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Fire damages San Gabriel Mission, one of 9 Missions founded by Father Junipero Serra

David Bolton of the California Missions Foundation reacts to San Gabriel mission fire
san gabriel mission fire 2
California Missions Foundation
The San Gabriel Mission went up in flames early Saturday morning. Firefighters are still investigating the cause.
David Bolton
Tracy Lehr / KEYT

SAN GABRIEL, Calif. — An early morning fire damaged the San Gabriel Mission that was undergoing renovations for its 250th anniversary celebration in 2021.

California Missions Foundation CEO David Bolton said, "I think the saddest thing about this mission is that so much was inside. It was a Junipero Serra Mission, so it had the Spanish connection, there was so much painting and artwork that was done by the Native Americans, the Native Californians, to see all of that go up in flames, it truly is a loss of all of our history in California."

Bolton said the Mission is linked to others along the coast.

"This is such a tragic event for all the missions. San Gabriel is such a significant historic site, the founders of Santa Barbara, and Ventura all came from San Gabriel, as did the settlers that settled pueblo Los Angeles."

Firefighters managed to save some of it.

"Luckily the fire that started in the choir loft made its way through the church, but did not reach the alter, " said Bolton.

Bolton said Patty West who is in Santa Barbara with South Coast fine arts worked tirelessly to help restore the inside the mission before the fire.

He said there was a big fire at Santa Clara Mission in 1926 and that other missions including San Gabriel have been damaged by earthquakes.

All the missions have wood roofs and the San Gabriel Mission did not have sprinklers.

"It didn't take long for the flames at San Gabriel to hit the roof and then the roof fell in."

These wood beams supporting the walls were too unstable to allow anyone inside following the fire.

"They need to go in and secure the walls with metal and iron to make sure it can stand.

Bolton does not suspect foul play related to the Father Serra controversy.

"All morning, people were thinking what could have caused this and with the Junipera Serra statue issue going on, that got into people's minds but nothing has been determined yet."

He hopes funds can be raised to repair the damage.

"Sometimes it takes a tragedy like this to get everyone together to realize these missions are everybody's stories"

Associated Press reports that the Fire alarms at the San Gabriel Mission rang around 4 a.m..

Firefighters saw smoke rising from the wooden rooftop, San Gabriel Fire Capt. Paul Negrete said.

They entered the church and tried to beat back the flames, but they had to retreat when roofing and other structural materials began to fall, Negrete said.

“We were trying to fight it from the inside, we weren’t able to because it became unsafe,” he said.

After evacuating the church, the crew was joined by up to 50 firefighters who tried to douse water on the 50-foot-high structure from ladder trucks, he said.

“The roof is completely gone,” the captain said. “The fire traversed the wood rapidly, the interior is pretty much destroyed up into the altar area.”

(Photo: California Missions Foundation)

The cause of the fire was under investigation, Negrete said.

The interior wall was redone a week ago and crews had just finished installing the pews as part of a larger renovation of the property to mark the anniversary of the founding of the mission in 1771, said Terri Huerta, a spokeswoman for San Gabriel Mission.

She said the firefighters’ aggressive stance and “a little bit of a miracle” kept the flames from reaching the altar.

The church had been preparing to reopen next weekend following a four-month closure to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

Selena Casada, 26, was in tears when she drove to the mission after she heard about the fire. She said she grew up in the parish and attended the elementary school on the church’s grounds.

“I was baptized here, I had my first communion here ... I was getting ready to get married here next year so this hurts,” Casada said. “It’s just really sad to see such a historic place burned down because this place means a lot to us.”

The church, built of stone, brick and mortar, originally had a vaulted ceiling that was damaged by two earthquakes in the early 1800s, she said. Franciscan fathers replaced the ceiling with a wood-paneled ceiling and the roof was last repaired following some damage caused by the 1994 Northridge earthquake, Huerta said.

The church was the fourth of a string of missions established across California by the Franciscan priest, Junipero Serra. The Roman Catholic priest forced Native Americans to stay at those missions after they were converted or face brutal punishment.

Statues of him in San Francisco and Sacramento were toppled by demonstrators during the recent protests focusing on the rights and historical struggle of Black and Indigenous people.

In response to the toppling of Serra’s statues, the San Gabriel Mission said it moved a bronze statue of Serra from the church entrance to “a more appropriate location, out of public view” without specifying where.

“Whereas the California Catholic Conference of Bishops reminds us that the historical truth is that St. Serra repeatedly pressed the Spanish authorities for better treatment of the Native American community, we recognize and understand that for some he has become a symbol of the dehumanization of the Native American community,” said the church’s pastor, Father John Molyneux, said in a statement.

Article Topic Follows: Santa Barbara - South County

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Tracy Lehr

Tracy Lehr is a reporter and the weekend anchor for News Channel 3-12. To learn more about Tracy, click here

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