Fire reveals pieces of Mission San Gabriel’s past as it prepares for jubilee year

By | May 1, 2021

The thousands of gallons of water used to put out the fire last July caused the floor of the mission’s sacristy to sink, revealing layers of stone and brick used to first build the church. No human remains have been found in excavations since the fire. / Victor Alemán
Both Huerta and Hackell see the events of the last year as a much-needed jumpstart to the task of restoring the mission for future generations to behold. “We have this really unparalleled opportunity to not just restore the mission itself, but to more fully understand the material culture of the mission, which was so crucial,” said Hackell. 
Meanwhile, the mission is working on submitting remodeling plans to the City of San Gabriel, which include modern electrical and HVAC systems. 
The timeline for the restoration is still unfolding. Mission officials hope to have the new roof and ceiling fully installed by the time Archbishop Gomez celebrates the inaugural Mass for the jubilee year, slated for Sept. 11 (location still to be determined), and expect the mission to be “fully functional” by the end of the jubilee a year later.
A new generation of missionaries?
For Father Parker Sandoval, the San Gabriel fire and the devastating consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic on parishes are signs that the church in Los Angeles is being called to a “new beginning.” It is why, in Father Sandoval’s words, the timing of the mission’s 250th jubilee this year is nothing short of “providential.”
“I think the state of San Gabriel Mission right now is how the whole Church feels,” said Father Sandoval, vice chancellor for Ministerial Services for the archdiocese. “This has been a traumatic year. And I think that image of the church under reconstruction following a disaster is an appropriate image of the whole Church right now.”
The July 11, 2020 early morning fire at San Gabriel Mission burned the roof and most of the interior of its sanctuary. / John McCoy
The idea of a “Jubilee Year” originally comes from the Book of Leviticus, in which God commanded Israel to observe every 50th year as a time of mercy — when debts were forgiven, people in bondage were set free, and lands were returned to their original owners.
Since the 14th century, the Church has celebrated jubilees at regular intervals. The pope can also proclaim “extraordinary jubilees” to mark special events or anniversaries or to fulfill a special need (the last was in 2000, celebrated as “The Great Jubilee,” marking the beginning of the third millennium since the birth of Jesus).
To each jubilee the Church attaches certain indulgences, which are opportunities for grace and mercy. They may involve pilgrimages, prayers, or charitable works.
In Los Angeles, the San Gabriel jubilee year is being organized around both senses of the word “mission”: Special events, parish initiatives, and pilgrimage opportunities are being planned, with the intention of educating Catholics about the mission’s past while forming them to evangelize in the future.
“The hope for this jubilee year is not simply to celebrate the past, but to raise up a new generation of missionaries for our time and place,” said Father Sandoval, who is overseeing planning for the special year under the tagline “Forward in Mission” — an adaptation of Mission San Gabriel founder St. Junípero Serra’s famous motto, “Always Forward!”
The year will kick off on Sept. 8 with an opening prayer service at San Gabriel Mission, followed by 40 consecutive hours of eucharistic adoration at 22 parishes around the archdiocese designated as jubilee pilgrimage sites (one in each of the archdiocese’s 20 deaneries, plus St. Catherine of Alexandria on Catalina Island and La Placita near downtown LA).
An opening Mass for the jubilee will be held either at the mission or the cathedral on Saturday, Sept. 11, and a closing Mass on Sept. 10 of the following year.
In between, the archdiocese will be promoting “pilgrimage walks” between missions, parish retreats, a historical exhibit on the mission at the cathedral, and a curriculum on local church history and evangelization for use in Catholic schools. 
For Huerta, the educational element of the jubilee year is especially important in the wake of recent attacks on statues of St. Junípero, Mission San Gabriel’s founder, fueled by narratives that depict the evangelization of California as an act of oppression.
“We have an opportunity to change the narrative,” said Huerta. One component of the mission’s renewal will be the creation and dedication of an outdoor sacred space on the mission grounds designed by local descendants of Tongva natives. 
Both Huerta and Father Sandoval believe there is little use in clamoring for the past, when the opportunities for the mission’s renewal going forward are so obvious. 
“We do not want to return to normal. We want to return to the Gospel, which calls us to better than normal, because normal was decline,” said Father Sandoval. “We can’t simply revert to business-as-usual, maintenance mode. This is the moment to be intentionally missionary.”
“Even in these circumstances, even in this disaster zone, we find something new.”