Saint Serra: Vandalism & Genocide

On September 23, the day the Pope declared Junípero Serra a saint, between 20 and 30 people, mostly Native Americans, gathered in the Carmel Mission cemetery to pay respect to Serra’s victims.

The Mission cemetery is small and picturesque; a handful of “Indian Graves” marked by crude wooden crosses and lined with abalone shells. This is all for show.


In reality, there are no individual graves here. This is a mass grave and the soil under foot is rich with human bone fragments.

But the crosses and shells serve a purpose. They place a pleasing cosmetic veneer over the unsettling reality, leaving the hordes of visitors who daily troop through the place with the impression that this is a typical church graveyard; a place where a manageable number of people lie buried in the fullness of human dignity and respect.

Some descendants of the dead want to make improvements to the condition of the place, remove the fakery, and make it more respectful to the memory of their ancestors, but it is the property of the church and progress has been slow. In death as in life, those buried here remain church property. To add insult to injury, Mission gatekeepers sometimes insist that people seeking to visit the resting place of their relatives pay the church for the privilege, as though they were ordinary tourists.

When I arrived, throngs of reporters and celebrating catholics were milling about in the courtyard and waiting to watch the canonization live from Washington on a big screen TV. As a white male professional of a certain age, I had no difficulty making my way through this crowd to the cemetery, but younger, more obvious dissenters did not fare so well. They were told a private event was in progress and turned away by security. Some eventually found other ways in and were able to join us.

The vigil in the cemetery was low-key. When people spoke it was more of hope for the future than of past injustice. Yet the crushing weight of the racism, lying heavy as a neutron star at the heart of the Pope’s decision, made its gravity continually felt. While there is zero chance that a man who enslaved and tortured thousands of Europeans, Africans or Asians would be declared a saint in the year 2015, making a saint of a man who did all that and more to Native Americans remains somehow acceptable. That was the essential, hard to swallow fact, that as of September 23 could no longer be avoided or denied.

As it’s become more widely known that Serra was hardly a moral exemplar, even by the standards of his own time, his apologists have turned to saying that since the destruction of Native Americans and their culture was “inevitable,” Serra can’t be blamed for it and should, instead, be judged by his intentions. Needless to say, if good intentions are all it takes, the list of murderous tyrants potentially qualified for sainthood would be long. But how inevitable was the Native American holocaust?

While there is little doubt that European diseases would have arrived on American shores and, at least temporarily, devastated Native populations, it is hard to call enslavement, torture and murder inevitable. These practices were highly controversial even at the time. Take, for example, California’s military governor, Felipe de Neve, who strenuously objected to Serra’s harsh methods. Had he gotten his way, much torture and misery might have been avoided.

As the New York Times recently put it, “Historians agree that he forced Native Americans to abandon their tribal culture and convert to Christianity, and that he had them whipped and imprisoned and sometimes worked or tortured to death.” As there were plenty of others who would have behaved differently, had they been in Serra’s shoes, there is really no one and nothing to blame for these crimes besides Serra himself. Yet the Catholic Church, in 2015, declares this behavior compatible with saintliness – so long as it was carried out in furtherance of spreading the faith among Native Americans.

If it was important to the Pope to make a saint of a California missionary, he could have chosen someone like Padre Antonio de la Concepción Horra, who objected so vigorously to the mistreatment of Native people in Serra’s missions that his fellow missionaries had him declared insane and sent back to Spain. That the Pope chose to honor the architect of the disaster, rather than any of those who tried to stop it, tells you that this decision was not a mistake or a compromise borne of political necessity.

A few days after the canonization, persons unknown visited the Mission at night, knocked over a statue of Serra, splashed paint around and wrote, “Saint of Genocide” on a nearby rock.

The Carmel Police declared this a “hate crime,” a term normally used to refer to crimes against persons or their property committed due to the perpetrator’s belief that the victim is a member of a racial, sexual, or religious group the perpetrator dislikes. Since it seems likely that the perpetrators of this vandalism were motivated by a dislike of the church declaring Serra a saint, rather than a generalized dislike of religion or Catholicism, the term doesn’t seem particularly apt. Perhaps the Carmel Police define “hate crime” as “any crime committed for a reason that we hate.”

The church, for their part, rallied the faithful and got the mess quickly cleaned up. “This came from someone’s pain,” the New York Times quoted a visiting priest as saying. “They need to know our forgiveness.”

I don’t mean to be overly critical of the Catholic Church, but it is difficult to think of anything more preposterous than the idea that someone guilty of minor vandalism needs the forgiveness of an institution that spent decades, if not centuries, actively shielding and enabling child molesters, that tortured thousands to death in the dungeons of the Inquisition, and that still persists in excusing and even sanctifying its past crimes. If hubris were an olympic sport, this guy would deserve the gold medal.

A few weeks later, the same or other persons went still further, decapitating a granite statue of Serra that has stood on the grounds of the Presidio, overlooking the Monterey harbor, since 1891.

Local commentators, naturally, condemned these acts of vandalism, accusing the perpetrators of “trying to rewrite history,” and implying that their motives were somehow suspect because they hadn’t cared enough to vandalize the statues in the past. One column even stated that “trying to erase history doesn’t change it and only prevents us from learning from it.”

What the commentators seemed to miss was that something genuinely changed on September 23. Before that day, Serra was nothing more than an odious historical figure and the statues were nothing more than anachronistic reminders of a time when people who committed racist genocides might still expect to be revered. Both Serra and the statues were, in other words, lifeless bits of history.

That ended on September 23. While Serra remains as dead as ever, his despicable conduct is now – today – in the year 2015 – being held out as a moral example. And that fact has largely been shrugged off or actively celebrated in the local press (Sainthood will attract more tourists!). In this atmosphere, is it really difficult to understand how his statues, previously regarded as historic oddities, have gained new life and currency as active symbols of community approval and veneration of Serra?

The public had much less difficulty grasping this than the local pundits. I was surprised to see how strongly comments on social media ran in favor of the defacement. But maybe I shouldn’t have been. Those statues of Stalin all over Eastern Europe have historic value too, but no one is surprised when people knock them down. What community wants to be seen as celebrating mass murder?

The defacement, which was obviously a response to current events, rather than an attempt to “erase history,” has by no means prevented anyone from learning the lessons of history. It has, in fact, gotten the community talking about and learning about history to an extent that would never have otherwise occurred. Most locals, and I include myself here, had forgotten the Monterey statue even existed before the news of its beheading broke.

While I have no doubt that local boosters will do whatever it takes to get the head replaced, imagine for a moment if we left it as it is. Not only would the community be saved from the embarrassment of appearing to endorse racist genocide, but the historic value of the statue would actually be increased. Headless, it would attract far more attention than it would otherwise, and it would stand, not just as a monument to events and attitudes of the 18th and 19th Centuries, but also as a testament to the fact that many, in 2015, did not agree that Serra’s was a life to be venerated. Surely future generations will think more kindly of us if they understand that.


The now-headless statue of Serra stands, appropriately enough, atop the ruins of a Native village.


6 Responses to Saint Serra: Vandalism & Genocide

  1. Katharina Harlow says:

    Thank you! K Harlow.

    Sent from my iPhone


  2. lewruli says:

    great post. nostalgia – even in it’s most sordid and blind form – dies hard.

  3. Ray A. March says:

    You always nail it, not necessarily to the cross, as perhaps it should be, but more accurately to the need for public awareness. Ray.

  4. Thank you for providing this information. It is OCEN’s belief that with continued education, people will understand that Serra is a Catholic Saint, and not a saint for the many many people of California and the United States. Even today the Mission cares only for those converted, those of us who chose to speak up against the canonization have heard of “deals/agreements” for those Tribes that supported the canonization. Let the church maintain his statue but let the government of all people remove his statue’s and image as a saint to our people, the aboriginal people of Monterey County.

  5. Great idea to leave the statue headless. It allows us to learn from history, not erase it. Our society is too immature to grapple with the gray area. Only black and white is allowed and that’s a pity. Genocide is not to be celebrated and the next Pope will rescind this mistake.

  6. Bob Fisher says:

    Elizabeth Fisher’s column this month is about an inspiring event that took place a few days ago calling for an end to war and genocide. Please share with others to strengthen its impact. Thanks, Bob Fisher.

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