Catholic bishops defend the reputation of the first U.S. Hispanic missionary saint.
A Los Angeles park where a statue of St. Junipero Serra was toppled in 2020 will no longer bear the missionary’s name. Mayor Eric Garcetti announced on Indiginous Peoples’ Day that the park, which had long been informally referred to as St. Junipero Serra Park, will be called La Plaza Park.
Mayor Garcetti stated in his announcement:
“Los Angeles is a city of belonging that takes responsibility for the mistakes we’ve made in the past,” Garcetti said. “Our indigenous brothers and sisters deserve justice, and today we take a step toward delivering both greater cultural sensitivity and spaces for Angelenos to gather and perform their traditional ceremonies.”
Garcetti went on to state that the buildings of the area were produced by the “slave labor of indigenous inhabitants.” The mayor proceeded to apologize to the indigenous communities, and suggest that the land does and always will belong to the native american people.
St. Junipero Serra statue
According to Catholic News Agency, the attachment of St. Junipero Serra’s name to the park had always been informal, based on the well known statue of the first U.S. Hispanic saint that had stood in the park since the 1930s. In 2020, a crowd of protesters toppled the statue based on claims that the saint was involved in social injustices in the 18th century.
Catholic leaders have contested the notion that St. Junipero Serra was such a controversial figure. On September 13, Archbishops Jose Gomez of Los Angeles and Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, in which they called such claims “outrageous.” The Archbishops wrote:
“As leaders of the state’s two largest Catholic communities, we serve thousands of native Californians who trace their faith to ancestors who helped build the missions,” they said. “We understand the bitter history of native exploitation. But history can be complicated and facts matter.”
The article painted a picture of St. Junipero Serra that was quite the opposite of the narrative. The prelates hailed the saint as a defender of “indigenous people’s humanity,” as well as a protector of indigenous women. They pointed out that he argued against the death penalty for natives who had burned down a mission church.
Defending history and legacy
The bishops are also working to contend with much more egregious claims from Councilman Mitch O’Farrell, who also spoke on Indigenous People’s Day. CNA provided his statement:
“Places like Serra Park, named after Junipero Serra who in this region led local subjugation and conversion efforts on behalf of the Catholic Church, are a powerful symbol of past wrongs,” O’Farrell said.
This claim is being countered by the bishops who say there is no evidence to support the accusation. They noted that no “serious historian” has ever reached such a conclusion about St. Junipero Serra.