The removal and marring of symbols of racism and colonialism in other parts of the country recently prompted Catholic dioceses around California to remove Father Junipero Serra statues for safekeeping, out of fear that protesters might bring harm to symbols of a man the church calls a saint and others call a subjugator of Indigenous peoples.
One such Serra statue in San Francisco was toppled and splashed with red paint on June 19. Churches in San Luis Obispo, Los Angeles and elsewhere began removing statues as a result.
Today, Tuesday, June 23, the city of Carmel removed one of its Serra statues, the Serra Shrine, a notable piece of art by 20th-century local artist Jo Mora after the city picked up on some anti-Serra chatter on social media suggesting people find Serra's grave, dig up his bones and throw them into the ocean.
Carmel City Administrator Chip Rerig made the decision to protect the statue not because of its religious connection but its artistic significance.
“Jo Mora is a part of our cultural heritage and we don’t view it as a religious icon,” Rerig says.
The wooden oak statue located at the intersection of Camino Del Monte and Alta Avenue in Carmel Woods was commissioned by Pebble Beach founder S.F.B. Morse and dedicated in July 1922, according to the Jo Mora Trust website. Mora had moved to Carmel from the San Francisco Bay area two years earlier.
Rerig scrambled up to where the statue was mounted make sure the statue could be removed without damaging it. It was carefully wrapped in a moving blanket and put into storage at the city's Park Branch Library.
The statue actually lies outside of Carmel's city limits, but was gifted to the city at some point in its history. Rerig says he checked with the president of the Carmel Woods homeowners association first, and contacted each member of Carmel City Council about his decision.
Rerig expects to catch some criticism for removing the statue, but felt time was of the essence in assuring the statue's safety. It's been damaged by vandalism once, in 2002, when someone splashed it with paint.
The city has another larger wooden statue of Serra in Devendorf Park, but Rerig believes its location between the city's police and fire stations mean there are "more eyes" on it to keep it safe.
In 2015 the granite statue of Serra located inside Lower Presidio Park in Monterey was decapitated, two weeks after another Serra statue at the Carmel Mission was the defaced with paint and toppled. Both happened just weeks after Serra was made a saint by Pope Francis.
Mora actually moved to Carmel to create what the Mora Trust says became his "masterpiece," an elaborate bronze and travertine memorial located inside the Memorial Chapel of the Carmel Mission. The Father Serra Cenotaph—meaning a memorial to someone who is buried elsewhere—was commissioned by a Carmel priest and was dedicated in October 1924.
Serra died in 1784 and buried below the stone floor of the mission 13 years after he founded it. His bones were exhumed by the Catholic Church in 1987, as part of the process of elevating Serra to sainthood. Tiny pieces of his bones have been distributed as relics, according to news reports.