History of San Gabriel Arcángel

In 1771, the arrival of 10 more Franciscan missionaries at Father Serra’s headquarters in Monterey gave new impetus to his plans. Immediately he moved to close the long gap between his own San Carlos Borroméo de Carmelo near Monterey and the mission at San Diego, far to the south. In the summer of the same year, two new missions were to be established, one, San Antonio de Padua, a day’s journey to the south of Carmel, and the other some convenient distance north of San Diego. This second mission, fourth in the chain, was to be called San Gabriel Arcángel.

Old picture of Mission San Gabriel Arcángel

Late in the summer, the two Franciscans selected by Fr. Serra arrived at the proposed new site on the Rio de los Temblores, now called the Santa Ana. Once at the spot, however, the missionaries decided they could find a better location, and pushed on until they crossed the San Gabriel River and selected a site near the present town of Montebello. On September 8th, Mission San Garbriel Arcángel began the colorful and eventful existence which it continues to enjoy.

The mission prospered from the first and the Indians, attracted by the solemn pageantry of the Franciscan Mass, grew eager to participate in the religious rites and help with the erection of the walls. Conversions through baptism, the ultimate ambition of all the Franciscan fathers, began the second day.

All this good feeling was not to continue without interruption, for the military guards were unhindered by any ideals of decency in their attitude toward the Indians, and soon provided the good fathers with an anguishing embarrassment. One of the military “protectors” forcibly conquered a chieftain’s wife and proceeded to silence her mate’s objections with a gunshot. The brutal occurrence aroused the Indians and only quick conciliatory action by the padres averted bloody retribution. The guilty soldier was sent to another station and, after a short time, the good feeling that had existed between the fathers and their native converts was completely restored.

Detail of San Gabriel Arcángel Mission

With the arrival of Juan Bautista de Anza’s party on March 22, 1774, the first land link with Mexico City was established. By this route, the long and perilous sea journey around the peninsula of Baja California could be avoided and San Gabriel’s importance greatly increased, as it became the chief point of contact with Mexico. In 1776, the Franciscan fathers moved their mission five miles to the northwest and rebuilt on the broad, fertile plain where it stands today. Construction of the present buildings was begun in 1796.

At this location, San Gabriel became the wealthiest and most prosperous of all the missions. The major difficulty was a long series of exasperating annoyances visited upon the mission and its Indian neophytes by the secular “colonists,” established at the nearby pueblo of Nuestra Señora la Reina de Los Angeles de Porciúncula, now America’s third largest city. The land-hungry military and political figures of this swiftly growing civilian colony, long attracted by the power and property of the missions, found a means of exploitation. Spain had been cut off from its colonies in the New World by its long involvement in the Napoleonic wars, and the destruction of its naval forces. Left adrift, the people of Mexico found they could get along without the mother country, and a struggle for the vacant chair of authority developed. Mexico became a republic, though hardly a stable one, for the occupants of the presidential palace were changed frequently and the policies of the Legislature varied from week to week.

Under the circumstances, influential Californians welcomed the passage of the controversial decrees of secularization. Although the decrees gave the Indians nominal possession of most of the mission lands, the California Dons were quick to discover that the new beneficiaries had no relish for the joys of private ownership. The properties soon shifted into the hands of families closely identified with military and civil rule, who succeeded in getting themselves appointed as administrators under the laws of secularization.

In November, 1834, Mission San Gabriel was turned over to the civil administrator. The inventory at the time included more than 16,500 cattle. In less than six years, no more than a hundred remained on the mission’s account and by 1843, when the Franciscans were allowed to return temporarily, everything of value had been removed. In 1853, the Franciscans left for the last time but final sale of the property, which the California Governor Pio Pico had arranged, was prevented by the arrival of United States troops. In 1862, the mission buildings and part of the adjacent properties were restored to the Catholic Church by act of the American Congress.

Today, San Gabriel possesses one of the finest collections of mission relics in existence. Especially interesting is the series of Indian paintings representing the Fourteen Stations of the Cross. Strikingly primitive, these canvasses are probably the oldest existing examples of native Christian painting. The colors, which were obtained locally from wild flowers and mixed with olive oil, seem to have weathered the years more successfully than the paintings the padres brought to the mission from Spain. In these paintings, there is more than a hint of the mural technique characteristic of the modern Mexican school of art.

San Gabriel possesses one of the finest collections of mission relics

Among the other paintings on view are both Mexican and Spanish works, some over 400 years old. Several of the Spanish paintings have been traced to the school of Murillo, and it is probable that the master himself is represented. Fifteenth century Italian painting is revealed in a portrait of the Virgin Mary by Correggio, and several early copies of Raphael and Andrea del Sarto. The museum collection also boasts several ancient wooden statues, probably Spanish in origin, and handwrought objects of copper, brass and silver which form a considerable part of the antique display.

A tour of the mission grounds takes the visitor immediately into ancient and peaceful gardens. Facing the entrance is the mission fountain, which was added by the Native Sons and Daughters of the Golden West in 1940. Along the border of the garden, where long green grasses wash against the butresses of the ancient church, a number of the early fathers lie buried along with thousands of their Indian disciples. The Camposanto, or cemetery, was first consecrated in 1778 and is still used as a burial ground by the Claretian Fathers who now administer the mission.

Here and there in the gardens is mute evidence of the bygone wonders of San Gabriel’s busier days. The long tannery tanks that turned thousands upon thousands of hides into useful leather, and the four huge tallow vats that produced candles and soap for all the missions, are today only crumbling piles of neglected brickwork. They were once a part of the vast mission industry that made the barren California lands fruitful and habitable.

San Gabriel’s church was closed to the public for a time because of relatively recent earthquake damage, but mission treasures are intact and the grounds remain open. The old baptistery, with its hammered copper font brought to the mission from Spain in 1771, as a present from King Carlos III, has been the scene of well over 25,000 baptisms. The interior of the long and narrow structure, except for the questionable addition of an oak-paneled ceiling and the enlarged windows, remains very much as it was in its earliest days.

Image of the original San Gabriel Arcángel Mission

The exterior of the ancient missions, with its huge buttresses and its heavy stone walls measuring more than five feet in thickness, offers one striking departure from its original appearance: it has no bell tower. This was the accidental result of the earthquake of 1812 when the tower was destroyed. In the reconstruction, the builders turned their back on the traditional mission bell tower in favor of the strikingly effective Campanario which presently houses the ancient and massive bells.