LOS ANGELES — Fire broke out in the early morning hours of July 11 at Mission San Gabriel Archangel in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, destroying the roof of the historic structure and doing major damage to its walls and recently-refurbished pews. The cause of the fire is currently under investigation by the local police and fire departments, although as the church fire occurred amid the backdrop of assaults on religious images and even churches across the U.S., some fear arson is a possibility. The fire was reported at 4:30am, and although the fire department quickly extinguished it, significant damage was done to the structure and its contents.
“It has been a big shock for the whole community, as Mission San Gabriel is both a landmark and an icon,” said Terri Huerta, the mission’s director of development and communications. “We are stewards of this beautiful church and to watch it go up in flames has been a major blow. We’re in mourning.”
As with many of the missions, Mission San Gabriel’s roof was not original, but was installed in 1991. Fortunately, many artifacts had been removed, as the church has been undergoing a renovation in preparation for the mission’s 250th anniversary celebration in 2021. The church’s most significant artifacts — its altar and the statues nearby it — sustained modest smoke and water damage. The walls, which had been recently painted, had more significant damage. Mission officials are currently not permitted to enter the church to fully assess the destruction, as city officials are conducting their investigation into the cause of the fire and will not yet allow staff to enter.
Huerta noted, however, “We were able to have a structural engineer come and perform a preliminary assessment, and he’s confident we can put a new roof back on.”
On hand to survey the damage was Los Angeles Auxiliary Bishop David O’Connell of the San Gabriel Pastoral Region of the archdiocese.
Founded by St. Junípero Serra
Mission San Gabriel was founded in 1771 by St. Junípero Serra, the fourth of 21 California missions established by Spanish Franciscans. Its purpose was to introduce the local Indians to the Catholic faith, improve their standard of living and make them citizens of New Spain. The missions were located approximately a day’s walk apart and were founded on sites that had arable land, a source of water and a large Native population nearby.
Mission San Gabriel was first founded near the present-day city of Montebello, about 5 miles from its current site, but was relocated in 1775, as there were concerns about earthquakes and flooding at the original site. Construction began shortly after the second site was established.
The San Gabriel Mission was notable for its economic success. The site was located near multiple waterways, which facilitated the growing of crops and raising of livestock, and was ideally located for trade. In the years before the missions were “secularized,” or sold to private parties, in 1834, it was among the most affluent of the missions.
The old mission church itself was built between 1791 and 1805. It is built of cut stone, brick and mortar, and is one of the oldest buildings in California. The main altar was built in Mexico in the 1790s, and its statues came from Spain. Its six wooden statues were brought in 1791. They, along with the reredos (altarpiece), were restored after a 1987 earthquake. The church’s walls and floors are original.
Other significant features of the mission include its cemetery, which dates to 1778, making it the oldest cemetery in Los Angeles County. Among the most notable people buried at the mission is Claretian Father Aloysius Ellacuria (1905-81), who had a reputation as a miracle worker. Although the mission was established by Spanish Franciscans, since 1908 it has been staffed by Claretian priests.
Also notable is the mission’s museum building, an adobe structure built in 1812. Mission artifacts include vestments dating to the 17th century, books dating back to 1489 and a Spanish bedroom set dating back to 1623.
In addition to the historic mission church, there is a newer Chapel of the Annunciation, located on the other side of the historic grounds. In pre-pandemic days, visitors could attend Mass in the historic church or the newer church and tour the grounds for a modest fee.
In the years after Mexico won its independence from Spain in 1821, the missions were secularized, and the Spanish padres and Indians were forced to leave. After California became a U.S. state in 1850, the mission sites were returned to the Church (although not the vast lands surrounding them), and priests and local people returned to the missions. Many had fallen into disrepair, but by the end of the 19th century, preservationists went to work saving the old missions. Today, Mission San Gabriel is one of the best preserved of the California missions.
‘Purification and Renewal’
Immediately after the fire, Los Angeles Archbishop José Gomez was on hand to survey the damage and speak to the church staff and fire officials. In a statement, he said, “We can’t give in to this sadness. We need to make this a moment for purification and renewal of our mission — renewal of Mission San Gabriel and renewal of the mission that is each one of our lives.”
Jim Graves writes from Newport Beach, California.
HOW YOU CAN HELP
A Fire Restoration Fund has been established to repair the San Gabriel mission church. To make a donation, click here.