It wasn’t the most tragic event the community endured during 2020 — the ravages of Covid-19 claimed that title. Nor was it the most disturbing — civil unrest, racial strife, and division over electoral politics had already tangibly frayed souls. More attention was drawn by the fire three months earlier and over 5,000 miles away that took the roof and spire of the cathedral of Notre Dame. But the Mission fire was uniquely moving for this community because the church holds meaning for so many people for so many reasons — spiritual, cultural, historical, and personal.
It came as excitement built over this year’s 250th anniversary of the Mission’s founding in 1771, a seminal achievement for any human work and rare in a place like California, where buildings of similar vintage can be counted on one’s fingers.
Worse, it occurred literally hours after the completion of renovations planned in anticipation of the anniversary. Pews and kneelers, freshly repaired and revarnished, had been brought back to the nave the day before. The hot flames, starting first in the choir loft, quickly incinerated the bulk of the cedar shingle roof, twisted the reinforcing iron beams installed after the Sierra Madre earthquake, and dropped charred planks onto the seats below as soot tarred freshly painted interior walls.
But the year’s vortex of misery has more recently given way to the Easter season of renewal and restoration.
“Through this fire, though tragic and heartbreaking, all of a sudden we had an opportunity” said Terri Huerta, the Mission’s Director of Development and Communications. The actions planned in connection with the Mission’s momentous sestercentennial had been a part of the Archdiocese’s 5-year, $500 million Called to Renew campaign, aimed at improvements throughout the Archdiocese’s nearly 300 parishes.
The Mission San Gabriel community made pledges worth over a million dollars, about half designated for improvements to the church in time for the September anniversary celebrations. The fire created a predicate to launch a campaign on top of that, marrying the imperative to rebuild the roof with existing plans to renovate the gardens, remodel the museum, take on deferred repairs and conservation work, all to enhance the experience of the Mission’s many visitors and to better tell the story of Mission San Gabriel.
“I was born and raised Catholic,” said Huerta. “This is my parish. If you ask someone like me, it took the fire for us to be reborn. That is what baptism is, and so there is a spiritual connection with what happened here.”
Spilling out of the gray ash of the fire is a colorful collection of anecdotes, ironies and discoveries that adorn the sense of renewal. These vignettes, forged in destruction but nurtured in faith, include:
— Miracles of art. The Mission church is home to a unique collection of priceless statutes and paintings, textiles, indigenous artifacts and over 200 books and manuscripts. There is no knowing the tremendous monetary and cultural value of this collection.
And it was spared by serendipity. Months before the fire, in preparation for interior renovations planned for the coming anniversary, the bulk of these precious items were removed from the chamber and so were safe when the fire flared.
One item was not removed, however. A life-sized, 18th century painting of Our Lady of Sorrows was still hanging above the baptistry. Its fate was unknown until two months later when workers clearing singed wood, cracked plaster and other debris from within the baptistry discovered the portrait, battered but in one piece, marred only by a few holes and blisters. The tag line? The recovery took place on Sept. 15, the Feast of Our Lady of Sorrows.
— Hidden colors. Historians have exhausted the primary sources looking for information about the construction of the Mission and its church. “Much of this construction history remains shrouded in mystery,” reports the Historic American Buildings Survey. No plans exist for the original construction of the church between 1794-1805, nor for the Mission compound itself or any alterations throughout the 19th Century.
But the fire revealed something about the construction timeline and where and when different materials were used. The church has a foundation of stone and mortar but as its walls rise, stone gives way to brick. The fire caused plaster to peel off the walls in the choir loft exposing hidden color schemes from the 1930s and, as the Angelus observed, there were “curious layers of coral and red paint near the altar that reveal serpentine, squiggled patterns underneath.”
In a series of articles starting this week, these and other compelling themes of the Mission arising from the fire’s ruins will be explored in detail. Please watch for them here as the campaign proceeds to support restoration of the roof, construction on which got under way this week.