Fire Official Says San Gabriel Mission Fire Apparently Started In Choir Loft. Arson Is A Possible Cause

A statue of Saint Junipero Serra used to stand in front of the San Gabriel Mission until leaders recently removed it from public view for its protection. (Josie Huang/LAist)

The blaze that gutted the historic San Gabriel Mission early Saturday morning appears to have started in the church's choir loft before darting up the roof, destroying most of it, according to a city fire official.

The choir loft, a 250-square foot area that housed the pipe organ, is now the focal point for investigators who are considering arson as a possible cause, said Capt. Antonio Negrete of the San Gabriel Fire Department.

"Pretty much everything below (the loft) was smoke and water damage," Negrete said. "All the fire damage was on the second floor and so that's how they came to the conclusion that that is where the fire initiated."

Negrete said there was no sign of forced entry into the mission, other than by fire crews who charged through the front door and who also broke the lock on the exterior door to the second floor.

An electrical issue has not been ruled out but it is unlikely to have anything to do with a recent renovation to the church interior, according to Negrete. He said no work was done on the electrical system and that updates were largely "aesthetic," including the refurbishing of the original pews. (He said the pews sustained water and smoke damage and look salvageable.)

A side view of the San Gabriel Mission shows the extent of the fire damage to its roof. (Josie Huang/LAist)

He said investigators hope to determine the cause of the fire in the coming week.

"They are going to do some more testing, wait for lab results and see if, in fact, it was accidental or if there was anything to go into that arson box that they're going to check off or not," Negrete said.

The San Gabriel fire department is small so investigators are pitching in from Burbank, Los Angeles, Monrovia, Monterey Park and San Marino, Negrete said

A representative from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is also assisting the probe since the fire took place in a place of worship and because of "recent vandalism throughout the region regarding Father Junipero Serra," Negrete said.

The church is part of a mission system founded by Serra whom critics blame for helping to wipe out Indigenous lives, culture and language. During recent protests against racism and police brutality, statues of Serra have been toppled across the state by activists who see him as an arm of Spanish imperialism.

The mission recently removed its bronze Serra statue from public view as a precaution. Anger over the mission founder has led to questions as to whether the blaze that destroyed the mission's roof and much of the interior was purposely set.

The Chapel of the Annunciation continued to hold Sunday services on the mission grounds. (Josie Huang/LAist)

Archbishop José Gomez, who celebrated Sunday Mass at the Chapel of the Annunciation on the mission grounds, declined to say whether he thought the fire could be an act of protest against Serra.

"I understand that the investigation just started," Gomez said, "so we're going to wait for that."

Gomez went on to defend Serra as a "good faithful man," who was canonized by Pope Francis during a tour of the U.S. in 2015. Gomez said Serra protected Native people from the Spanish colonialists.

He pointed out that Serra had fought the death penalty for a Native man who killed a missionary, and condemned abuses of Native people by the military.

"I don't think it's fair that this suffering of the Native Americans that was real is blamed on Saint Junipero Serra," Gomez said. "Let's blame it on the persons who were abusing the Native Americans."

Liccia Beck, a Catholic from San Gabriel, is hoping the fire was not "malicious." (Josie Huang/LAist)

On Sunday morning, local Catholics made a pilgrimage to the mission. Liccia Beck stared at the front of the badly-burned San Gabriel Mission, standing away from a cluster of three dozen mourners in the parking lot who were singing softly and holding rosary beads.

"I feel very sad," said Beck, a San Gabriel resident, as she protected herself from the scalding sun with an umbrella. "My parents were married here. This has just been in our family for several generations."

The 249-year-old mission has held a prominent place for local Catholics such as Beck who saw the adobe landmark as a home church, even if it was not their regular Sunday place of worship. The mission — plainer than others in the system, and resembling a fortress — has also burrowed deep into the memories of generations of schoolchildren who visited its grounds for field trips.

While waiting to enter the chapel for a service in Spanish, Petra Garcia of El Monte said she could not bear to consider the fire as an act of arson.

Garcia has been attending Mass at the Chapel of the Annunciation for about three years, and had gotten married at the Mission church in 2019.

"I'm devastated," she said in Spanish. "This is part of my life story."

Her 13-year-old daughter, Citlally Juarez, said she first came to the church for a fourth grade field trip that made her "want to come even more because of the interesting stories."

Garcia grew teary the more she talked about the mission fire. Citlally looked tenderly at her mother and said the fire had really shaken her up.

Archbishop Jose Gomez presided over Sunday Mass at the Chapel of the Annunciation on the mission grounds. (Josie Huang/LAist)

"It really did hurt me to see my mom sad," Citlally said. "I usually see her bright side and not her sad moments."

In front of the mission, Liccia Beck explained why the church was "home." Her grandmother made linens for the church and her grandfather worked in the mission garden. Her father and great-grandparents are buried in the mission's cemetery.

Beck said that she did not want to believe the fire was intentionally set, but the possibility nagged at her — and angered her.

"I hope to God that this was not malicious because every house of worship needs to be protected," Beck said. "Whether it's a mosque, whether it's a synagogue, whether it's a Catholic church."