October 31, 2020

San Gabriel Mission Is Badly Damaged by Fire

A fire early on Saturday morning destroyed the roof and badly damaged the interior of San Gabriel Mission, a Catholic church in California that is more than 200 years old and considered to be the “birthplace” of the Los Angeles region.

The mission was founded in 1771 by the Franciscan fathers under the leadership of the Rev. Junipero Serra, a Spanish priest who helped colonize California. Construction of the church started in 1775 and ended in 1805, said Terri Huerta, director of development and communications at the mission.

Ms. Huerta said the fire broke out one day after $200,000 in renovations had been completed. The walls had just been painted and the pews, which are more than 110 years old, had been refurbished.

“For one day, it was beautiful,” Ms. Huerta said.

The mission, which had been closed because of the pandemic, planned to resume services next week. “It’s heartbreaking,” she said.

The fire was reported at about 4:25 a.m. and when firefighters arrived, they found the roof of the church engulfed in flames, said Jonathan Fu, spokesman for the city of San Gabriel, which is about 10 miles northeast of Los Angeles.

Fifty firefighters from surrounding communities responded to help fight the blaze, which took more than two hours to extinguish, Mr. Fu said.

The damage to the church was devastating, Capt. Antonio Negrete of the fire department said. The roof was “completely gone” and fire damaged nearly the entire interior of the church.

“It’s hit us pretty hard,” Captain Negrete said. “It’s our city identifier. We hold that place near and dear to our hearts.”

The church was empty when the fire started and no one was injured, he said.

ImageThe mission, which had been closed because of the pandemic, planned to resume services next week.
Credit…Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

Mr. Fu said the church is widely thought of as the “birthplace” of the Los Angeles region because of the “pobladores,” early settlers of California who walked nine miles from the mission to found what would become Los Angeles.

“This is an incredibly important, historic building not only for the community but for the region,” Mr. Fu said.

Saved were the hand-carved altar piece and a cast-iron lantern that dates to at least the early 1800s. Ms. Huerta said church members took solace that a valuable painting of Our Lady of Sorrows, which came from Spain with Father Serra, had been removed from the church during the renovations.

Fire officials said they were still investigating the cause of the blaze.

Pope Francis announced in 2015 that the Catholic Church planned to canonize Father Serra. The announcement was met with derision by Indian historians, who blame Father Serra for the suppression of Native American culture and the premature deaths at his missions of thousands of their ancestors.

Three years ago, someone tried to decapitate a statute of Father Serra but there have been no recent threats against the mission, Ms. Huerta said.

She was in the church Saturday afternoon, assessing the damage.

“I think we can fix it,” she said.