Prayer Vigil Attended by Hundreds of Supporters After Jesus Statue is Toppled in New York City, American Flag Burned at NYC Church

A Catholic church in New York City received support and solidarity from the community as hundreds of people came to attend a prayer vigil in response to what appears to be a hate crime involving the toppling of a statue of Jesus and the burning of an American flag outside the parish.

“On such a short notice we all came together to show how strong our Faith is! What an amazing crowd! We are one community! We are one family! We love each other!” said St. Athanasius Church in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn in New York on its Facebook page about Friday night’s prayer vigil.

Friday morning, the church wrote a post about the vandalism. “We are deeply saddened to inform you that the Cross on our Church property was vandalized last night. This exhibition of violence and religious hatred is very disturbing. This is definitely an offensive act not only to our Parish but to the Catholic Church!”

The vandalism occurred Thursday night when an unknown person jumped the fence at the church, pushed over a statue of Jesus’ crucifixion and torched an American flag hanging outside the church, the New York Post reported, adding that the statue broke into pieces.

In a statement released by the Diocese of Brooklyn, the parish priest, Monsignor David Cassato, called it “an act of hatred.”

“… Today is the saddest day of my 20 years here at this parish,” he said. “I went over and spoke to the students in the school about what happened, telling them that hate never wins. We are, and must be, a community that continues to share the message of Easter, that which is of love, hope, and forgiveness.”

The statue of Jesus’ crucifixion, the pastor said, was installed in 2010 to honor the memory of his mother. The parish said it plans to repair and reinstall the crucifix in the same location.

“I went over and spoke to the students in the school about what happened, telling them that hate never wins,” Cassato added. “We are, and must be, a community that continues to share the message of Easter, that which is of love, hope, and forgiveness.”

The NYPD is investigating a possible hate crime.

“As we all know this past year has been a trying time for many. Many of us have leaned on our faith and church leaders to help us through,” the fundraiser says. “… Sadly, our dear neighbourhood church, St. Athanasius, was vandalised in a disturbing act of hatred and violence. I know others, like myself, feel a sense of sadness and grief. The cross fell, but as we believe, if we unite in our sorrow, we will only rise stronger through Christ. Let’s help restore the church that has helped us through our trying times.”

Junipero Serra
A statue of missionary and Catholic saint, Father Junipero Serra, being toppled in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park on June 19, 2020. A separate statue of Serra was defaced and toppled by vandals at Mission San Rafael Arcangel in San Rafael, California, on Oct. 12, 2020. | Joe Rivano Barros/Twitter

Months after the statue of a Catholic saint was vandalized and toppled by rioters, activists are calling on a California district attorney to drop charges against the perpetrators.

On Columbus Day last year, referred to by some as Indigenous People’s Day, a group of vandals toppled a statue of St. Junipero Serra located outside the Mission San Rafael in San Rafael, California. As The Christian Post previously reported, five people were “arrested on vandalism charges for knocking over the Serra statue, leaving only the feet attached to the base.”

According to the Marin Independent Journal, “A complaint filed by [Marin County District Attorney Lori] Frugoli’s office in November accuses five suspects of causing at least $10,000 in damage. Under state law, vandalism is considered a felony if the damage exceeds $400.”

A group called Decolonizers Defense has set up a petition calling on Frugoli to “Drop the Charges Against the Indigenous People’s Day 5.” The petition noted that felony charges were filed against five of the 50 protesters.

“5 Indigenous women and two spirit racial justice activists are being charged with felonies,” read a graphic accompanying the petition. The graphic, which urged Frugoli to “Drop the Charges,” was also emblazoned with the phrase “no more monuments to murderers.”

The petition suggests that the monument’s destruction was justified because Serra was “a notoriously violent mission leader known for imprisoning and enslaving Indigenous people.” It also slammed the city of San Rafael for “refusing to recognise the harms perpetrated against Indigenous people” and maintained that “this is a critical moment to resist increasing repression and support de-colonial activists in your community.”

As of Thursday afternoon, the petition had garnered more than 75,420 signatures out of a goal of 150,000.

Statues of the 18th century priest were targeted because of his ties to Spanish expansion in North America. In 1769, Serra led the first group of missionaries into California. 

In addition to calling on Frugoli to drop the charges against the “Indigenous People’s Day 5,” the petition offered additional suggestions on how to help support the aforementioned protesters. These tips included a call to “encourage Mission San Rafael to consider how they might begin to reconcile with the violence of their founding” and “learn about the history of the land you are on, learn about the Indigenous People it was stolen from, and find a way to recognise your place in this lineage and contribute to its healing.”

letter written by a group called The Indigenous Peoples Day 5 Coalition accuses Frugoli of “targeting “ “Indigenous women and two Spirited People.” According to the signatories, the charging of the five protesters constitutes a “continuation of the legacy of anti-Indigenous violence that persists to this day.”

“By charging only Indigenous people, you are aligning yourself with the dangerous trend toward repression of BIPOC activists and those speaking up against violent, genocidal figures such as Junipero Serra,” they wrote in part.

“This is the moment to take a stance in support of recognizing that the removal of this statute was in and of itself a response to the brutal and racist violence that is central to Junipero Serra’s legacy. We are writing to urge you to act in accordance with your own stated values, those of standing against racism in Marin, and drop the charges now against the Indigenous Peoples Day 5,” the letter continued.

More than 40 groups and individuals signed the letter, including First Congressional Church in Ripon, California, University of California Davis professor Erin Gray, the Ohio Women’s Alliance and CodePink Women for Peace, East Bay Chapter. The website for the Indigenous Peoples Day 5 Solidarity Coalition described Serra as a “murderous abuser of Indigenous people, notorious for imprisoning and enslaving Indigenous people in what is now known as California.”

Last summer, Bishop Robert Barron of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles delivered a homily defending Serra’s legacy. “Do you know in 1773, Junipero Serra made his way, of course, by foot, in constant pain from Carmel all the way to Mexico City to argue for a bill of rights for the Native peoples?” he asked.

Barron also pushed back on the depiction of “evangelization as some sort of cultural aggression,” explaining that “Serra wanted to share what he quite rightly took to be the most precious gift you could ever give.”

Similarly, the California Catholic Conference of Bishops and Salvatore Cordileone, the archbishop of San Francisco, said critics of the saint were making false claims that he was involved in the genocide of indigenous people.

“St. Serra made heroic sacrifices to protect the Indigenous people of California from their Spanish conquerors, especially the soldiers,” Cordileone said in a statement released in July. “Even with his infirmed leg which caused him such pain, he walked all the way to Mexico City to obtain special faculties of governance from the Viceroy of Spain in order to discipline the military who were abusing the Indians. And then he walked back to California.

“And lest there be any doubt, we have a physical reminder to this day: everywhere there is a presidio (soldiers’ barracks) associated with a mission in the chain of 21 missions that he founded, the presidio is miles away from the mission itself and the school. St. Junipero Serra also offered them the best thing he had: the knowledge and love of Jesus Christ, which he and his fellow Franciscan friars did through education, health care, and training in the agrarian arts, he added.