A statue of the 18th century friar Junipero Serra was toppled and graves vandalized at the Carmel Mission in California, police said Sunday, just days after the missionary was canonized by Pope Francis.
The person or persons responsible struck Saturday night, damaging gravesites and signs and splashing green and white paint on doors, Carmel Police Sgt. Luke Powell told the Salinas Californian.
The Mission said a replica of Serra and other historic statues in the courtyard were knocked over. Photos posted on the Mission's Facebook page show someone wrote "Saint of Genocide" on a stone.
The canonization of Serra by Francis during his high-profile visit to the United States, which ended Sunday, was met with criticism from some due to the 18th century friar’s perceived complicity in Spain’s bloody conquest of what would become California. Critics cite abuses of Native Americans carried out under Serra’s watch.
Under Spain's mission system, Native Americans were forced to adopt Catholicism as well as the Spanish language and customs, while Serra himself endorsed the flogging and shackling of those who refused.
The vandalism appeared to be focused on the gravesites of interred Europeans, not those graves of Native Americans, Powell said. The defacing is being treated as a hate crime, Powell told the Los Angeles Times, because the vandals hit "specifically the headstones of people of European descent, and not Native American descent."
The Mission responded to the vandalism with a message posted on its Facebook page in which it called on supporters to “pray that the people [who] did this take responsibility for their actions on this sacred property and that they seek reconciliation.”
On Sunday afternoon, the Mission posted thanks to volunteers who helped clean up the facility.
“Let us remember that we live in a loving community and let us not be discouraged by such things. As St. Serra said, 'Always look forward, never back.'”
The vandalism took place on the eve of a ceremony at the Mission to commemorate Serra that was attended by about 1,000 people, said Erica Yanez, spokeswoman for the Diocese of Monterey on Sunday.
"By the 11 a.m. Mass the vandalism had been cleaned out by volunteers," Yanez said.
Serra introduced Christianity and established settlements as he marched north with Spanish conquistadores. In 1769, he established his first mission in San Diego. He would go on to found numerous additional missions, including San Francisco. The missions taught religion and farming.
But the missions also cut off Native Americans from their languages and cultures, forced those who converted to Christianity into labor and brought disease that led to the mass deaths of Indian populations.
Al Jazeera and the Associated Press