250 years of testing the San Gabriel Mission


In May 2018, I spontaneously decided to start hiking the California Mission Trail of approximately 800 miles. With much prayer, the support of my family and friends at California Mission Walkers, I finished in June 2020.

I first visited the 21 California missions, founded by Spanish Franciscans between 1769 and 1823, by car when I was single. After I got married and started a family, we often stopped to visit a mission on road trips.

But it was while walking on this American “Camino” that really helped me understand what the writer Richard Rodriguez said about the impact of the missions: “Living here [California] it is to submit to the names, to the ruins of a Spanish adventure, to live among the Spaniards. To live here is to become, implicitly, Catholic, culturally Catholic ”(Los Angeles Times, September 13, 1987).

In light of the jubilee year marking the 250th anniversary of the San Gabriel Arcángel Mission, it is important to understand the central role of the mission in the evangelization of California and what sets it apart from other missions.

If we were to ask the founder of the mission, St. Junípero Serra, he could start by describing the mission as one of his most difficult undertakings.

The San Gabriel mission did not develop as the Spanish missionaries initially envisioned. The original mission was founded on September 8, 1771 by Fathers Pedro Cambón and Angel de la Somera, in present-day Montebello. Soon after, however, the planned site was moved to its current location on higher ground due to flooding.

In a special 1944 edition of The Tidings dedicated to Saint Junípero, the author describes the displaced mission as “lying at the foot of a great mountain range … unmatched for the beauty and fertility of the soil”.

Illustrated map, circa 1949, showing the 21 California missions and a brief history of St. Junípero Serra. (Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons)

But in 1772, less than a year after its founding, the mission seemed at the top of the list of concerns for the future saint.

” This mission [San Gabriel] gives me the greatest cause for anxiety, ”wrote Saint Junípero in a letter to his tutor in Mexico City, Father Rafael Verger. “The secular arm over there was guilty of the most heinous crimes, killing men to take their wives. “

And yet, despite all the hardships that Mission San Gabriel would face over the years – floods, fires, and earthquakes among them – the fearless spirit of the people of Mission San Gabriel persevered.

Even though I had taught California history in high school and written books and articles on Catholic history in Spanish and Mexican California, walking in the footsteps of those who paved the way before me – indigenous, Spanish and “mestizo” – helped me to appreciate more deeply what Pope Francis shared during his homily at the canonization mass of Saint Junípero in September 2015. He spoke of a Church “moving forward” and along the way I met stories of many Catholics who did just that, literally.

Located at what would become a crossroads between the Spanish Southwest Missions and those on the Pacific Coast, Mission San Gabriel was often a hive of activity. This would never have happened without the 238 men, including 78 soldiers, sent by the Spanish government in 1769 to repel possible intruders.

“Although small in size, these outposts [presidios located at San Diego, Monterey, and Santa Barbara] would represent Spain’s claim to the region if challenged by England, Russia or another imperial power, ”California historian Albert Greenstein wrote in 1999.

The plan was quite unique: rather than sending settlers from the home country, the local natives would be converted to Catholicism, thus making them Spanish citizens. But progress was slow at first. Father Junípero begged the Crown to send married soldiers and their families. He believed that they would be positive role models for the natives. The Crown agreed.

Mission San Gabriel, circa 1832, by Ferdinand Deppe. (Wikimedia Commons)

On March 22, 1774, with the help of Native American guides, Captain Juan Bautista de Anza and his expedition, including Father Francisco Garcés, reached the San Gabriel mission after exploring a land route that the settlers had to take to join the Spanish missions. emerging along the Pacific coast. .

The next time Father Garcés (remembered in history for naming the Colorado River and for being the first European to explore the Central Valley of California) returned to the San Gabriel Mission later that same year, it was was with his old friend Fray Junípero, whom he had met in Mexico six years earlier. The two brothers traveled the hundred miles between Mission San Diego de Alcalá and Mission San Gabriel, mostly battling rain and mud. It took them six days.

On February 12, 1776, after crossing the Sonoran and Mojave deserts, 30 families (240 men, women, and children) of the Second Anza Expedition, whose ultimate goal was to colonize San Francisco, reached the San Gabriel Mission. According to National park service, the “[colonists] reflected the diverse castes of Spanish society, a blend of Native American, African and European heritage. Like so many immigrants today, at great expense, they have come to seek a better life.

Other immigrants arrived on August 18, 1781. Eleven families from Loreto came to the mission to found Pueblo de los Ángeles, the second “pueblo” (“town”) created during the Spanish colonization of California, the first being San José in 1777. Roy E. Whitehead, MD, describes the nine mile journey made on September 4, 1781 to found the new “pueblo” in his 1978 book “Lugo: A Chronicle of Early California”.

“The parade started with Sergeant José Anton Navarro in the lead, carrying the image of Our Lady of the Angels, followed by Corporal José Venegas with the Holy Cross, followed by Private Luis Quintero waving the banner of Spain. Then came the governor [Neve] with Fathers Crurado and Sanchez de San Gabriel, in the presence of Indian acolytes. The eleven settler families marched behind with their twenty-two children, followed by mounted soldier guards. These dragons wore leather jackets and carried spears that swayed from their arms, and oval rawhide shields hung from their saddle horns. Many Indians brought up the rear, leading the horses, mules and cattle that were the livestock that the settlers were to use during their probationary period. They came to an outer altar that had been built before their march. The priests came forward and said Mass, with the large congregation in a semicircle around the altar (86-87).

Since 1981, the descendants of families, known as “Los Pobladores, ”And friends drove the road over Labor Day weekend.

Pilgrimage walks can be a powerful way to deepen faith in this Jubilee Year for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. It will help someone to work towards a spiritual goal. What was powerful for me was to realize more deeply that I am not walking alone on this earthly pilgrimage. I have traveled the same routes taken by the Catholics who came before me – natives, Spaniards and “half-breeds”. Their faith was stronger than any fear of what tomorrow might bring them.

Mission San Gabriel has been through a lot in its 250 years. One of my favorite stories is from the painting “La Dolorosa” (“Our Lady of Sorrows”): When the local Indians upset by the Spaniards building a mission in their backyard saw “La Dolorosa”, they been pacified by her beauty. (The story of its flight in 1977 and the recovery in 1991 is also quite miraculous.)

We think of the floods, the epidemic of 1827-1828 and the earthquakes of 1804, 1812 and 1987. Of course, there was the 2020 Fire. Miraculously, “La Dolorosa” was unharmed, safe in storage.

Each time, however, people, many of whom were baptized in the hammered copper mission baptismal font offered by Spain’s King Carlos III in 1971, respond. They move forward in the mission, an effort led by hope. Like Zechariah, Gabrieleños and Angeleños are comforted by the words of the Archangel Gabriel: “Do not be afraid … because your prayer has been answered” (Luke 1:13).


Leave A Reply