SAN GABRIEL, Calif. (AP) — A fire early Saturday destroyed the rooftop and most of the interior of a California church that was undergoing renovation to mark its upcoming 250th anniversary celebration.
Fire alarms at the San Gabriel Mission rang around 4 a.m., and when firefighters responded to the historic structure they saw smoke rising from the wooden rooftop, San Gabriel Fire Capt. Paul Negrete said.
He said firefighters entered the church and tried to beat back the flames, but they had to retreat when roofing and other structural materials began to fall, Negrete said.
“We were trying to fight it from the inside, we weren’t able to because it became unsafe,” he said.
After evacuating the church, the crew was joined by up to 50 firefighters who tried to douse water on the 50-foot-high structure from ladder trucks, he said.
“The roof is completely gone,” the captain said. “The fire traversed the wood rapidly, the interior is pretty much destroyed up into the altar area.”
The cause of the fire was under investigation, Negrete said.
The interior wall was redone a week ago and crews had just finished installing the pews as part of a larger renovation of the property to mark the anniversary of the founding of the mission in 1771, said Terri Huerta, a spokeswoman for San Gabriel Mission.
She said the firefighters’ aggressive stance and “a little bit of a miracle” kept the flames from reaching the altar.
The church had been preparing to reopen next weekend following a four-month closure to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
Selena Casada, 26, was in tears when she drove to the mission after she heard about the fire. She said she grew up in the parish and attended the elementary school on the church’s grounds.
“I was baptized here, I had my first communion here … I was getting ready to get married here next year so this hurts,” Casada said. “It’s just really sad to see such a historic place burned down because this place means a lot to us.”
The church, built of stone, brick and mortar, originally had a vaulted ceiling that was damaged by two earthquakes in the early 1800s, she said. Franciscan fathers replaced the ceiling with a wood-paneled ceiling and the roof was last repaired following some damage caused by the 1994 Northridge earthquake, Huerta said.
The church was the fourth of a string of missions established across California by the Franciscan priest, Junipero Serra. The Roman Catholic priest forced Native Americans to stay at those missions after they were converted or face brutal punishment.
Statues of him in San Francisco and Sacramento were toppled by demonstrators during the recent protests focusing on the rights and historical struggle of Black and Indigenous people.
In response to the toppling of Serra’s statues, the San Gabriel Mission said it moved a bronze statue of Serra from the church entrance to “a more appropriate location, out of public view” without specifying where.
“Whereas the California Catholic Conference of Bishops reminds us that the historical truth is that St. Serra repeatedly pressed the Spanish authorities for better treatment of the Native American community, we recognize and understand that for some he has become a symbol of the dehumanization of the Native American community,” said the church’s pastor, Father John Molyneux, said in a statement.