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Serra statue to stay in US Capitol – lawmaker backs down

July 17, 2015
Valerie Schmalz

A California lawmaker has postponed his efforts to have the statue of the first Hispanic saint removed from the U.S. Capitol – at least until after Pope Francis’ visit and Blessed Junipero Serra’s canonization Sept. 23.

State Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens, on July 2 placed his resolution into the inactive file, ending for this year his campaign to replace the statue of Blessed Junipero Serra with astronaut Sally Ride who died in 2012. Each state has two statues in the U.S. Capitol’s National Statuary Hall Collection. California’s other statue is of former California governor, President Ronald Reagan.

Ride, who was born and grew up in Los Angeles, would be the first woman to represent California in the collection and the first known gay person, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Father Serra has become a controversial figure that some claim was associated with repression of the California native Americans, but a number of historians and the Catholic Church say that is false, citing documents showing Father Serra consistently tried to protect them, and traveled to Mexico City to ask for a military governor’s removal because of his poor treatment of the California Indians.

The California Catholic Conference applauded the reprieve.

“We are grateful to Senator Lara for referring his resolution, SJR4, that proposed replacing the statue of Fray Serra in Statuary Hall in D.C, to the Assembly inactive file,” said California Catholic Conference executive director Ned Dolejsi. “It recognizes that all of our attention right now is focused on the first visit to the United States of Pope Francis and the upcoming canonization of Father Junipero Serra on Sept. 23.”

“It is always a momentous occasion when world religious leaders visit our country,” Sen. Lara said in a statement released by his office. “There is no doubt that Pope Francis’ visit this fall will provide a much needed space for introspection for many Americans during this critical time.”

“Debating such a bill just before the pope’s visit would have conveyed a terrible message to him and millions of Catholics around the world, contradicting California’s reputation as a tolerant and welcoming place for all people,” said Republicans California Assemblyman William P. Brough and Sen. Pat Bates, in a joint statement.

The 18th-century Spanish Franciscan who established the first nine of the 21 California missions will be the first saint to be canonized in the geographical United States. “He is being canonized by the first Hispanic pope — the first to speak the Spanish language as his native tongue, and a pope who himself is an immigrant’s son,” Los Angeles Archbishop Jose Gomez noted in a May 2 address at the Pontifical North American College in the Vatican City State.

Pope Francis said in his May 2 homily at the Pontifical North American College: “He was one of the founding fathers of the United States, a saintly example of the Church’s universality and special patron of the Hispanic people of the country.”

The effort to replace Serra’s statue ran into significant opposition in the state legislature, said Ruben Mendoza, professor of the Archaeological Science, Technology and Visualization Program at California State University, Monterey Bay.

Mendoza, who is of both Hispanic Catholic and Yaqui Indian descent, and testified about Blessed Junipero Serra’s contributions to California agriculture and viticulture, his support of the American Revolution, and his importance as a Latino historic figure.

“How can you as a Chicano, who believes in self-empowerment, legitimately advocate for the erasure and removal of the sole Hispanic Catholic figurehead represented in our nation’s capital?” Mendoza asked Sen. Lara during the hearing July 2.

Mendoza noted the lack of historical reference to Latinos during his school education growing up in California and said, “What greater symbol of empowerment than that offered by Fray Junípero Serra himself can we offer our youth? I ask that this legislative body seriously reconsider this politicized effort to minimize and erase one of the most substantive Hispanic and Latino contributions to our nation’s history.”

Pope Francis is scheduled to canonize Blessed Junipero Serra on Sept. 23 in Washington, D.C., during an afternoon Mass on the east portico of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception and the university mall of at The Catholic University of America.

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