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One hundred years after its unveiling, the complicated story of what to do with Jo Mora’s Father Serra statue continues.

Richard Warren shows off a sign

Former Carmel Woods Neighborhood Association president Richard Warren shows off a sign made for the neighborhood on its 100-year-anniversary. The neighborhood association will need permission from the county to hang it.

Pam Marino here, with more on the background and ongoing saga of the Father Junipero Serra statue created by famed artist Jo Mora 100 years ago for the opening of the Carmel Woods neighborhood located between Carmel and Pebble Beach. The statue has been in hiding for over two years now. 

Mora carved the statue out of oak and designed its wooden niche with a red-tiled roof that sits atop a rock and cement mound at the intersection of Camino Del Monte and Alta Avenue. Wood benches painted in a barn red color sit below on either side, inscribed with the date the Serra Shrine, as it is named, was unveiled—July 22, 1922. 

It sat for 98 years as a sort of greeter to the neighborhood until two years ago when the destruction of other Serra statues in California at that time—and reportedly some internet chatter about taking the statue and dumping it into the sea—prompted the city of Carmel to remove the statue for safekeeping, even though the statue doesn’t belong to Carmel and sits on county property. 

For the last two years just who should own the statue was sussed out—you can read more about it in the story I wrote for our latest issue. The short version is that Carmel handed the statue over to the Carmel Woods Neighborhood Association on July 15, but the county wasn’t keen on allowing the statue with a religious connotation to be placed back in its niche on public land.

Last Friday, exactly 100 years to the day the statue was unveiled in 1922, around 50 neighbors gathered near the shrine to celebrate. It was a private gathering, but Carmel Woods Neighborhood Association President Mark McDonald extended an invitation to me, knowing that I’ve been following the story for over two years.

McDonald shared with those gathered that developer S.F.B. Morse commissioned Mora to make the statue and shrine just one month before the grand opening of Morse’s Carmel Woods development. The Carmel City Council dubbed the day of the unveiling “Serra Day.”

That weekend Morse opened up 119 homesites for sale. The smallest lot went for $350, $6,187 in today’s dollars, McDonald said. The largest lot was priced at $5,000 ($88,187 today). Buyers could put 20 percent down and make monthly payments. He sold 22 sites on July 22 and 23 to people who came from Carmel, San Francisco, Palo Alto, Watsonville and Stockton, McDonald reported. (The current median sales price of that neighborhood is $2.4 million, according to realtor.com.)

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As for the statue, McDonald said the association needs to meet and decide next steps. There is still some legal work to be done, he said. They are seeking an encroachment permit from the county to be able to care for the rest of the shrine. They already have a limited permit to care for the landscaping around it. 

Serra was nowhere to be seen that day. McDonald told me ahead of the event that the statue is too heavy to move around so it would not make an appearance. (He’s not sharing where it is being kept.) 

Standing in for Serra in the niche was a St. Francis garden statue. (He’s the patron saint of animals and ecology; Serra took his vows in the Franciscan Order, so the two are linked. St. Junipero Serra, by the way, is apparently the patron saint of California and vocations.) McDonald says he has no idea how the rogue statue got there—it’s at least the second St. Francis statue to grace the niche in Serra’s absence.

Obviously questions still remain. Where Mora’s Serra statue will go is undecided. And Serra’s legacy remains controversial—so there is also a larger question here about what to do with a piece that is both art and a part of history. Morse’s grandson, Charles Osborne, offered his opinion during the celebration: For him, the best place for the statue is probably the Carmel Mission, which Serra founded in 1770. 

Stay tuned.

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