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By Jan Siegel

During my hiatus from writing for The Dispatch, a significant anniversary occurred in San Juan Capistrano. The statue of Fr. Serra and the Indian boy at the Mission celebrated its 100th anniversary.

When Fr. St. John O’Sullivan, the Great Mission Restorer, arrived in San Juan Capistrano in 1910, he knew very little about Fr. Serra. But he quickly became an admirer of all that Serra had accomplished. To honor him, O’Sullivan commissioned an artist to make a sculpture of Serra for the front of the Mission.

Jan Siegel
Jan Siegel

Tole Van Rensaalar was the sculptor that did the statue. There are no records as to what he was paid, so it was probably room, board and supplies. It took him three years to complete the sculpture, as O’Sullivan was always firing him because, according to local legend, Van Rensaalar was “addicted to the bottle.” He was a Los Angeles artist who came to San Juan Capistrano by train and stayed at the Mendelson Hotel.

The model for the Indian boy was Clarence Mendelson, the 9-year-old son of the hotel owner. Clarence was an altar boy at the Mission, and although he had no Indian characteristics, he had a good physique for the artist. He was depicted facing Serra, so facial features were not important.

Van Rensaalar had another problem. He could not find a picture of Serra, so with O’Sullivan constantly encouraging him to finish the sculpture, he used O’Sullivan’s face in place of Serra’s. At the time, no one thought that anything was strange about the two models for this statue. The statue was officially dedicated on Aug. 13, 1914.

Originally erected near the Mission Gate, the statue was moved several times over the years. Each time it suffered some damage. Weather and erosion also took its toll on the sculpture. In 1995, the Historical Society and private donors, along with the Mission Docent Society, commissioned sculptor Tom Gillenwater to refurbish and restore the Serra Statue. The statue was cleaned, missing pieces restored, cracks and chips filled and a preservative coating was added.

A statue of Fr. Serra and the Indian boy in Petra, Serra's hometown on the island of Mallorca. Photo: Courtesy Jan Siegel
A statue of Fr. Serra and the Indian boy in Petra, Serra’s hometown on the island of Mallorca. Photo: Courtesy Jan Siegel

We recently returned from a trip to Mallorca, Spain, and Serra’s hometown of Petra. In the village square in Petra, there are two statues of Serra. One was completed one year before our Mission statue and features the head of Serra. The other one is a replica of our Mission statue, but has Serra’s head, and the native Indian boy is a frontal representation. It was commissioned in 1988, when Serra was beatified by Pope John Paul II. This replica is also seen in the University courtyard in Palma, where Serra taught before coming to Mexico. The statues in Mallorca also have Serra holding a cross high above his head, whereas the statue at the Mission has him holding no cross.

During this holiday season, spend a ‘Moment in Time’ by visiting the Mission and viewing the statue of Fr. Serra, and reflect on our history and our legends. Perhaps it is fitting that our statue represents the builder and the restorer of the Mission.

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