Fire at Historic Southern California Mission Sparks Sadness, and a Reckoning

A recent fire that badly damaged the Mission San Gabriel church in Southern California has brought to the surface 250-year-old sins of Spain and the Catholic Church — part of the complicated and often painful past woven into the fabric of the Golden State.

The charred rooftop of the 215-year old church at Mission San Gabriel in Southern California, damaged by a July 11 fire, is visible from the trellis lining the entrance to the mission’s courtyard. (Courthouse News photo / Martin Macias Jr.)

LOS ANGELES (CN) — Josh Andujo, a member of California’s indigenous Gabrielino-Tongva, regularly visits Mission San Gabriel Arcángel to burn sage in its tree-lined cemetery and to sing traditional prayers in its verdant courtyard. 

The elaborate bell tower of the fortress-like church, with its adobe walls five feet thick, hovers above a one-time colonial outpost that at its zenith stretched across 100,000 acres.

Andujo comes here with other members of his tribe to honor his ancestors who lived under often brutal conditions of the Spanish colonial program and whose remains are interred in a mass grave beneath the property.

The ceremonies at the 249-year old mission are a way for Andujo to commemorate the lives of his great-grandparents who are buried under the mission alongside an estimated 6,000 other indigenous people. 

“There’s lots of dark history there. We want to let our ancestors know we’re here,” Andujo said. “We go to the cemetery, we light our sage, we sing our songs. We work to keep the old traditions alive.”

When a fire tore through the 215-year old church at Mission San Gabriel in the early morning of July 11, Andujo and other people throughout the nation were shocked and bewildered.

But the flames also reanimated centuries-long critiques of Mission San Gabriel and the other structures that both shaped colonial-era California and brought harm to indigenous communities.

Complicated legacies

In this 1890 photograph, sunlight hits the bell tower and adobe walls of the south end of Mission San Gabriel. (Courtesy of California Historical Society Collection at the University of Southern California)

The mission — founded in 1771 in what is now the city of San Gabriel, north of Los Angeles — is one of California’s most iconic landmarks, part of a string of 21 Spanish missions that attract millions of visitors each year.

San Gabriel was the fourth colonial mission established by Spain to protect its interest in Alta California against the advances of Russian and British forces.

Established between 1769 and 1823, California’s missions — many of them accessible via Highway 101, dubbed el camino real, or the royal road — have shaped the state for centuries and have long been important spiritual nodes for Catholics in the region and beyond.

Part of what draws visitors to missions is the colonial-era style that inspired later California architecture, according to researcher Damian Bacich of California State University, San José.

“In a place like California, that tends to focus on the present, they harken back to the past, to historic religious buildings in Europe,” said Bacich, who also runs the California Frontier Project. “Unlike other historical monuments, they’re living communities where people still come together to worship.”

David Bolton, director of California Missions Foundation, said the Spanish mission system left its imprint on California’s politics and art, too.

Mission San Gabriel played a role in founding what is today the nation’s second largest city, when a group of mission residents departed the compound to establish the city of Los Angeles in 1781, Bolton noted.

The Stations of the Cross, painted by Native American artist Uriarte, are foundational works of art held at the Mission San Gabriel Museum. The pieces escaped the recent fire having been removed during renovations that had been ongoing.

Unfortunately, statues of Saint Gabriel the Archangel, Saint Francis of Assisi and others on the main altar of the church were damaged in the fire. Bolton, who received Spanish knighthood last year, said the damaged works demonstrate the importance of preserving the missions, presidios and other Spanish colonial structures.

In this 1900 photograph, wedding guests fill the pews for a ceremony inside the original church at Mission San Gabriel. (Courtesy of California Historical Society Collection at the University of Southern California)

But for California’s indigenous communities, Spain’s mission system also represents repression of language and culture, and enslavement under the colonial project of Spain and the Catholic Church. Bolton says the true intent of Spain’s missions has not yet been fully articulated in the public realm or understood in the context of their era.

“Spain left a big legacy here. They left a language, a culture,” Bolton said. “It did not want to wipe out native people. Yes, it wanted to force people to live as Spain intended, and to expand its empire and get access to resources here, but it didn’t do it with the intention of slaughtering people.”

But for California State University, Humboldt professor and California Hoopa Valley Tribe member Cutcha Risling Baldy, the history shared by the missions is a “sanitized” story of what was done to indigenous people.

“It’s a Disneyland experience,” Baldy said. “It’s a project of the church as a sort of homage to missions.”

Baldy said stories told by the missions don’t describe the smell of the crude, unsanitary barracks used to house Native women or how indigenous people were forced off their thriving lands and put to work in an agricultural system and vineyard that made massive profits for Spain.

So many Native people died from introduced diseases, malnutrition and being overworked that missionaries had to quickly bury the dead in unmarked graves, like the one under Mission San Gabriel. But indigenous people at the missions also resisted continuously.

“From the time after they first built the missions, Native people resisted what the missions were trying to do,” Baldy said. “They refused to work. They would do sit-ins or slowdowns.”

There were multiple rebellions at Mission San Gabriel, including one made famous by legendary Tongva medicine woman Toypurina over the church’s ban on Native ceremonies.

For Native people born at Mission San Gabriel, life expectancy was just 6.4 years, according to records analyzed by historian Nathan Masters at the University of Southern California. 

The records also show indigenous people who fled the missions were hunted as fugitives by the missionaries, who also practiced corporal punishment.

For Bacich, who has visited all 21 missions, it’s important to examine historical documentation from the Spanish colonial era to fully comprehend their legacy. Historical records, which Bacich says have not been fully studied, can also shed light on the “complexity” behind missionaries’ actions. 

“Rather than starting from slogans, rather than paint things with a brush of evil, it’s important to see the nuance of people and what they faced in their era,” Bacich said. “What does history actually say?”

A mission ablaze

A barrier surrounds the smoke-blackened adobe walls of the church at Mission San Gabriel in Southern California, days after an early morning fire destroyed its roof and damaged pews in its interior. (Courthouse News photo / Martin Macias Jr.)

Bolton was saddened by images of the burning church roof. 

“When a building like this goes up in flames, people should take a moment to learn more about its history, the culture and everything that these missions were,” Bolton said.

Andujo thought the fire might sweep away the work Tongva leaders have done with the mission to correct the narrative told about its history.

“We have been building relationships,” said Andujo. “We’re working to take out mission stuff from the museum and put in things from our culture. Now you can see our baskets, hats, jewelry.”

Displaying both pieces of Tongva culture and the tribe’s account of what was done to them at San Gabriel is an example of what the collaboration has produced, Andujo said.

“It’s a beautiful place for some people, but for others it’s a dark place,” Andujo said. 

Julia Bogany, a Tongva member and Andujo’s aunt, has also been working with the mission to share Tongva art and stories with elementary schools and college students. Parishioners and church leaders have also taken part in her history projects.  

Bogany said that when the mission burned, she felt as though a best friend’s home was on fire.

“I went into mourning mode,” Bogany said. “I’m not Catholic but I have been working with the mission for seven years and telling the truth about the things that happened there. I think my teaching has opened those doors for healing.”

Ring toss games, tools that developed Tongva children’s dexterity and objects used for mathematics were just some of the cultural items Bogany helped the mission museum display. It’s unclear if they were damaged in the fire.

“The things in the museum that are Tongva are things we make and if they got burned I can make another set,” Bogany said.

At least 80 firefighters from six San Gabriel Valley cities battled the flames that eventually destroyed the roof of the mission’s church and much of its interior.

No one was injured in the blaze, according to authorities who are investigating the wreckage to determine a cause of the fire. 

“Though a formal cause has not yet been determined, a preliminary investigation shows no immediate sign of arson,” the San Gabriel Fire Department said in a July 11 statement.

The LA Fire Department and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are assisting with the investigation, according to the San Gabriel Police Department.

Important, unanalyzed records of Mission San Gabriel’s Native community may have been lost in the fire too, said Baldy, adding that the incident shows why those records should be held by those tribes and not the church.

“We think of fire as a force of destruction, but some indigenous people say this is a cleansing moment, things are coming forward into being,” Baldy said.

“This is where I’ll be buried”

Outside the mission church last week, dozens of parishioners and other residents walked around the structure, inspecting the damage and offering prayer — and even donations — to aid its reconstruction.

Margaret Borjas of nearby El Monte has come to mass at the mission for 30 years.

“My daughter was married here. This is where I’ll be buried,” Borjas said. “It’s so devastating to see this.”

Irene Perez of Covina said her family has attended the church at Mission San Gabriel since she was a child.

“It’s devastating to us,” said Perez, who attended nearby San Gabriel Mission High School with her sisters.

Perez inspected a sign on the ground outside the church that read, “Tongva Land. Thank you Tongva relatives. May our fallen warriors rest in peace & power.” She said the sentiment resonated after she attended a mission-sponsored event that explained the treatment of native people at the hands of missionaries. 

Southern California resident Irene Perez stands outside the Mission San Gabriel church after a July 11 fire destroyed the roof of the parish her family has attended since she was a child. (Courthouse News photo / Martin Macias Jr.)

“There was violence. You can see the hurt when talking to Natives, which I have,” said Perez, who added her family has roots in indigenous tribes. “Their ancestors did go through that. Survivors of the [boarding schools] are still alive or their children have stories about those experiences.”

A mission museum docent who declined to share her name said the mission was vital in shaping Southern California. 

“LA is a world-class city and it may not have become what it is if not for this little mission,” the docent said. “But this beautiful mission wouldn’t be here if not for the Native people’s strength and character.”

But onlookers were also quick to speculate that arson, or even fireworks played a role in the fire.

“We know it was intentionally done,” Borjas said. “I can’t believe people are so cruel.”

Perez said, “I’m praying that this wasn’t arson. That would hurt even more.”

A man who declined to give his name said, “I hope they catch the animals who did this.”

Steps away from the blocked-off church, Terri Huerta, director of development and communication at the mission, said seeing damage from the fire affected her deeply.

“I just felt shocked,” Huerta said. “It was like someone had punched me in the stomach.”

Like other church members, Huerta’s family has marked important life events at the mission. Both her brother and daughter got married in the church and her children attend the elementary school attached to the mission.

Huerta said Mission San Gabriel was in the final stages of a three-year effort to renovate the church, which had been closed to the public since March in accordance with public health guidelines.

The church’s pews were damaged directly by the fire and the iconic reredos altar sustained water and smoke damage, Huerta said, adding the mission is accepting donations for repairs.

“We are focused on rebuilding,” Huerta said. “It’s a strong church tied into this city.”

A saint toppled

A statue of Junípero Serra, founder of multiple California missions including San Gabriel, was recently relocated from the front of the church and was not damaged in the fire, according to the mission.

Serra was formally elevated to sainthood by Pope Francis in 2015, calling him “the evangelizer of the West.” But the move sparked indignation among indigenous scholars who pointed to accounts of Serra ignoring abuse of Native women and his descriptions of Native people as primitive and superstitious in his writings.

John Molyneux, pastor at Mission San Gabriel, said in a statement the Serra statue was relocated after other Serra monuments were torn down by indigenous groups in LA and Sacramento or forced to be relocated in other cities.

“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,” Molyneux said. 

Both Bogany and Andujo said they were upset when they learned about the Serra statues being removed.

Andujo said he’s not aware that any of the other indigenous groups at the downtown LA event had asked Tongva for permission to perform a ceremony before the Serra statue was toppled.

“We can remove statues but it’s not going to change history,” Andujo said. “We have to be smart about it.”

Bogany said it would be better to place a plaque next to all Serra statues telling the true history of his actions.

“What are we teaching our next generation? That if we destroy something that’s how we work through things, instead of being empowered by stories of survival,” Bogany said. 

Bacich said the tearing down of the Serra statue represents a “unilateral” way of reckoning with the past.

“The complexity of mission history is what makes it interesting and that’s a hard thing to preserve in an era of political debate when each side wants to score a point,” Bacich said. 

The Archdiocese of Los Angeles, which owns the mission, declined an interview request but Archbishop José H. Gomez said in a statement the mission represents a cornerstone of the region’s Catholic tradition.

“The family of God was born in this region when St. Junípero Serra and his brother Franciscans established the mission on Sept. 8, 1771,” Gomez said. “Thankfully, the historic paintings, the Stations of the Cross, and other artifacts had been removed from the sanctuary as part of the renovations being done to prepare for the mission’s 250th anniversary next year.”

Standing alongside Molyneux at a livestreamed church service a day after the fire, Gomez asked parishioners to dig deep into their faith tradition.

“St. Junípero and the first Franciscan missionaries answered the Lord’s call and sacrificed everything to bring his word to this land,” said Gomez. “Now it is our turn to make sure his word is proclaimed to the next generation. We can’t harden our hearts or become distracted by the anxieties and temptations of the world.”

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