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Investigators continue probe of fire that heavily damaged historic San Gabriel Mission

Alex Wigglesworth, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

LOS ANGELES -- Investigators on Sunday were continuing to search for a cause of a fire that erupted at the San Gabriel Mission, destroying the roof and much of the interior of the 215-year-old church building.

Los Angeles Archbishop Jose H. Gomez planned to say Mass in the mission's chapel at 11 a.m., as the L.A. Archdiocese launched a fundraising effort to restore the damaged church.

"Mission San Gabriel is the historic cornerstone and the spiritual heart of Los Angeles and the Catholic community here," Gomez wrote in a letter to parishioners.

The church had been closed because of the coronavirus outbreak since March but was slated to reopen this Saturday. During the closure, the mission refurbished the pews and walls, both of which were severely damaged by the fire. More renovations were planned leading up to the mission's 250th anniversary next year.

Still, church officials took some solace in the fact that the mission had removed historic paintings and artifacts from the sanctuary ahead of the renovations, sparing them from damage. The church's altar and the wooden statues attached to it also remained intact.

"It's a resilient old building and we are a resilient mission community," Terri Huerta, director of development and communications for the mission, said Saturday.

 

The fire, which broke out at 4:24 a.m. Saturday and burned for nearly two and a half hours, came amid rising anger over California missions and other colonial monuments that for many serve as painful reminders of the nation's racist history.

Investigators, including a regional arson task force and a representative from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, were looking into whether the fire was intentionally set, officials said.

By Sunday morning, the team had finished combing through the scene and moved to a phase of the probe where each investigator develops a hypothesis, which they then try to prove or disprove, said Capt. Antonio Negrete, public information officer for the San Gabriel Fire Department.

As part of the investigation, they were also reviewing video from a security camera that was pointed at an area where a statue of Franciscan Father Junipero Serra was until last week, when the mission moved it out of public view after other statues of Serra were toppled elsewhere. That's also the area where firefighters first saw flames, though it's not yet clear if the fire actually started there, Negrete said. Officials were also canvassing the area for additional video, he said.

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