St. Junípero Serra’s Mission San Gabriel Reopens With New Story to Tell
Our Lady of Sorrows painting repaired as part of restoration, which includes new exhibit honoring Indigenous community.
Mission San Gabriel Arcángel, the fourth of California’s 21 Franciscan missions, has reopened to the public after an arson fire destroyed the roof and much of the interior of its historic church three years ago.
Along with the reopening of the restored church, the mission has also opened a new exhibit, “Mission San Gabriel Arcángel, 1771-1900: Natives, Missionaries, and the Birth of Catholicism in Los Angeles,” to tell the mission’s story to visitors.
The reopening kicked off with a blessing by Los Angeles Archbishop José Gomez with representatives of the Gabrieleno/Tongva San Gabriel Band of Mission Indians, for whose ancestors St. Junípero Serra and his fellow Franciscan padres established the mission 252 years ago to introduce them to the Catholic faith and the Spanish way of life, including agriculture, raising livestock and the construction of permanent living facilities (often made of adobe in 18th-century Southern California).
Mission San Gabriel was founded by Father Serra in 1771 and relocated to its present site in 1775. Its historic church was made of stone, brick and mortar between 1791 and 1805, making it one of the state’s oldest structures. Many of its interior items, including its altar and statues, were built in Mexico and Spain. Some artifacts, including 17th-century vestments, predate Mission San Gabriel.
California was a Spanish possession at the time of the mission’s founding; then it fell under Mexican rule, after Mexico won its independence from Spain in 1821. In the decades that followed, the missions were “secularized,” or sold off to private parties, then restored to the Church by the American government after California became a U.S. state in 1850.
Some missions fell into disrepair and largely eroded in the 1800s, while others, including Mission San Gabriel, are well-preserved.
Up in Flames
In the early morning hours of July 11, 2020, the mission church went up in flames. Claretian Father John Molyneux, pastor of Mission San Gabriel since 2018, was the first to encounter the blaze at 4:30am.
“The alarm and strobe lights went off. I ran into the church in shorts and a T-shirt to see what was going on, and I smelled smoke,” he recalled to the Register. “I looked up and saw the choir loft in flames.”
More than 80 firemen from seven cities responded to the alarm. The parish community was devastated, Father Molyneux recalled: “It was like a death. I remember one man who came up to me and said, ‘I was married in that church.’”
Steven Hackel, a history professor at the University of Riverside, has helped the Mission San Gabriel with preservation efforts. He received a phone call about the mission fire that fateful morning of July 11 and recalled, “I was in a state of disbelief. This was the time of the George Floyd social protest, criticism of Father Serra and the missions and the tearing down of Father Serra’s statues, so I wondered if the fire was a political act.”
But investigators discovered that the fire was caused by arson. John David Corey was arrested the following day, after attempting to start an arson fire at a San Gabriel shoe repair shop and was linked to the mission fire. He has been charged and imprisoned since the arrest, Father Molyneux reported, and is due to soon stand trial. The priest believes Corey’s motive was related to mental health issues, however, and was not a political statement.
The mission campus was closed as a result of the fire, and Hackel joined with other mission officials to assess the damage.
The roof was “incinerated,” he recalled, as were the church’s recently refurbished pews. The altar and retablo (decorative altar piece) were not burned, but along with other surviving aspects of the church, suffered the effects of smoke and water.
While repair efforts began on the church, Hackel worked alongside a team of collaborators in the following months, including associate curator Yve Chavez, a member of the Gabrieleno/Tongva San Gabriel Band of Mission Indians and assistant professor of art history at the University of Oklahoma, to design a new exhibit.
Hackel explained, “The previous focus of the museum was on the missionaries and the building of the missions, as well as the subsequent ruin of the missions. The Native presence was absent. The new exhibit puts the Native American history of the mission front and center.”
Features of the exhibit include a list of 7,054 Indigenous who were baptized at Mission San Gabriel between 1771 and 1848. Also included are three Native baskets, a map showing the origins of the mission’s Indians, exhibits show the daily life of those who lived at the mission and information about how disease claimed the lives of many of the residents. There is also an exhibit depicting a 1785 rebellion at the mission, with an audio component recorded by voice actors explaining the conflict.
Also on display are a 1775 confessional, religious paintings created in the 17th and 18th centuries, letters by Father Serra explaining his motivation for founding the missions and a 19th-century Stations of the Cross. One treasured artifact is a 1770s silk-beaded, rose-colored chasuble woven in China and designed in Mexico. It was likely worn for Mass by Father Serra himself.
“I hope visitors will come away with a great appreciation for the lives of the Natives who lived here, why the missionaries came and what life was like at the mission,” Hackel said.
The restoration and exhibit was funded from a variety of sources, including a $30,000 grant from the California Catholic Conference, which represents the state’s bishops, from funds left over from Serra’s cause for canonization and a $25,000 grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
Our Lady of Sorrows
One piece of artwork that was initially thought destroyed in the fire, Father Molyneux said, was a painting of Our Lady of Sorrows that hung above the baptistery.
On Sept. 15, the feast of Our Lady of Sorrows, as rubble was being cleared, the painting was found — with only minor damage. It has since been repaired and is once again on the baptistery wall. As the pastor put it, “To me, it demonstrated that Our Lady is watching over us.”
Father Molyneux continued, “I like to talk about this fire in terms of crisis and opportunity. The crisis was the fire, but it gave us the opportunity to come back better and stronger. We’re ‘open for business’ at the mission, and we’re pleased to see the people coming back.”