percent. Scholar Barry Pritzer estimates by the end of the 19th century there were 15,000 California Indians.  Therefore, the near annihilation of the California Indians came during the Gold Rush from the 49ers and with the blessing of the government of California. The native got in the way of so-called progress and genocide ensued. 

Accusation does not mean guilt. California Mission history is complex and generalizations, when looking at any history, should be avoided. It would be crazy to believe that all Pueblo Indians were bad because of Popé, the religious leader who headed the Pueblo Revolt in 1680 that killed 400 Spanish and relocated 2,000 settlers. Yet Popé has been honored with a statue in Washington, D.C.

If city officials are really set on righting a wrong of history, maybe they should demand that the San Francisco 49ers change its name. If they are really serious about removing offensive monuments, then they should consider the Monument to the Lincoln Brigade. The Republican forces (the side they fought for) in the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) murdered 6,844 Catholic clerics and religious.

Yale University historian David Blight, an expert on slavery, and other historians presented a very sensible criteria when judging historical monuments: 

“ . . . discussions [should] weigh many factors, among them: the history behind when and why the monument was built. Where it’s placed. The subject’s contribution to society weighed against the alleged wrongdoing. And the artistic value of the monument itself.”

Maybe this will help the San Francisco Historic Preservation Commission avoid politicization when it comes to the fate of the “Early Days” statue of the Pioneer Monument.

PC: Joshua Sabatini, San Francisco Examiner, Mar 5, 2018.

Christian Clifford is a veteran Catholic school teacher and author of three books about Catholic Church History in Spanish and Mexican California. Clifford’s writings have appeared in Aleteia, California Teacher, Catholic San Francisco, Catholic Standard, Crux, Patheos, and Today’s Catholic Teacher. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with his wife and son. For more information, visit www.Missions1769.com.

Junipero Serra: Created to Amaze

Mission bells, San Juan Bautista, California.


(originally published Oct 4, 2013  in Catholic San Francisco)

I recently went to the circus for the first time since I was a child. The show lived up to its name, “Built to Amaze.” I saw awe in my 5-year-old’s face. After immersing myself in Blessed Junipero Serra’s story, I can say with confidence that he was created to amaze.

For me, the gist is this: Serra left the comforts of Mallorca, Spain, to bring a new vision of love to total strangers. He personally baptized 98 percent of adult converts at Mission Carmel. He walked an estimated 4,000 miles in what is now California, with a seriously injured leg. When at his headquarters in Carmel, he slept on a wood board with four legs. He often pleaded with the crown and its agents, always suggesting to never forget the words of Jesus: “I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). Nothing could get in Serra’s way of pruning the vineyard he found himself. According to records at The Early California Population Project, Serra’s legacy was 101,000 baptisms, 28,000 marriages and 71,000 burials at all 21 missions and from the Los Angeles Plaza Church and the Santa Barbara Presidio. He alone confirmed 4,076. He embodied what St. Augustine shared, “Do not turn away from the one who made you, even to turn toward yourself.”

By visiting The Huntington Library exhibit commemorating Serra’s 300th birthday in San Marino, I wanted to learn more how to be a man of faith through Serra’s experiences. My prayer to Serra was that by visiting the exhibit and its 250 artifacts from 60 lenders, more light would be shed on his life so that I can better inspire the young men that I teach.

The Huntington is such a massive place that I actually got lost. When I saw two Norbertine priests and their students from St. Michael Preparatory School in Silverado,
I knew I was on the right track. Many of the objects at the Virginia Steele Scott Galleries, Erburu Wing resonated with my own faith journey. There was Serra’s notebook used as a student from 1731-1735 in Palma, Mallorca, reminding me of the intellect’s place in discipleship. I reflected on my vocation as teacher while peering at Serra’s personal
Bible (Venice, 1508), used while a professor in Palma. The letter from Abraham Lincoln dated March 18, 1865, returning the mission property to the Order Friars Minor, made me hope for better days ahead in church-state relations in America. While driving back to the Bay Area and hearing my 5-year-old son say “Are we home yet?” for the upteenth time, I recalled the 18th-century Franciscan tunic (habit) on display, worn until it fell off the body, a physical reminder of the order’s vow of Christian poverty. Serra must have
been smiling down on us. What I was most amazed by was an artifact that told so many stories. The baptism record from Petra, dated Nov. 24, 1713, for “Miguel Joseph Serre, son
of Antoni and Margarita Ferrer, a married couple,” made me think of my own baptism being noted at St. Andrew’s in Daly City. I am part of a
2,000-year heritage!

Let us pray that Serra’s life devoted to the service of others becomes better understood and that we more sincerely live the words of St. Francis of Assisi, “Preach the Gospel at all times. Use words when necessary.” He will amaze.

Christian Clifford is the author of three books about Catholic Church history in Spanish-Mexican California. For more information, visit www.Missions1769.com.