Just days after Pope Francis canonized 18th century California missionary Junipero Serra, his grave was defaced in an act of vandalism that is being investigated as a hate crime.
Vandals broke statues, splashed paint, and scrawled insults Saturday night at the Carmel Mission Basilica in Carmel, Ca., where Serra is buried. Serra, who brought Christianity to the region, became the first person to be named a saint on American soil Wednesday—a controversial decision by Francis considering what some say is Serra's history of enslaving and killing Native Americans.
Carmel Police Sgt. Luke Powell said the vandalism was being investigated as a hate crime. "The actual acts of vandalism specifically targeted statues and graves of Junipero Serra and other individuals of European descent," Powell told me. "The Native American grave sites were not damaged at all."
If the vandals had been more indiscriminate, Powell said, the incident would not be investigated as a hate crime.
I asked if it could still be a hate crime if the vandals had attacked specific graves not because of the race of the people buried there but because of their actions—"saint of genocide" was written on a nearby stone.
"We haven't focused our investigation on any specific intent right now—we're doing a broad-spectrum investigation," Powell said. "We do not leave out any possible details."
The damage was discovered at around 7 a.m. local time Sunday morning, the day of a planned celebration of Serra's canonization. Guests who expected to honor Serra ended up cleaning up the graveyard, washing graffiti off gravestones and picking up toppled statues.
One security guard was on site during the night. The graveyard does have security cameras, but police have not been able to review the footage yet, Powell said.
"Pray that the people [who] did this take responsibility for their actions on this sacred property and that they seek reconciliation," the Carmel Mission Basilica said in a Facebook post.
Serra joined the Spanish conquistadors who marched from Mexico to California in the mid-1700s, establishing nine missions in what is today California and baptizing thousands of Native Americans. The Spanish enslaved and killed natives and spread disease; scholars debate how involved Serra was in that violence.
"Being a saint doesn't mean a person is perfect," Father Paul Murphy, the basilica's pastor, told KSBW. "We all have our flaws, we all have our defects, and so it was with Serra."
Some Native American advocates, who have vigorously protested his canonization, say Francis' decision was like a slap in the face. Ron Andrade, Director of Los Angeles Native American Indian Commission, a government group that researches Native American issues, laughed out loud when he heard that the defacing was being investigated as a hate crime.
"I don't agree with what they did, but I don't condemn whoever did it," Andrade told me. "On the one hand, it's called vandalism, but on the other, it's called delayed anger."
He went on: "A lot of people, even though it's 200 years later, they're still living under the memory of what Serra did up there. It's a guy who came in, stole the land, butchered the religion, butchered the culture, and they erected a monument to him."
Casey Tolan is a National News Reporter for Fusion based in New York City.