The Mission of San Gabriel, symbol of faith, history and oppression, is seriously damaged by fire.

Anita Chávez joined hundreds of mourners at San Gabriel Mission Church on Saturday for what many considered to be a bodyless family vigil.

They came from across the region to study the destruction after a fire that razed the 249-year-old mission church, one of California’s most historic landmarks, sacred ground for the Catholic faithful, but also a symbol of a system that enslaved and enslaved. terrified indigenous peoples

Hundreds of parishioners from the Roman Catholic community of the San Gabriel Mission gathered all day in the parking lot to cry, cry, pray, remember and talk about their faith.

“My heart is filled with sadness,” said Chávez, a 70-year-old San Gabriel resident who calls herself a “lifelong parishioner.”

“This church has been at the center of my family, my world and my faith,” he added.

Bishop David O’Connell leaves the San Gabriel Mission Church after seeing the damage from the fire.

(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

The fire was first reported at 4:24 am. When an engine arrived to investigate, firefighters saw flames and smoke coming from the corner of the mission.

Firefighters tried to save the church. But parts of the 215-year-old building began to fall on them and decided to fight the fire from the outside, said Capt. Antonio Negrete, public information officer for the San Gabriel Fire Department.

No injuries were reported, but the damage was extensive.

The flames destroyed the roof, most of the recently renovated benches and parts of the interior, although some statues and other historical items survived.

The most valuable artifacts escaped damage, said Terri Huerta, the mission’s director of development and communications.

“The altar is still intact, the last time we were able to take a look inside,” he said. “It is miraculously intact, including the historic wooden statues that were attached to the altar, so we have much to be thankful for.”

Sunlight shines through the destroyed roof onto charred benches inside the San Gabriel Mission Church

Sunlight streams through the destroyed roof onto charred benches inside the San Gabriel Mission Church.

(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

The cause of the fire is under investigation. The fire came amid mounting anger over the California missions and other colonial monuments that serve to many as painful reminders of the nation’s racist history. For that reason, investigators, including a representative from the Federal Office for Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, were investigating whether it was intentionally established, authorities said.

“Just because it is a church, and I am sure you are aware of the recent vandalism that has been done to missionary churches and the statues of Junípero Serra,” said Negrete. “So that’s part of the investigation.”

Founded by the Franciscan father Junípero Serra in 1771, the San Gabriel Mission has long been viewed as an essential link to California’s past, as well as the brutality and racism that played a role in the founding of the state.

Considered by historians as the most important base of operations for the Spanish conquest of California, San Gabriel was the fourth of the 21 missions established in the state, and one of the largest. At its peak in 1829, the mission had 50,000 cattle, 160,000 vines and 2,300 fruit trees, said Philip Ethington, professor of history and political science and chair of the USC department of history.

But the church accumulated these riches on the backs of the Tongva and other indigenous peoples, whom the friars forced to work and forced to convert to Catholicism and assimilate into their culture.

“It really was a forced labor camp with spanking, blasting and a lot of corporal punishment,” said Ethington.

Thousands of people are estimated to have died after being exposed to foreign diseases or having suffered other “comorbid comorbidities,” said William Deverell, director of the Huntington-USC Institute in California and the West and professor of history at USC.

“It is still a place of faith and worship, but it is also a place of great sadness,” said Deverell. “Because on the parish grounds, within the confines of the church, there are thousands of unnamed indigenous dead beneath what is now a small Catholic cemetery.”

Yve Chávez, an assistant professor at UC Santa Cruz, whose ancestors lived on the mission, helped build it and are buried in his cemetery, also described his legacy as complicated.

“On the one hand, today’s news is quite devastating because this is something our ancestors did,” he said. “Some people may see this as monuments to Catholicism or to Spain, but I think it is important to recognize that this is the product of indigenous work.”

Still, he noted, the work was done under duress and had an indescribably high cost.

“The structure itself is a reminder of our ancestors who sacrificed their lives and work to make these missions possible,” he said.

An aerial view shows extensive fire damage to the roof of the San Gabriel Mission Church

The fire destroyed the roof and destroyed much of the interior of the church.

(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

In addition to destroying the lives of native Californians, the mission system has profoundly tarnished the image of Serra, its architect, who was long considered one of California’s founding fathers. Serra was made a saint by the Catholic Church in 2015, fueling the outrage of many indigenous and other activists.

Serra’s statues have been vandalized in recent years by activists who point out how the mission system enslaved and killed native Californians. Those protests grew in the wake of the police murder of George Floyd, which sparked a nationwide trial on racial justice. A statue of Serra on Calle Olvera was demolished, and Ventura officials promised to move a statue of Serra that is located outside the Town Hall.

The San Gabriel Mission also features a statue of Serra, and authorities tightened security on their land about two weeks ago, Huerta said. The mission finally decided to move the statue to its garden, away from public view, she said.

Julie Sanchez Brehove has been going to the San Gabriel Mission for the 27 years of her life. In November, she and her husband married there. On Saturday morning at 9:30 am, they stood together beyond the barrier set up by firefighters and watched their spiritual home burn.

“For all of us parishioners, it is our meeting place, it is the center of our spiritual lives,” said Sánchez Brehove. However, you acknowledge that you have a history of damage.

“I understand that there is a lot of anger over the treatment of indigenous peoples in the mission,” said Sánchez Brehove. “When I think of mission, in my personal experience, it is my meeting place and it is a place where people are welcome, and we try to live as Christ taught. But I do understand … that people in the history of the church have acted unfairly, and that is something that can be very difficult to reconcile. ”

She recalls always knowing that the land on which the mission is located belonged first to indigenous peoples, and as a Catholic high school English teacher, she discusses racist colonialist issues in 19th century literature with her students, she said.

Thinking of his community today, Sánchez Brehove appreciates that no one has been injured in this fire.

“We will probably still broadcast live Mass [on Sunday], and we only pray for healing, we pray for peace and we pray and give thanks that no one is hurt. “

One of the most visible groups to reach outside of the church was a branch of the Knights on Bicycles, a group of motorcyclists affiliated with the Knights of Columbus, a fraternity that describes itself as “Catholic men of faith and charitable action” .

Paul Padilla, 50, came from Fontana with a group of four other masked members, dressed in black and dressed in blue.

They evaluated the situation, took photos, spoke with family members, and then took out rosaries and prayed.

Member David Sanchez, 59, grew up in East Los Angeles and remembered field trips when he was a young student at the mission, while Enrique Bonilla, 39, a Pasadena resident, said he had attended many missionary services.

“It is sad that this has happened,” Sánchez said. “This was a place of peace for many people.”

Los Angeles Archbishop José H. Gómez toured the damage caused by the fire at around 10:25 am, while the San Gabriel Valley Regional Auxiliary Bishop David G. O’Connell met and He spoke to distressed parishioners and visitors.

“We are all disheartened by this, and this adds another trauma to the current coronavirus trauma and everything else that is happening,” O’Connell said. “People love the mission, and many of these families have connections that go back generations.”