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Catholic University Removes Statue of Missionary in Favor of Offended Viewers

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John Burger - published on 06/05/15 - updated on 06/07/17

Father De Smet, once revered by Native Americans, now accused of "White supremacy"

A Catholic university is drawing heat for its decision to move a statue of a Jesuit missionary into an art museum so that it won’t offend certain viewers.

St. Louis University removed a statue depicting Jesuit Father Pierre-Jean De Smet praying over two Native Americans because of complaints that the the sculpture symbolizes white supremacy, racism and colonialism. The statue depicts De Smet holding aloft a crucifix, as one of the Indians kneels before him.

On Monday, the statue was removed in preparation for it to go to the university’s art museum, a building just north of the bustling urban campus, reported The College Fix, a conservative website that covers campus news. For decades, the sculpture stood in the center of campus.

A university spokesman told St. Louis Magazine the statue will be placed within the “historical context of a collection that’s on permanent display in our SLU Museum of Art.” The statue is set for the museum’s “Collection of the Western Jesuit Missions.”

“In more recent years, there have been some faculty and staff who have raised questions about whether the sculpture is culturally sensitive,” SLU spokesman Clayton Berry said. According to the College Fix:

In a recent op-ed published in SLU’s University News, senior Ryan McKinley stated the sculpture sent a clear, unwelcoming message to American Indians at Saint Louis University.

“This message to American Indians is simple: You do not belong here if you do not submit to our culture and our religion,” McKinley wrote. McKinley called for the statue’s removal, while suggesting the university replace it with artwork made by American Indians.

“The statue of De Smet depicts a history of colonialism, imperialism, racism and of Christian and white supremacy,” he penned. 

But Belgian-born Father De Smet had an excellent rapport with American Indians, said the College Fix and others: 

While converting thousands to Catholicism, De Smet also helped negotiate treaties among the Indians and the United States, ensuring their land and safety.

Writing at Magnificat, author and professor Anthony Esolen called De Smet "one of the most remarkable missionaries in the history of the Church."

He said that Father De Smet rebuked one tribe for attacking another without justification, and the two tribes "buried the tomahawk" because of him. His reputation grew so much that by 1862, it was a no-brainer for President Lincoln to send him to dissuade the Sioux from attacking white settlers as a way of avenging themselves for stolen land and broken treaties. He was successful. 

"Had America followed his lead, great good would have come of it, and many evils — war, the theft of Indian lands, perfidy, mutual hatred, and the moral collapse that awaits a defeated people under patronage — might never have been," Esolen said. 

Also reacting to the news was columnist and former presidential candidate 
Patrick Buchanan. "As the mission of this Jesuit university is, presumably, to instruct the Catholic young in their faith and send them out into the world to bring the good news of Jesus Christ as Lord and savior to nonbelievers, what exactly is the problem here?" he wrote. "If the founder of Christianity is the Son of God, then Christianity 
is a superior religion."

Father De Smet is not alone in being the subject of controversy because of his relationship to Native Americans. Soon after news broke that Pope Francis intends to come to the United States and canonize Blessed Junipero Serra, the Spanish Franciscan who founded many of California’s missions, a congressman initiated a move to replace Serra’s statue in Statuary Hall inside the US Capitol in Washington. The congressman took issue with Serra’s alleged mistreatment of Native Americans. 

According to the Religion New Service, “State Sen. Ricardo Lara, an openly gay Los Angeles Democrat, wants to replace a bronze statue of Serra with a monument honoring Sally Ride, the nation’s first female astronaut. Lara said Ride would become ‘the first member of the LGBT community’ to be honored in Statuary Hall.”

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