October 3, 2022

Historic church destroyed by suspected arson

A fire destroyed much of the famous California mission church, San Gabriel on July 11, 2020. Arson is suspected and the cause of the fire is being investigated.

The fire started in the loft of the building and destroyed the roof and some of the interior, but firefighters were able to save the original hand-carved altar. The adobe structure remains intact.

The mission was established in California in 1771 by Junipero Serra, a Franciscan missionary long before our nation was founded.ย The mission is located between Pasadena and Los Angeles in Southern California. It is one of a string of 21 missions established by the Roman Catholic Church between 1769 and 1833, long before California became a part of the United States of America. The missions were built about 30 miles apart from San Diego in the south along the coast to San Francisco and then inland to Sonoma in Northern California.

You don’t have to be Catholic to value the importance of the San Gabriel mission in our history.

In the recent unrest in California and the nation, Junipero Serra, a controversial figure, is being attacked and a statue of him was defaced and toppled in San Francisco. The controversy revolves around Serra’s treatment of Native Americans in California, some saying he protected them from Spanish colonists, others saying he abused them, among other things. It’s possible both are true.

The California Mission system served at least two purposes. The first was religious as Spain wanted to spread the Roman Catholic religion throughout its colonies. The second was strategic. Spain wanted to discourage the English and the Russians from trying to colonize California, or Alta California as it was called in the 18th century. So, they designed the mission system to achieve those goals.

Rather than import Spanish colonists to do the work, the friars recruited Native Americans, who largely built the missions and maintained them. They were trained in agricultural practices and skilled trades as the missions strove to be self-sufficient. The rancheria system then spread out from the missions. The missions also provided protection during times of unrest.

In spite of the disagreement on whether the missions were good or bad, they did preserve the history that we would otherwise be without. Ironically, the most detailed account we have of 18th and early 19th century Native American life in California was written in response to a request from the Spanish governor by a Franciscan missionary, Friar Geronimo Boscana, titled Chinigchinich.

San Gabriel is a historical landmark and a fully functioning church in the heart of the Los Angeles metropolis, welcoming both guests in to learn about the early history of California and weekly worshippers. Controversial or not, the missions preserve history, enabling visitors to go back in time to a world mostly forgotten in service of progress.


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