Living Hope Newsletter – February 2021
San Gabriel Mission
San Gabriel Mission, located just nine miles east of downtown Los Angeles, serves as a cornerstone for the Catholic faith community in the region. This year, the Mission celebrates its milestone anniversary of 250 years since its founding in 1771. The Claretian Missionaries are stewards of this sacred space, as they have been since 1908, commemorating 113 years of service responding to the needs of the community.
Listed in the U.S. National Register of Historic Places and as a California Historic Landmark, the parish serves 1200 families from the diverse area around the Mission. Rich in historical significance, the Mission provides a rich spirit of spiritual experience in its physical beauty and vital parish life.
Mission San Gabriel has played a significant role in the history of Los Angeles and Southern California. A river, mountain range, valley, and city all bear its name. Mission San Gabriel is also considered the “godmother” of Our Lady Queen of Los Angeles Church, also called “La Placita,” the oldest church in Los Angeles.
San Gabriel’s Beginnings
Starting in 1769, Spanish Franciscan Friars built a chain of 21 Missions across the length of Alta, California. The Missions were built about 30 miles apart, stretching across 650 miles. The goal of the Missions was to evangelize among the Native American population. It was an era of history whose complexity both the church and the faithful are aware. Today, all original 21 sites remain open.
St. Junipero Serra established Mission San Gabriel Arcángel in 1794, the fourth of the 21 Missions constructed in this period.
The Mission era ended in 1834, but the architectural legacy of the Missions has endured in the buildings’ red tile roofs, whitewashed walls, arched colonnades, and bell towers. The spiritual legacy, expressed in the beauty of these spaces, continues to grow and serve the local and visiting faithful.
“Pride of the Missions”
San Gabriel Arcángel is unique among the 21 historic Missions because of its Moorish style and fortress-like architecture with capped buttresses. But perhaps what makes San Gabriel most unique among the Missions is its reputation for being among the best-preserved, despite the damage suffered by numerous earthquakes and fire. The “Pride of the Missions” is evidenced here in the ongoing restoration and profound care for the Mission that has always been a priority for the parishioners, local community, and the Claretians.
The Mission structure includes a tower that houses six heavy bells dating to the early 1800s. Originally, the church had an arched roof, but an earthquake in 1804 damaged the arches, and a new roof was built. In 1812, another earthquake demolished the bell tower, which was replaced. Then, just this past year in 2020, a fire took the roof, central pews of the church, and other fixtures.
Again, the parish is rebuilding with its characteristic resilience and strength. “We are saddened, but not daunted. We are Resurrection people,” says Claretian Fr. John Molyneux, pastor at San Gabriel.
Highlights of San Gabriel also include the original altar, handcrafted in Mexico City and brought to the Mission in the 1790s. Remarkably, the altar has remained unharmed through all of the Mission’s natural disasters. The baptistery houses the original hand-hammered copper baptismal font, a gift from the Spanish King Carlos III, the heart and soul of sacramental life here through its parish Baptisms.
A Claretian Mission
For many early years, the Mission was the valley’s spiritual center. The Franciscans served the Mission until the mid-1800s, when the diocese took over until 1908; at this point the Claretian Missionaries were invited to serve Mexican farmworkers and other Spanish-speaking parishioners. The fit was natural, since the Claretians were founded in Spain in 1849 by St. Anthony Mary Claret and they had a commitment to ministering in Spanish-speaking communities.
“The Claretians have a history, starting in San Antonio, Texas, of serving as a bridge to the Mexican community,” says Malachy McCarthy, Claretian archivist. The Claretians used their talents in working together with parishioners and the community to ensure the Mission remains strong.
Catholic education has always been one of the core focuses of Claretian ministries, so the vision to found a school at San Gabriel naturally became an early endeavor. Claretian Father J. Nuevo opened San Gabriel Mission High School in 1949. The thriving all-girls Catholic school is no longer administered by the Claretians, but Fr. John Molyneux serves as a consulting board member to the school.
Today, 250 years after its founding, San Gabriel is beloved by a diverse Claretian parish, which includes a vibrant Vietnamese population as well as its legacy Hispanic residents, that embraces San Gabriel as the pride of their faith, family, and community.