Essential California: Before the city of Los Angeles, there was the San Gabriel Mission.

San Gabriel Mission returns from fire.
The San Gabriel Mission reopened Saturday after a damaging fire with an anniversary mass and celebration.
(Christina House/Los Angeles Times)

Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Monday, Sept. 12. I’m Andrew J. Campa 👋🏼, a Metro reporter writing from the San Gabriel Valley (further east than the Eastside!)

For some, the news came via panicked phone calls and hurried text messages. Others received sketchy information through social media and television newscasts one early Saturday morning in July 2020: The 249-year-old San Gabriel Mission, the first Roman Catholic church in Los Angeles County, was burning.

Before there was a Los Angeles or even a United States, there was the mission. The adobe structure was built in 1771 near Montebello and moved to its current location in 1775.


It is the fourth of the 21 missions Spaniards built in Alta California. Controversial saint Father Junípero Serra, seen as a colonizer by some and a holy man byothers, oversaw construction carried out by Spaniards and Kizh Mission Indians of San Gabriel.

The mission had survived many natural disasters, including the 1987 Whittier Narrows earthquake, which left cracked walls.

But there was despair among congregants and clergy that the mission couldn’t be fully restored after the extensive damage from what was declared arson.

Several just-refurbished pews had been destroyed, the 1875 roof had collapsed, and much of the interior had been wrecked.

“When I went to see the mission the day after the fire, I didn’t think it could be rebuilt — replaced, yes, but not rebuilt,” said Frank Nguyen, 51, a member of the mission’s Vietnamese community. “It was very sad, because I thought this would never look the same.”

“My heart was broken,” San Gabriel parishioner Ortencia Ramirez said this week. Ramirez had turned 68 the day of the fire and canceled a breakfast celebration to race to her “home away from home” when another parishioner called with the news.

San Gabriel Mission nearly completely restored after fire.
A fire ripped through the 249-year-old San Gabriel Mission on July 11, 2020, destroying the roof and much of the interior.
(Andrew J. Campa / Los Angeles Times)

Ramirez, who has lived in San Gabriel for 58 years, said she arrived at 6 a.m. and sobbed “like losing a family member” as she said the rosary. She thanked departing firefighters, then walked to a nearby cemetery garden, which was covered in ashes, to pray again.

“I asked God to save the mission,” said Ramirez, a former docent and aide at the mission and museum.

Fire insurance covered about $6.5 million of the reconstruction cost of $7 million. Much of the rebuilding fell on Mel Green, a structural engineer specializing in historic restoration who had helped rehab the mission after earthquakes damaged it in 1987 and 1994.

He, a team of workers from historic restoration specialists Spectra Co. and architectural preservationist Bob Knight scoured church records and libraries trying to match current products and materials with those used in previous centuries.


Chandeliers and steel retrofitting beams that had been warped by the fire were replaced, and new pews were delivered.

The new plaster on the adobe walls matched the color used inside the church in 1935, according to Knight, while the roof was constructed of cedar, the same type of second-growth redwood timber employed in the 19th century version.

“We tried our best to stick with documented historic records and tried not to make new history,” Green said.

“There were only a few things that had to be completely changed; otherwise, this is really close to what the mission looked like pre-fire,” Knight said.

The San Gabriel Mission is nearly completely rebuilt after fire.
The San Gabriel Mission, which reopened Saturday for one day only, has been under restoration since the July 11, 2020, fire. The redwood roof is complete.
(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

The original tiles in the baptistry were lost to flooding from the firefighting effort, but the baptismal font’s hammered copper basin and silver pieces donated in the late 18th century by Spanish King Charles III (the original King Chuck III 👑) were saved.

On Saturday, Los Angeles Archbishop José Gomez said an invitation-only Mass, the finale to a year of celebrations for the mission’s 250th anniversary. After the Mass, the mission was closed again to finish the last bit of restoration work around the altar and pulpit. The archdiocese expects the mission to be fully operational by December.

“To be back here and to see how the mission has been transformed is incredible,” said Argis Marciuska, 55, a civil engineer from Temple City who has attended services at the mission for 45 years. “I think it’s actually better — the paintings, the music and the ambience — which is incredible to say after that fire.”

Father John Molyneux, 66, the parish’s pastor, said he felt “relief” after Saturday’s Mass.

“I kept faith that we would rebuild, but that doesn’t mean I was certain the mission would look as beautiful as it does today,” said Molyneux, who remembered smelling and feeling embers in the air for days after the fire. “This was our miracle.”

Ramirez said she enjoyed the games and swing and big band music at the mini-festival after the mass, but especially the slice of cake she ate more than two years after her birthday was ruined and her faith was shaken.

“This is a better memory,” she said. “For sure.”

And now, here’s what’s happening across California.

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Caruso and Bass haunt USC
Rick Caruso and Dr. Carol L. Folt hug at her 2019 inauguration as USC’s 12th president; U.S. Rep. Karen Bass delivers the school’s 2019 commencement address.
(L.A. mayoral candidates Rick Caruso (with Dr. Carol L. Folt) and Karen Bass.)

USC has become a punching bag as the Los Angeles mayoral race between frontrunner Karen Bass and developer Rick Caruso heats up in its final months. Bass’ receipt of a $95,000 USC scholarship before she backed legislation favorable to the university has come under attack by Caruso, a longtime USC trustee. Bass supporters in turn have accused Caruso of covering up misconduct by a school gynecologist charged with sexual battery against students. Los Angeles Times

Pasadena’s Rose Tree Cottage, an English tea room and garden, had an influx of visitors after the death of Queen Elizabeth II. Co-owner Edmund Fry hung a portrait of the queen in the cottage’s front lawn and passed out tea to visitors. Fry and his wife, Mary, also had to practice a new phrase: “God save the king.” Pasadena Star-News

Is USC football back? Columnist Bill Plaschke thinks so as the Trojans took down Stanford, 41-28, in their PAC-12 opener Saturday in Palo Alto. The Trojans are 2-0 under head coach Lincoln Riley, the former University of Oklahoma hotshot coach. The team boasts perhaps the best player in the country, according to Plaschke, in quarterback Caleb Williams. Los Angeles Times

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Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a law Friday creating a system to name and rank heat waves, much as hurricanes and winter storms are categorized now. The California Environmental Protection Agency is expected to produce this system by Jan. 1, 2025. According to Newsom, the rankings will help the state develop a “comprehensive strategy to protect Californians from extreme heat.” Sacramento Bee

Former Fresno-area elementary school principal Brian Volhardt has been charged with a misdemeanor count of child abuse after a video from June 7 surfaced of him pushing a special-needs student to the ground. At a Thursday press conference, Fresno Police Chief Paco Balderrama acknowledged that his office hadn’t been aware of the video until Tuesday, when the Fresno Bee requested an update of the investigation. Volhardt, who resigned from the elementary school Aug. 4, took a vice principal position at another area high school. He was placed on administrative leave Thursday. Fresno Bee


Victory Baptist Church, a spiritual and political powerhouse in South Los Angeles, burned early Sunday morning. Arson investigators from the Los Angeles County Fire Department were investigating the site where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke in 1964. Los Angeles Times

Hate crimes rose in Orange County for a 7th consecutive year, the county’s Human Relations Commission reported. The 6% jump was not as large as previous years’ increases. But the total of 398 crimes and hate incidents in 2021 was more than three times the 87 mentioned in the first report, in 2015. Daily Pilot

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The remnants of Pacific Tropical Storm Kay passed through San Diego County Saturday. A day earlier, rainfall records were set throughout the county, including in San Diego, Vista, Alpine and Lake Cuyamaca. The wet weather helped lower temperatures into the mid-80s by Friday afternoon. Saturday was the first in 12 days without a Flex Alert urging consumers to turn down or off air conditioning and other appliances. San Diego Union-Tribune

The Ventura County Grand Jury recommended that water providers improve “cybersecurity polices and procedures.” Half of the 14 public water providers the jury interviewed were hacked in the last five years, in attacks ranging from simple phishing to ransomware. Hackers last year tried unsuccessfully to poison water in Florida and the Bay Area, the jury found. Ventura County Star

Dr. Dawn Wright of Redlands made history as the first Black person to descend to the deepest known point in the Earth’s seabed, Challenger Deep. “Growing up, there were no other Black women in oceanography,” Wright said. Learn why she keeps a miniaturized styrofoam cup as a memento of her expedition. Black Voice News


Racism at Pacific Grove
Japanese abalone divers emerge from a lagoon at Point Lobos in this photo from the early 1900s. Chinese and Japanese immigrants fished for the delicacy in the waters of Monterey Bay.
(Whaling Cabin Museum)

Predominantly white Pacific Grove, a Monterey County coastal town, canceled its long-standing Feast of Lanterns as residents, particularly those in the Asian American community, protested cultural appropriation and racism. The event’s termination helped highlight systemic racism dating back to 1906, when white residents taunted Chinese immigrants who had been blamed for a mysterious fire and evicted. Los Angeles Times

Influencers are causing a paradigm shift in the world of restaurant criticism. Traditional food writers are losing followers to taste-makers with cellphones, whose videos can turn a dish into a hit, expanding a restaurant’s following and revenue. But what seems like a spontaneous rave from an amateur can turn out to be a well-planned business transaction. Los Angeles Times

The Rady Shell at Jacobs Park in San Diego, with 3,386 colored LED lights that can be seen from the city’s skyline, airport and convention center, is transforming the waterfront. San Diego Union-Tribune

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Los Angeles: 81, partly cloudy. San Diego: 80, partly cloudy. San Francisco: 70, partly cloudy. San Jose: 79, mostly sunny. Fresno: 96, mostly sunny. Sacramento: 91, partly cloudy.


Today’s California memory is from Chance Kawar:

Despite being born and raised in San Diego — just a couple of hours south — Los Angeles always felt a whole world away. As a child, the city was an exotic, intimidating concrete enigma, seen only through the window of my dad’s 1999 Toyota Camry as we sped along the I-5 to visit family in the Bay Area. I recall his frantic pleas to hurry before each road trip, “or else we’ll be stuck for hours in L.A. traffic!” Now in my mid-20s, I’ve fallen in love with the vibrant, diverse city that once perplexed me. This place is now my home.

If you have a memory or story about the Golden State, share it with us. (Please keep your story to 100 words.)

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