The good fortune of San Gabriel Mission fire
Discovery of painted walls, artifacts restored, chance to tell story

2021-04-28T15:04:46-07:00April 29th, 2021|California Diocese News|

Nine months after a mysterious fire ripped through Mission San Gabriel Arcangel, the historic church is still a mess.

The fire-blackened sanctuary walls hide behind layers of scaffolding. Pieces of peeling plaster remain. A temporary timber roof protects the 200-year-old interior from the elements, while a pair of scissor lifts shuffle around over the makeshift particle-board floors. Outside, contractors mill around the parish parking lot while the structure’s warped steel beams wait to be hauled away after being carefully unlodged over the course of weeks.

When the four-alarm fire struck in the predawn hours of July 11, 2020, destroying the mission’s roof and damaging most of its interior, mission officials and the local community were devastated.

But now, as the mission prepares for its 250th anniversary, silver linings from the fire perhaps more valuable than the millions of dollars in damage it caused are starting to emerge.

Behind those peeling layers of plaster, for example, workers have discovered painted walls with colorful designs that historians never knew existed. Beneath the sunken floors of the mission’s sacristy and tiny baptistery — crushed by the 150,000 gallons of water firefighters used to extinguish the blaze and save the mission from total destruction — previously unknown layers of old brick and slabs of stone mined from the San Gabriel Mountains have been unearthed.

Discoveries like these are handy tools to help historians understand the mission’s spotty past.

For Terri Huerta, the mission’s historical director, the hidden blessings of last summer’s fire are becoming clearer every day.

“Mission San Gabriel has kind of been a sleeping giant,” she explained during a recent visit to San Gabriel. “It’s been here, but no one’s really had the opportunity, like we do now, to tell its story….”

Telling the mission’s story has always been a challenge. The founding Spanish Franciscan missionaries were meticulous record-keepers — keeping track of everything from baptisms and weddings to crop yields — but after they were expelled in the 1830s, the newly privatized mission largely fell into decay under Mexican rule. Although it became a popular visitor attraction in the second half of the 1800s, its subsequent inhabitants did not always do a great job of keeping records….

While researchers have long thought the structure was built with adobe bricks, the blaze has revealed that the natives and missionaries who worked together to build the mission actually used fired brick and mortar.

Six wooden statues and a painting with a miraculous reputation damaged by the fire are in the process of professional restoration. The church’s original reredos and altar, which firefighters were able to save during the early morning firefight,  need to be cleaned and repainted.

UC Riverside historian Steven Hackell is the chairperson of the mission’s Museum Committee. By forcing the removal of all of its surviving artifacts from the mission, the fire means his team can now develop a full inventory of those items, which include paintings, sculptures, books, and even liturgical vestments — and decide how and where to best preserve them….

Huerta hopes that some of those decisions will be formed by an advisory panel with art experts from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art  and the Getty Museum to guide the repainting of the church’s interior….

The timeline for the restoration is still unfolding. Mission officials hope to have the new roof and ceiling fully installed by the time Archbishop Gomez celebrates the inaugural Mass for the jubilee year, slated for Sept. 11 (location still to be determined), and expect the mission to be “fully functional” by the end of the jubilee a year later….

The year will kick off on Sept. 8 with an opening prayer service at San Gabriel Mission, followed by 40 consecutive hours of eucharistic adoration at 22 parishes around the archdiocese designated as jubilee pilgrimage sites (one in each of the archdiocese’s 20 deaneries, plus St. Catherine of Alexandria on Catalina Island and La Placita near downtown LA).

An opening Mass for the jubilee will be held either at the mission or the cathedral on Saturday, Sept. 11, and a closing Mass on Sept. 10 of the following year.

In between, the archdiocese will be promoting “pilgrimage walks” between missions, parish retreats, a historical exhibit on the mission at the cathedral, and a curriculum on local church history and evangelization for use in Catholic schools.

For Huerta, the educational element of the jubilee year is especially important in the wake of recent attacks on statues of St. Junípero, Mission San Gabriel’s founder, fueled by narratives that depict the evangelization of California as an act of oppression.

“We have an opportunity to change the narrative,” said Huerta. One component of the mission’s renewal will be the creation and dedication of an outdoor sacred space on the mission grounds designed by local descendants of Tongva natives….

The above comes from an April 28 story by Pablo Kay in Angelus News.


  1. Kevin T April 29, 2021 at 12:24 pm - Reply

    Please nix the plans for the pagan “sacred” space.

    • Juan April 29, 2021 at 2:25 pm - Reply

      What could go wrong, right (lol)?

  2. Anonymous April 29, 2021 at 12:34 pm - Reply

    “Arcangel” ?? The correct spelling is “ArcHangel”. Did the author of the article, or the proofreader, pass the 2nd grade?

    • Admin April 29, 2021 at 1:23 pm - Reply

      The name is Spanish: Mission San Gabriel Arcángel.

    • Kris May 2, 2021 at 12:45 pm - Reply

      This comment is both ignorant and racist. It assumes that the white Anglo spelling of a word should be normative. The abrasiveness and condescension with which it was made betrays an attitude of white supremacy that looks down on anything non-white, even going so far as to assume that a Spanish word must be a misspelled English word. Talk about othering a whole culture.

  3. Clinton R. April 29, 2021 at 5:10 pm - Reply

    “We have an opportunity to change the narrative,” said Huerta. One component of the mission’s renewal will be the creation and dedication of an outdoor sacred space on the mission grounds designed by local descendants of Tongva natives….”

    I hope this is not so they can have pagan worship ala the Pachamama fiasco in the Vatican garden in 2019.

    • Anonymous April 29, 2021 at 6:40 pm - Reply

      A pagan worship garden would be a portal from Hell right in the middle of the Archdiocese.

      • Anne TE May 2, 2021 at 6:33 pm - Reply

        I pray that the Tongva sacred space is some kind of pathway and/or garden where all Catholics can go to say such prayers as the Our Father in the Tongva language, or the Chaplet to St. Kateri Tikawitha, the Holy Rosary, the Jesus Prayer and other Christian prayers. I have no problem walking around saying Christian prayers on such pathways, or in such gardens.

        I have no problem with sacred pathways such as the labyrinth in Chartres Cathedral as long as they are used for Christian prayer. They can be most beneficial and edifying when used properly.

      • Anne TE May 2, 2021 at 6:51 pm - Reply

        In fact it would be both holy and beautiful if Stations of the Cross were in that sacred space with titles in the Tongva languague. All Catholics could use them by bringing each his own prayer book in his own language and walking around the stations when there is no group prayer in that language. We have already Our Lady of Guadalupe who represents both Native Tribes and Europeans. We do not need “goddesses”. St. Juniper Serra would approve I am sure. Just a suggestion.

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