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Converting Students Into Fans of Father Serra

Philanthropy: Man donates bronze statue of missionary to Encino school. About 70 such likenesses have been given.


ENCINO — William Hannon wants California's schoolchildren to remember an important figure in their state's history. So to help them out he's put up some permanent reminders.

About 70 of them.

The South Bay businessman and philanthropist has donated statues of the legendary 18th century missionary and pioneer Father Junipero Serra to missions and schools up and down the state.

On Friday, Hannon was at it again as he presented the bronze likeness of Serra to more than 100 uniformed youngsters who assembled in the brick, sun-bathed courtyard at Our Lady of Grace parish in Encino.

"I like to put [the statues] where the schoolchildren can see them and touch them every day," Hannon said at the 20-minute dedication ceremony.

"In Asia, people rub the belly of Buddha for good luck. In Ireland, they kiss the Blarney stone. In California, they will rub Father Serra's feet."

Hannon figures the momentary foot massage is just the gimmick needed to humanize the famous missionary, who came to California in 1769 from Spain via Mexico and is credited with founding nine missions from San Diego to San Francisco, including the San Fernando Mission.

The missions to convert the Indians served not only as the backbone of early Catholicism in the state but often also as seeds around which towns and cities sprang up. In recent years, Serra has attracted critics as well as fans, notably Native American organizations that accuse him of being an accomplice in the Spanish colonization that crushed the native culture.

Hannon's fascination with the Franciscan friar began in the 1920s when, as a youngster, his parents took him on a tour of the missions in the family's Studebaker.

"All the things he did should be enough to make him a saint," said Sarah Beth Miranda, a fourth-grader at Our Lady of Grace School who was chosen to speak about Serra's life before her classmates.

Hannon concurs.

He has spent more than $3 million on the statues and also is waging a personal campaign to have Serra canonized--declared a saint--by the Roman Catholic Church.

Serra, a candidate for sainthood since the 1930s, must perform a second miracle to qualify for sainthood, church officials have said. They already credit him with one performed in St. Louis.

Hannon, a 1937 graduate of Loyola Marymount University and one of the first developers of Westchester and Playa del Rey, donated his first statue five years ago.

In addition to the statue at the Encino parish, Hannon has dedicated seven others in the San Fernando Valley, including those at the San Fernando Mission, Santa Rosa Catholic School and St. Ferdinand's School in San Fernando, Providence High School in Burbank, St. Genevieve's School in Panorama City, St. Didacus in Sylmar and St. Bernadine Church and School in Woodland Hills.

Serra picked out sites with fertile ground, water, shelter from the wind and a supply of timber, Hannon said.

"I supposed he also liked the weather," Hannon said.

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