Take It On Faith: Historic Photos of the Mission San Gabriel Church Interior, 1878-1900

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

For our interpretive time period of 1830 to 1930, the Mission San Gabriel was one of the most recognized, visited, and photographed historic sites in the San Gabriel Valley.  Established in September 1771 in the Whittier Narrows where abundant water was close, but quickly found to be too close, the mission moved to higher, drier ground to its current location within a few years.

The original site became known as Misión Vieja or Old Mission and, in 1851, F.P.F. Temple and Antonia Margarita Workman settled just a short distance southeast of the site when they were given half of Rancho La Merced by William Workman (who obtained it by foreclosure on its original owner, Casilda Soto de Lobo.)

Meanwhile, the mission was important for the Workman and Temple families over the decades for a few reasons.  In 1846, Governor Pío Pico granted mission lands to William Workman and Scotch native Hugo Reid.  After Reid’s death, others took over his interest and a land claim was filed in 1852.  The grant was upheld by the land claims commission and a federal district court, but was appealed to the United States Supreme Court, where, in spring 1864, the grant confirmation was overturned.

Members of the family took part in many sacraments at the mission church and some were interred in the cemetery.  In the 1920s, Walter P. Temple acquired land across the street and built three commercial buildings as well as donated the lot for San Gabriel City Hall.

Temple was so enthralled with California’s missions that he built a Mission Walkway surrounding his new mansion, La Casa Nueva, at the Homestead with the names and founding dates of the twenty-one missions and the Pala mission asistencia, or sub-mission, carved into the cement walkway while grapevines, supposedly cuttings from the old “mother vine” at San Gabriel, planted on an arbor over the walk.

2736SV No 238 San Gabriel Mission Los Angeles Co Cal 2007.65.1.2
A circa 1878 stereoscopic photograph by Alexander C. Varela of the south elevation of the Mission San Gabriel church taken from Mission Road.

He also became an enthusiastic supporter of John Steven McGroarty’s Mission Play, a passion play based on the German Oberammergau and which ran from the early 1910s into the Great Depression years.  When a new theater was built for the play and completed in 1927, Temple was, along with Henry E. Huntington, the largest financial contributor to the playhouse, which still operates.

To modern sensibilities, the Mission Play is an overly celebratory tribute to the Roman Catholic missionaries who brought the civilizing influences of Christianity to benighted pagan indigenous Indians.  Not only was the native element missing from the story, but so was the devastation, intended or not, wreaked upon the Indians by European contact.  In fact, a revisionist version of the Mission Play was performed at the playhouse several years ago.

The Mission Play was a particular product of its time and tourists who flocked to see the historic mission were often drawn to it as a relic from the Spanish and Mexican past largely dismantled in the rapid growth of greater Los Angeles during the last half of the 19th century.

Whether they came on the streetcar as part of a package tour of notable sites in the region or came on their own, visitors experienced a version of history at the mission that was written in ways that was definitely one-sided, religiously and ethnically.  They could even take home tintype photos of natives dressed in headgear from Indians of the Midwest Plains states, not the locals of greater Los Angeles.

Or, they could take home a souvenir photograph of the complex, with the vast majority of these being exterior views of the old stone church and, sometimes, the adobe rectory that stood to the west.  Almost all of these images were taken from the south and southwest, taking in the rectory (if included), the bell tower, and the south elevation, including an exterior staircase leading to the choir loft.

2735SV No 91 San Gabriel Mission Los Angeles Co Cal 2007.65.1.
Another Varela view, this time from the southeast, and taken from behind a wooden fence with the main entrance at the east elevation as well as the south side and a bit of the adobe rectory at the far left.  A careful look reveals the Southern Pacific railroad track not far behind the fence—this has been lowered in a recent project that unearthed many native and European artifacts.

Much rarer are interior shots of the church and tonight’s “Take It On Faith” entry highlights a pair of images from the Homestead’s collection that show the inside of the structure.

The first was a stereoscopic photograph taken about 1878 by Alexander C. Varela, who operated in Los Angeles for just a short period after leaving a government job in Washington, D.C. to pursue his photographic career.  Varela, who happened to be the brother-in-law of famed bandleader and composer John Phillip Sousa, was quite talented and his photos are often beautifully composed and carefully developed to bring out an excellent tonal quality.

Varela’s image is a close-up of the altar, with two steps up to an entry between wood railings, covered here in white cloth, and then three more steps to the altar.  To the sides are statues of angels on pedestals.  According to the mission web site,

The altar is original and was handcrafted in Mexico City, and brought to the Mission in the 1790’s.  The six polychrome wooden statues were hand carved in Spain, and they were brought around the Horn in 1791.  These statues and reredos  (ornamental screen covering at back of a church’s altar) were restored to their original beauty after the earthquake of 1987.  Also, Our Lady of Sorrows, well over 300 years old, now is beautifully framed in wrought iron.

The image captures the impressive size of the altar, which obviously was designed to instill awe and wonder to the congregants of the mission and, undoubtedly, still does convey the spiritual power of the religion to its adherents.

SV No 92 Interior San Gabriel Mission Los Angeles Co Cal 2007.65
Interior photos of the mission church are much less common than those of the exterior with this Varela image of the altar being a rare example.

The second photograph is an unattributed cabinet card photograph, probably from the 1890s, and which was taken from further back within the church’s nave, probably near the entrances at the center which lead to the north and south.  Rows of more finished pews with doors on the sides and backs with bars on them contrast with the simple wood benches at the right.

In addition to the altar, note that the wood rails are uncovered and the backdrop is different, we can also see paintings hung on wire, a large cabinet at the left by the rail and on the right, the raised pulpit.  Just below the pulpit in the first row of pews on the right are two seated men, probably priests at the mission.

Notice that the area around the retablo where the six statues are is plainer than in Varela’s photo, where there appears to be a striped fabric tapestry, which definitely provided a dramatic backdrop.  This cabinet card photo, though, has more dramatic interest because of the other elements of the nave and altar, including the Moorish arch that leads to the sanctuary.

Interior Of San Gabriel Mission Church 2014.507.1.1
This unattributed cabinet card photograph, probably from the 1890s, is taken from further back in the nave and shows more details (pews, benches, the raised pulpit, paintings hung on the side) in addition to the sanctuary and altar.)

A couple of other images by Varela of the church’s exterior are included here, with one taken from behind a fence to the southeast and showing the entirety of the church, including its east entrance, and a bit of the rectory.  Note the recently (well, about five years) laid Southern Pacific railroad track just behind the fence—this track has now been relaid below ground in a massive project that led to the unearthing of many native and European artifacts.

The second photo is from the southwest with Varela standing on the wide, dirt Mission Road and taking in the south elevation from the bell tower to the east end.  The only improvements in this rough scene are a white picket fence near the tower and a few trees planted along the church.


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