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S.F. archbishop pleads with Newsom to save Junipero Serra statue at state Capitol

San Francisco Chronicle logo San Francisco Chronicle 9/13/2021 By Sam Whiting
a man sitting on a bench in front of a building: San Francisco’s Archbishop Salvatore Joseph Cordileone holds Mass services in San Rafael last year. Cordileone appealed to Gov. Gavin Newsom to stop a bill that allows a statue of Father Junipero Serra to be permanently removed from the state Capitol grounds in Sacramento. © Jessica Christian/The Chronicle 2020

San Francisco’s Archbishop Salvatore Joseph Cordileone holds Mass services in San Rafael last year. Cordileone appealed to Gov. Gavin Newsom to stop a bill that allows a statue of Father Junipero Serra to be permanently removed from the state Capitol grounds in Sacramento.

San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone appealed to Gov. Gavin Newsom to stop a bill that allows a statue of Father Junipero Serra to be permanently removed from the state Capitol grounds in Sacramento.

The statue of the founder of California’s mission system was removed by protesters in July 2020 and has been in storage ever since.

Last month, the state Legislature passed a bill to replace the statue with a monument to Sacramento-area Native American tribes. The bill, approved by the Senate on a 28-2 vote, now awaits Newsom’s signature.

“Father Serra was in fact the founder of California and in his work here educating and evangelizing the native population did what he could to protect them and educate them,” Cordileone told The Chronicle Monday in a phone call. “That statue is at the state Capitol which is the most appropriate place for Father Serra to be honored.”

In an opinion article published in the Wall Street Journal on Monday, Cordileone and Los Angeles Archbishop Jose H. Gomez implored the governor not to sign the bill.

The piece described Serra as “a complex character, but he defended indigenous people’s humanity, decried the abuse of indigenous women, and argued against imposing the death penalty on natives who had burned down a mission and murdered one of his friends.”

It also quoted a passage from the Assembly’s version of the bill written by Assembly Member James Ramos, D-Highland (San Bernadino County), the first Native American elected to the legislature. “Enslavement of both adults and children, mutilation, genocide, and assault on women were all part of the mission period initiated and overseen by Father Serra,” it read.

“That rhetoric is just not true,” Cordileone said to The Chronicle. “There was a lot of death largely due to disease for which the native population did not have immunity. That was not Father Serra’s fault. The abuse of the Indians came largely from the Spanish soldiers not the missionaries. There was corporal punishment but that was the standard of the time.”

In the opinion article, Cordileone and Gomez, state that they are for the proposed statue of Native Americans but suggest that the two monuments can exist side by side at the Capitol Park.

Reached Monday at his district office in San Bernadino County, Ramos described the op-ed as “a paternal approach to telling Indian people, ‘Let me tell you your own history.’ The archbishop is trying to paint a picture that has been romanticized in the state. What we need is a true perspective of what happened to the California Indian people during the missionary era. Even the pope apologized in 2015 for the colonization of Native Americans.”

As to the idea of having two monuments, he said, “Are you talking about side by side statues at every Serra monument throughout the state of California? There are thousands of them. What we are talking about in this bill is one statue that already came down, and replacing it with a monument to the Miwok and Nisenan people. It is their territory that that statue stood on in Sacramento.”

The bill was co-sponsored by Assembly Member Phil Ting of San Francisco.

“I respect the Catholic Church and recognize the importance of California’s missions to their faith and our state’s history. However, we cannot overlook the fact that Father Serra built those missions on the backs of Native Americans - many of whom were mistreated and abused,” Ting said by email. “Now that the monument has been removed from Capitol Park, it’s time to find another home for it.”

Sam Whiting is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: swhiting@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @samwhitingsf

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