An investigation into a statue and a claim that Junípero Serra once traveled to Havana
By Jan Siegel
Throughout the years I have often pointed out that many historical facts have a San Juan Capistrano connection. And once again, on a recent trip to Cuba, this adage proved to be true.
Old Havana is surrounded by four plazas, one of which is called Plaza de San Francisco. Right in front of the former church, which is now used as a concert hall, is a statue of Fr. Junípero Serra. But it’s not just any statue—it’s a copy of the statue that is in the Franciscan Plaza in Palma, Mallorca, which is a copy of the statue that was commissioned by Fr. St. John O’Sullivan for our own Mission San Juan Capistrano. The statue in Havana, like the statue in Palma, differs from the one at Mission San Juan. At the Mission, the Juaneño boy is facing Fr. Serra, whereas the other two feature the Juaneño boy facing front.
According to our Havana tour guide, the statue was placed in the plaza to commemorate the landing of Fr. Serra in Cuba. This immediately piqued my interest—and I wasn’t the only one. Our entire tour group was made up of Californians, including several people from San Diego, and we all told the tour guide that his information was incorrect. Serra was never in Cuba. However, my curiosity was sparked, and I wanted to find out how and why the statue came to Cuba.
If Serra had been to Havana, either he or his biographer, Father Palou, would have recorded it, because in the 18th century, Havana had a strong Franciscan foothold in the New World. The convent in this plaza was a focal point from the time that it was built in 1591. Another part of this plaza was the church and monastery, which was built in 1719 and was remodeled in 1730. The pride of this structure was the 125-foot bell tower, one of the highest in the Americas. Atop the bell tower was a statue of St. Francis. This plaza was the welcoming port for incoming ships, and the first thing that the sailors saw was the St. Francis statue. In 1846, the statue was toppled during a devastating hurricane, and no other statue was ever placed in the plaza. If Serra had stopped here on his way to Veracruz, it would have been noteworthy.
Several Serra scholars through the years have tried to place Serra in Cuba and even in South Florida, but they were never able to find any information to back up such a claim.
The sculptor of the Palma, Mallorca statue was Horacio de Eugia, who made Mallorca his home. He was commissioned to create a statue of Fr. Serra in commemoration of Serra’s 250th birth year in 1963. The statue was not completed until 1965, and Eugia died in 1991. But the foundry which struck the statue held onto the mold.
Iberostar is an international hotel chain based in Mallorca, the birthplace of Junípero Serra. In the fall of 2004, Iberostar opened the first five-star hotel in Havana, Cuba. By that time, travel to Cuba was becoming popular for Europeans, Asians and South Americans.
Iberostar also operates a charitable foundation, a travel agency and offers tours of Mallorca. On April 29, 2005, a replica of Eugia’s Serra statue was donated to Plaza de San Francisco in Havana by the Iberostar foundation. On the web page of Mallorca Private Tours, it states: “This sculpture commemorates the visit of Father Junípero Serra to Cuba (in the) middle of the eighteenth century to the Franciscan convent of Havana.”
I contacted the tour company to see if they could come up with any citations that would place Serra in Cuba. The company web page lists all of their docents and their language skills. One docent described herself as being strong in English, so I contacted her. As luck would have it, she was raised in Southern California and had recently moved to Mallorca. She found articles for me in both Spanish and Catalan and even translated them for me. She could not have been more helpful. That being said, all she could find was one article with a reference to Serra’s travel, which states: “He left Spain in August of 1749, arrived in Puerto Rico in October and in Veracruz, Mexico on December 7 after various stops.”
Apparently, Iberostar took some liberties and interpreted the phrase “after various stops” to mean that Serra stopped in Havana, Cuba—all so they could place the statue of “our most international Franciscan” in the plaza.
However, the distance between these ports does not make that assumption realistic. The distances between Puerto Rico and Havana, Cuba and Veracruz would have extended the voyage by over 500 miles. Since we also know the dates that Serra was in Puerto Rico and the date he landed in Veracruz, it would not have been possible to cover the additional mileage in that length of time on a sailing ship that used trade winds for navigation.
Iberostar is very proud of its Mallorcan heritage, but it took a big leap of faith to place Serra in Cuba. Whether or not Serra was ever in Cuba does not diminish the importance of this statue in Havana. Serra is certainly a universally known Franciscan, and with his recent elevation to sainthood, having him in Plaza de San Francisco makes perfect sense. I would hope that docents everywhere would simply stick to the facts; they are amazing enough.
For us, this is just another example of the far-reaching effect of our community. I’m sure Fr. O’Sullivan would be surprised to find his statue sitting in a plaza in Havana. You can spend a “Moment in Time” and visit the statue of Junípero Serra and the Juaneño boy at the Mission San Juan Capistrano any time you want and reflect on the impact this small community has had in the world.
Jan Siegel is a 28-year resident of San Juan Capistrano. She served on the city’s Cultural Heritage Commission for 13 years and has been a volunteer guide for the San Juan Capistrano Friends of the Library’s architectural walking tour for 18 years. She was named Woman of the Year by the Chamber of Commerce in 2005, Volunteer of the Year in 2011 and was inducted into the city’s Wall of Recognition in 2007.