This Morning’s Fire at the Old Stone Church of Mission San Gabriel

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

A colleague sent the word out this morning to the devastating fire which has destroyed the roof and much of the interior of the historic stone church at the Mission San Gabriel, a place of immense spiritual and historical importance to the region and the Workman and Temple families, but also a location of recent controversy involving disparate views of Junípero Serra, founder of many of the California missions, and the treatment of the indigenous people of California within the mission system.

The fire was reported at about 4:30 this morning and, by the time fire crews and other first responders arrived, the building was fully involved and the flames were not totally extinguished until late morning.  Obviously, an investigation as to cause (there are reports of arson circulating and the removal of Serra’s statue from public view may be a reason especially with recent movements concerning such monuments) and an assessment of the damage will take place in coming days, weeks and months and we’ll see what transpires from there.

SV 265 Mission San Gabriel Established Sept 8th 1771 2008.101.1.
An 1870s stereoscopic photograph of the Mission San Gabriel stone church taken from the Southern Pacific railroad tracks to the southeast.  All images here are from the Homestead’s collection.

To Roman Catholics, particularly those who are parishioners at the Mission, this is a devastating situation, spiritually and personally.  If the cause is determined to be arson, there will, of course, be much discussion and debate about how to engage in dialog about the historical issues surrounding the missions and the situation involving their treatment of the indigenous people, should this have been the primary or one of the main reasons for the act.

From that historical perspective, the Workman and Temple families have had deep ties and connections with the Mission since the early 1840s, when William and Nicolasa Workman, along with their children Margarita and José, arrived in the area from New Mexico and after Margarita married F.P.F. Temple.  The family attended masses, took part in sacraments, and had other religious and spiritual involvements there, but there was more than that.

SV No 92 Interior San Gabriel Mission Los Angeles Co Cal 2007.65
A circa 1878 stereoscopic view of the altar in the mission church.

When John Rowland, who came to the region with the Workmans, petitioned Governor Juan Bautista Alvarado in early 1842 for a grant to Rancho La Puente, the priests at San Gabriel filed a vigorous protest.  Although the Mission, like the others in the chain in Mexican Alta California, was secularized several years prior, the clergy there still laid claim to the rancho for raising cattle and horses and growing grain, which they had done at La Puente as far back as the early 1790s.

Despite the protest from San Gabriel, Rowland was granted La Puente by Alvarado and the Rowland and Workman families established homes on the ranch in close proximity to the Mission’s granary, which sat on the north side of what is now Valley Boulevard west of Hacienda Boulevard and directly north of the Homestead.

68 Interior of San Gabriel Mission 2012.439.1.2
A view of most of the church’s interior from an 1890s cabiney card photo.

This location was also adjacent to the indigenous village of Awig-na and there were still native people residing there, despite the terrible death toll that took place under Mission control and in the years afterward.  The history of the indigenous and their treatment during the Spanish and Mexican eras is one that we continue to explore with the Kizh Gabrieleño Band of Mission Indians through museum programming.

In 1846, just after Pío Pico became the final governor of Mexican Alta California and as the American invasion of the region loomed, the lands of the Mission San Gabriel were granted to Hugo Reid, a native of Scotland who was married to a major indigenous figure at San Gabriel, Victoria Bartolomea, and William Workman.  This grant, involving many thousands of acres, was not only protested by the mission priests and the Church, but by settlers residing on the disputed property.

Tourists At Mission San Gabriel 2005.294.1.1
This early 20th century image shows a group of tourists from a trolley car trip through the region posed in front of the belfry and adobe rectory at San Gabriel.

After the conclusion of the Mexican-American War and the 1851 California land claims act was enacted and put in force, the claim to the Mission lands was prosecuted by Workman and those who acquired Reid’s half interest.  It was approved by the three-person commission that first heard the claims and then affirmed by the local federal district court.  On appeal, however, to the United States Supreme Court in spring 1864 (claims did take years to adjudicate), the high court ruled against the claim, determining that Pico did not have the legal right to make the grant.

In 1850, Workman foreclosed on Casilda Soto de Lobo, the grantee of Rancho La Merced, another former Mission San Gabriel property, and then turned over half the ranch to his daughter and son-in-law, the Temples, and the other to his La Puente foreman, Juan Matias Sánchez.  The latter moved into the Soto adobe and added a wing—the house is now a City of Montebello historic landmark, while the former built an adobe house in 1851 at the southeast corner of Rosemead Boulevard where San Gabriel Boulevard and Durfee Avenue meet.

Tintype Of Tourists With Chief Manito Mission Play 2010.300.1.1
A common tourist “experience” in the 1920s was to pose at the Mission with “Chief Menito,” standing second from the right, and wear “Indian” costumes including headdresses like those worn by natives in Great Plains states of the American Midwest, which were nothing like the clothing of local indigenous people.

The northern boundary of the ranch passed through what became known as Misión Vieja, or Old Mission, where San Gabriel was established in September 1771 along the west bank of the Río Hondo, or the old channel of the San Gabriel River.  The location was later part of the tiny Rancho Potrero Chico, which was only about 90 acres and this is north of today’s San Gabriel Boulevard.  The community that arose there was primarily Latino, though the Temples and a few other Anglos also resided there over the decades.

As noted above, the Workman and Temple family maintained their spiritual and historical ties to the Mission over the decades and, by the early 20th century, with the popularity of Helen Hunt Jackson’s novel Ramona and a romanticized revival of interest in the history, however widely divergent it was interpreted, of pre-American California, they became very invested in a certain perception of San Gabriel’s past.

Agnes Temple And Friends Mission San Gabriel
Agnes Temple, standing second from the right, and other descendants of early Californios who participated in a pageant for the Mission’s sesquicentennial in July 1921.

This was especially true once Walter P. Temple and his wife Laura Gonzalez, who grew up near Walter at Misión Vieja, came into a startling stroke of good fortune when their nine-year old son Thomas discovered oil on their ranch at the northeastern corner of the Montebello Hills and adjacent lands along the west edge of the Río Hondo.

In summer 1921, as the mission was celebrating its sesquicentennial, the Temples partook in a pageant celebrating the work of the Spanish missionaries, much as was done in John Steven McGroarty’s popular and long-running The Mission Play, performed at San Gabriel between the early 1910s and early 1930s.

Walter P Temple Funeral Casket Carried Into San Gabriel Mission
The casket carrying the remains of Walter P. Temple being taken into the old stone church at Mission San Gabriel, November 1938.

Walter Temple also commissioned a granite marker to commemorate the founding of Mission San Gabriel at Misión Vieja and placed it at the southwest corner of San Gabriel Boulevard and Lincoln Avenue.  This happened to be land that he owned and was part of the lease on which Standard Oil Company of California, now Chevron, was producing the wells the generated the wealth the Temples then enjoyed.  But, it was not the actual site of the original Mission, which was to the north.  This has confused those who’ve sought out San Gabriel’s first location and the spot where the marker sits has long been a state historical landmark—despite the error.

In the mid-1920s, when McGroarty and supporters formed an association to build a new theater for the performance of The Mission Play, Temple, along with Henry E. Huntington, was the largest donor of cash to the project and his business manager, Milton Kauffman was on the group’s board of directors.  The theater, which opened in 1927, still stands and continues to offer live performances.

Thomas W II And Gabriela Temple At Mission San Gabriel ca 1952
A circa 1952 image of Thomas W. Temple II and his wife Gabriela Quiroz, a San Gabriel native, who hosted events at the Mission, including a Pioneer Reception for the annual founding fiesta each September, for decades from the mid-1930s to early 1970s.

While Walter Temple’s fortune, drained through further oil prospecting; real estate projects including the creation of Temple City; and many improvements at the Workman Homestead, which he bought in 1917, and which included the building of the family’s mansion, La Casa Nueva; was depleted by the early 1930s, there was another generational tie forged to San Gabriel.

Thomas W. Temple II, Walter and Laura’s eldest child, earned a law degree from Harvard Law School in 1929, but chose not to pursue a legal career.  Instead, a growing fascination with genealogy and history led him to San Gabriel, where he lived with his mother’s sister in a historic adobe just south of the Mission.  By the mid-1930s, he was hosting an annual Pioneer Reception of descendants of early settlers of the region and taking a large part in each year’s fiesta to celebrate the founding of the Mission.

Thomas W Temple II Next To Serra Statue Mission San Gabriel 96.7
Thomas W. Temple II with a statue of Father Junipero Serra, which was installed at the Mission for the 1921 sesquicentennial.  This photo dates to probably the early 1930s.

The first person to systematically translate and transcribe California mission records, Temple also became a genealogist for those looking to establish their ties to early settlers of Spanish and Mexican California, though some of his work has come into question in recent years.  He became the official historian of both the Mission San Gabriel and the city of San Gabriel and presided over many events concerning the two for nearly four decades (he is also generally credited with establishing the birth date of Los Angeles as 4 September 1781, though that, also, has been questioned).  Dying of cancer, he was able to participate in the 1971 bicentennial of the Mission’s founding, but passed away four months later at age 67.  Thomas is one of only two lay persons (the other being Eulalia Pérez de Guillen) to be buried with the priests next to the old stone church.

In coming days and weeks, investigators will sift through the ashes of destroyed sections of the old stone church at San Gabriel and determine whether or not arson is the cause and why.  There will, naturally, be much discussion of this event and what it means, both to those who are Church faithful and parishioners of the mission and those who are interested in its history, with all of its facets, including those of current controversy.

One thought

  1. Thanks, Paul for so quickly putting this togehter. Whatever the cause of the fire, it is a sad event. The legacy of the Mission is profoundly embedded in the culture of this valley and California in general. The artifacts of history have many meanings to many people. Civilization requries both that we accept the past and understand it. Destruction is denial, which serves neither.

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