‘My heart is full of sadness’: Faithful stunned by destruction of San Gabriel Mission fire

Fire burned most of the roof and interior of the 249-year-old San Gabriel Mission
An overnight fire burned most of San Gabriel Mission’s roof and interior.
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

For the faithful, it was a grim Saturday as they arrived at San Gabriel Mission to survey the damage from a huge fire that destroyed the historic landmark’s roof and much of the church interior.

“My heart is full of sadness,” said San Gabriel resident Anita Chavez, 70, who calls herself a “lifetime parishioner.” “This church has been at the center of my family, my world and my faith.”

Chavez’s daughter called to tell her about the fire, and she arrived at the church’s parking lot to confirm what she feared.


Though she stood about 100 feet away, Chavez became emotional when she saw the damage and smelled the embers.

Chavez held funerals for her son Martin Jr., husband Martin Sr. and parents Virginia Quintanar and Jose Quintanar in 2011, 1992, 1999 and 1984, respectively, all at the mission.

Chavez was far from alone as parishioners, Catholic Church leaders and others came to survey the damage to the building, which is 249 years old.

Authorities received a call at 4:24 a.m. reporting that the mission’s fire alarm had gone off. When an engine arrived to investigate, firefighters saw flames and smoke coming from the corner of the mission. The cause was under investigation.

Bishop David O'Connell leaves the San Gabriel Mission after seeing the damage caused by a fire overnight on July 11,2020.
Bishop David G. O’Connell leaves the San Gabriel Mission after surveying the damage caused by a fire early Saturday.
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

The Quintanars are buried in the nearby public San Gabriel Cemetery, adjacent to the mission chapel, along with Chavez’s grandparents.

Chavez worked as a special education assistant with the San Gabriel Unified School District and was proud to be part of a fundraising drive to help refurbish many of the now battered and destroyed pews.

A massive fire ripped through the 249-year-old San Gabriel Mission early Saturday.
(Andrew Campa / Los Angeles Times)

“A part of the mission is gone and it will, God-willing, be replaced and new, but it will also never be the same,” she said.

Founded by Franciscan Father Junipero Serra in 1771, the San Gabriel Mission has long been seen as an essential link to California’s past, as well as to the brutality and racism on which the state was founded.

The mission system destroyed the lives of Native Californians and in recent decades has deeply tarnished the image of Serra, the architect of the system who has long been considered one of California’s founding fathers. Serra was made a saint by the Catholic Church in 2015, fueling outrage from Native American activists and others.


Los Angeles Archbishop José Gomez toured the damage around 10:25 a.m., while San Gabriel Valley regional auxiliary bishop David G. O’Connell met and spoke with distressed parishioners and visitors.

“We’re all brokenhearted by this, and this adds another trauma onto the present trauma of the coronavirus and everything else that’s happening,” O’Connell said. “People love the mission, and many of these families have connections going back generations.”

Junipero Serra was declared a saint in 2015. But his role in California’s colonization via the mission system makes him a target for statue toppling.

June 20, 2020

O’Connell mentioned that on Friday mission staff had “just finished redoing all the pews and had finished redoing the walls, getting them up to their original quality.”

He was thankful that because of the refurbishment, some of the mission’s statues and artwork had been removed.

A baptismal font consisting of a hammered copper basin and silver pieces donated by Spanish King Charles III in the late 18th century also survived, according to San Gabriel Mission spokeswoman Terri Huerta.

The altar and wooden statues inside the mission also came through unscathed.

O’Connell said that despite Saturday’s fire, normal Sunday Mass will continue at the mission’s chapel, with social distancing and COVID-19 limits holding attendance to 100 people. One of the more visible groups to arrive was a branch of the Knights on Bikes, a motorcycle group affiliated with the Knights of Columbus, a self-described fraternity of “Catholic men of faith and charitable action.”

Paul Padilla, 50, came from Fontana with four other black-vested, blue-jeaned masked members.

They assessed the situation, took photos, spoke with relatives, then pulled out rosaries and prayed.

“We saw the reports on TV and had to stop by,” Padilla said. “I grew up closer to the San Fernando Mission, but I had to come out and stand with the mission today and support my Catholic faith. This place is a part of our history.”

Fellow member David Sanchez, 59, grew up in East Los Angeles and remembered field trips to the mission as a young student, while Enrique Bonilla, 39, a Pasadena resident, said he had attended many mission services.

“It’s sad this happened,” Sanchez said. “This was a place of peace for so many people.”

Times staff writers Alexandra Wigglesworth and Sonali Kohli contributed to this story.