A Tale of Two Churches

In a year filled with craziness across the United States and the formerly Christian world, two things in particular—apparently unrelated—have hit me especially hard: the burning of Mission San Gabriel in the eponymous town in Southern California, and the retrogression in status of Constantinople’s Hagia Sophia from museum to mosque. Of course, there were other things to consider, such as the arson in Nantes Cathedral and at the United Daughters of the Confederacy Headquarters in Richmond, Virginia, the attacks on statues of figures as diverse as Cecil Rhodes in Cape Town and Haile Selassie in London, as well as now-perennial favorites Christopher Columbus and Saint Junípero Serra, to say nothing of Saint Louis, Missouri’s saintly and royal namesake. Despite the wide variety of persons, places, and things, I maintain that the unrelation is only apparent, even if the ties that bind them together reside only in the dim collective unconsciousness of those who have perpetrated the assaults.

Let’s look at the first two, starting with San Gabriel Mission, and by extension, the Saint Junípero Serra statues. For the sake of full disclosure, I live near the Mission and have visited it countless times. It was the first Catholic church in the L.A. area, where the initial settlers of Los Angeles stopped to rest in 1781 before getting on with the business of city founding. It is arguably the holiest spot we have in my part of the world. Whether or not it was arson that claimed the venerable pile, the former would not be surprising given the atmosphere of anti-Serra hatred that is engulfing the state he founded. By any stretch of the imagination, the holy friar’s achievements were amazing even to the mid-19th-century Protestants and secularists who guided the Golden State after it was seized from Mexico—hence his statues’ location on public land and the U.S. Capitol. The mobs, on the other hand, hate not only Saint Junípero but his nationality and religion.

Even more interesting have been the reactions of their enablers in local government and business. When the city fathers of Ventura voted to take down the statue of the saint in front of the City Hall which has been an icon of Perry Mason’s birthplace since that fictional sleuth was born, the councilperson who oversaw the nocturnal dismantling—it was 3:00 am—is an ordained Catholic deacon. Most telling of all were the remarks of Bob Cullen, CEO of Skyline Crane Rental, which is the outfit the city farmed out their dirty work to. Despite the late hour of the deed, a small group of Catholics had arrived to protest. When Mr. Cullen showed up with the cranes, one of these Catholics told him that his business might suffer as a result of his participation. Before his hands-on pulling down of the statue, he airily replied that “he was glad to be part of the movement and that those people who opposed the removals are the minority and not in charge anymore.”

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Wondering who this cavalier gentleman might be, I looked up the website of Skyline Crane Rental, and was confronted with Mr. Cullen’s laudatory biography: “Bob Cullen was born and raised in Southern California, graduated from Chatsworth High School, and studied transportation at Cal-State Northridge. Following that, Bob spent 8 years as west coast sales manager at BMX Products / Mongoose Bicycles. Bob began working in crane rental in 1984 and was instrumental in company growth. Bob has over 30 years of experience with crane rental operations, management, and field engineering.” As a Northridge alum myself, I was not very pleased. But the fact that such a corporate drone would be a willing tool of “the movement” was even more discouraging. He reminded me a bit of Larry Crockett, the feckless real estate man in Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot, whose greed opens the door for the vampirization of his town. One can only hope, for Mr. Cullen’s sake, that he is never ruled by those whom he seeks to serve.

Half a world away, Turkish president Erdogan has once again turned Hagia Sophia into a mosque. Now, annoying as this is, the action has even more significance than might be readily apparent, other than an Islamist cocking a snook at the ineffectual Western countries, consumed as they are with their own stupidities. Hagia Sophia was, of course, first turned into a mosque in the wake of the fall of Constantinople to the Turks, in the course of which defeat Blessed Constantine XI, the last Byzantine Emperor, was killed. It was the chief mosque of the Ottoman Sultans, just as it had been the chief church of their predecessors. When Kemal Atatürk came to power after World War I, he was resolved—although a Turkish nationalist—to turn his country into a modern, secular state. He banned women’s veils and men’s fezzes, abolished the Sufi orders, and, having deposed the last sultan in 1922, did away with the caliphate two years later. Having exchanged his Christian subjects in Asia Minor for Greece’s Muslims, the crowning achievement of his secularization campaign was to turn Hagia Sophia into a museum. Down through the years, the Turkish military have been the primary guardians of Atatürk’s legacy. Whenever a president has been too leftist or too Islamist, the military have ejected him from power. But when they attempted their usual strategy with Erdogan in 2016, he triumphed. The great former cathedral’s fate was sealed then, with the last effective maintainers of Kemalism being bundled off to jail.

Erdogan is not, however, a stupid man. Turning Hagia Sophia into a mosque no doubt made both him and his followers feel wonderful on many different levels. But there is also the cold hard reality that Hagia Sophia is a huge draw for tourists. Therefore, outside of prayer times (when the gorgeous-but-offensive-to-Islam mosaics of Our Lady and Saint Gabriel in the apse shall be veiled from the eyes of the faithful) the infidels shall still be allowed to pay for the privilege of entering the former cathedral and gazing in awe at the handiwork of better men. It would be well to remember that when it fell to the Turks, Hagia Sophia was a Catholic church; the last Liturgy served in it included prayers for the pope, and the heroic emperor who died defending it is revered as a Blessed by the handful of Byzantine Catholics remaining in the old Imperial City (and thus may be so honored by the rest of us).

The assaults on these two very different Catholic churches—despite the innumerable differences between them, in terms of both victims and perpetrators, I have no doubt that Erdogan and his followers would clean Antifa’s clocks, and one can only imagine what they would do with the flexible Mr. Cullen—represent assaults on our tottering post-Christendom’s western and eastern edges. In both cases, these sustained attacks have only been possible because our governing class, which is made up of people who are weak, faithless, and ultimately doomed, is showing a lack of purpose (or outright sympathy) in dealing with the destroyers.

All of which leaves us with what? Turkey, obviously, is on her own tangent; rescuing Hagia Sophia would mean a new crusade, and we can imagine, with our current leadership in the Church and the state, how far that would go. But what of the Missions, the statues of Saint Junípero Serra and Columbus, and the ongoing ignorant iconoclasm? We may be in a position to affect that. Canceling and doxing are the weapons of choice in those areas of our ideological battlefield not dominated by mobs. Perhaps it is time that the public officials and businessmen who are in the vanguard of this destruction find out what it is like being on the receiving end—within the law, of course. Certainly, voting against or boycotting the businesses of those public and private sector quislings who tolerate or abet the iconoclasm should be obvious moves.

But even more important is for us to realize that all remnants of Christendom are under attack throughout the West, and it’s not just statues or churches. The target is every external expression of Christianity throughout its former homeland, the West. We must realize moreover that the West consists of all of Europe, the Americas, Australasia, Russia, and pockets elsewhere, and that all who fight for any fragment of our inheritance—be it a church here or an historic house there or a time-hallowed custom somewhere else—are engaged in the same struggle as ourselves.


  • Charles Coulombe

    Charles A. Coulombe is a contributing editor at Crisis and the magazine’s European correspondent. He previously served as a columnist for the Catholic Herald of London and a film critic for the National Catholic Register. A celebrated historian, his books include Puritan’s Empire and Star-Spangled Crown. He resides in Vienna, Austria and Los Angeles, California.

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