With the roof of the Mission San Gabriel Arcangel still charred and partially collapsed after a fire desecrated the 249-year-old sanctuary early Saturday — Archbishop Jose Gomez told a crowd of faithful Sunday morning, July 12, that the fire represented an opportunity for a new start.
“We are going to rebuild,” Gomez told reporters shortly after delivering mass to a crowd of 100 people at an adjacent chapel on the mission grounds. “We are together and we are starting a new time at the San Gabriel Mission. It’s a time for committing ourselves to a new beginning.”
Gomez said the message was true to the Catholic spirit of resurrection.
“We are going to come out of this stronger,” Gomez said. “It was a death and we look forward to the resurrection.”
The cause of the fire, which ripped through the historic mission about 4:30 a.m. Saturday morning, was still under investigation. Officials with the city of San Gabriel and the San Gabriel Fire Department said there was no immediate sign of arson.
Fire Captain Antonio Negrete said on Sunday the department had no new information and fire investigators were spending the day sifting through evidence gathered at the scene on Saturday.
“It’s still very early in the investigation,” Negrete said.
The fire came at a time when statues of Junipero Serra, who led the missionaries who founded the San Gabriel Mission along with nearly two dozen other California missions, have been targeted by activists who view early missionary work as complicit with Native American atrocities of that era.
Gomez, however, dismissed considerations that Serra’s own personal history was somehow tainted.
“I think people need to know a little better who Junipero Serra was,” Gomez said. “He was a good and faithful man who served Native Americans who were here. That was the reality of who he is. I know his life and I know his history. I know who he was and I really admire him because he was a good man.”
The mission had been undergoing a renovation in preparation for the 250th anniversary coming up soon, so many of the artifacts were already removed from the chapel before the fire. It also had not had any services since the coronavirus pandemic limited mass gatherings in March, though it did host an Easter Day service that was broadcast.
Pastor John Molyneux, who lives on-site, said he was awakened in the early morning hours Saturday July 11 by the mission’s alarm company.
“We have no idea what caused the fire,” he said.
Concern, however, that the mission could have been intentionally set ablaze was high on people’s minds as they came together in the parking lot. Some took pictures, consoled each other and prayed. A group of several dozen recited the rosary prayer for close to an hour before Sunday mass began.
“The mission was like an anchor for us,” said Jorge Alcazar, an Arcadia resident who came with his wife and daughter Sunday morning to see what the mission looked like after the fire. All three of their children were baptized at the mission, so it held fond memories, he said.
“I hope it was an accident and not arson,” Alcazar said.
Tristen Seagondollar, who helped organize the group reciting the rosary, said the prayer was a sign of resilience.
“This church gave me a feeling of reverence,” Seagondollar said. “Think of all the loving memories here, the funerals, weddings and baptisms. It really does serve as a place of peace and welcoming.”
Sister Georgette Coulumbe, who lived at the mission for 15 years until December, said she was saddened to see the mission roof and interior destroyed.
“It’s sad to see our beautiful mission in this condition,” Coulumbe said. But we are strong and I know the parishioners will come together and bring it back.”
Justin Senneff, 26, who grew up in San Gabriel said he was feeling a mix of emotions Sunday.
“Most importantly, the mission is the very foundations of the place I call home,” Senneff said. “It’s a symbol for the continuing Catholic faith as it has been for 250 years.”
Source: Orange County Register