On Columbus Day, a 25-year old statue of the holiday’s namesake found a new home on the campus of Thomas Aquinas College.
“We are pleased to place this statue of Christopher Columbus on our academic quadrangle,” said President Michael F. McLean. “And we are grateful to College Governor Robert Barbera for giving it to us.”
To mark the occasion, Head Chaplain Rev. Paul Raftery, O.P., offered a morning Mass for the Evangelization of Peoples in Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity Chapel. Immediately afterward, he led the congregation to the north side of the quadrangle, where he blessed the statue with holy water, giving “thanks for this man of faith, and the instrument he was in spreading the Catholic religion and civilization.”
The history of the Columbus statue dates back to 1992, the quincentennial of the explorer’s first voyage to the New World. At the time, Mr. Barbera and other Italian-Americans formed a group called the Columbus 500 Congress, which presented the statue as a gift to Pepperdine University, where it stood for the next 25 years. By 2017, however, Columbus had fallen into political disfavor and, in response to student opposition, the university removed the statue and placed it in storage — a decision that disappointed Mr. Barbera.
A proud Italian-American, Mr. Barbera is the founder, most recently, of The Mentoris Project, which publishes books chronicling the contributions of Italians to Western civilization. He did not want to see the legacy of Christopher Columbus discarded by an approach to history that lacks “an understanding of the times or the progress that we have made.” So he intervened to retrieve the statue, and ultimately chose to give it to Thomas Aquinas College.
“Mr. Barbera’s statue needed a worthy home, and we are happy to provide one,” says Dr. McLean. “Columbus was both a great explorer and devoted to the Catholic faith. So we placed his statue next to the Albertus Magnus Science Building (that’s the explorer part), and it points toward the Chapel (that’s the Catholic faith part).” Notably, the statue shares the campus with two other key figures in the evangelization of the New World: St. Junipero Serra, whose statue stands before the residential hall bearing his name, and Our Lady of Guadalupe, whose image appears on the fountain at the foot of the quadrangle, opposite the Chapel.
At a luncheon following the blessing ceremony, Dr. McLean explained that, whatever Columbus’ shortcomings, his accomplishments merit celebration. “We honor Columbus for his achievements, just as we at Thomas Aquinas College honor the authors of the great books, or the composers of great music, for their achievements,” he said. “Opening the New World, and opening a way for the Gospel, were works of Columbus and also works of God. These are great works, indeed, and Columbus is great for having done them.”
Dr. McLean also cited the words of Pope Leo XIII, who said of Columbus:
… to him far before all human considerations was the consideration of his ancient faith, which without question endowed him with strength of mind and will, and often strengthened and consoled him in the midst of the greatest difficulties. This view and aim is known to have possessed his mind above all; namely, to open a way for the Gospel over new lands and seas.
The Columbus statue will be the centerpiece of a new garden, currently under development, which will feature a walkway and pergola. “Only a college like this college, which understands history, which reads the books of the past as very instructive to what we should be and how we should be,” would be a fitting place for the statue to reside, said Mr. Barbera. “It has a home now, and that is a tribute to the College.”