LOS ANGELES -- Anita Chavez joined the hundreds of mourners at San Gabriel Mission Church on Saturday for what many considered a family wake without a body.
They came from across the region to survey the destruction after a fire that ripped through the church of the 249-year-old mission, one of California's most historic landmarks, sacred ground for the Catholic faithful but also a symbol of a system that enslaved and terrorized indigenous peoples.
Hundreds of parishioners from the San Gabriel Mission Roman Catholic community gathered all day in the parking lot to cry, grieve, pray, reminisce and talk about their faith.
"My heart is full of sadness," said Chavez, a 70-year-old San Gabriel resident who calls herself a "lifetime parishioner."
"This church has been at the center of my family, my world and my faith," she added.
The fire was first reported at 4:24 a.m. 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 portions of the 215-year-old building started to fall on them and they decided to battle the fire from outside, said Capt. Antonio Negrete, public information officer for the San Gabriel Fire Department.
No injuries were reported, but the damage was extensive.
Flames destroyed the roof, most of the just-refurbished pews and portions of the interior, though some statues and other historic items survived.
Most valuable artifacts escaped damage, said Terri Huerta, director of development and communications for the mission.