Man charged with arson in connection with Mission San Gabriel fire

San Gabriel Mission Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles visits the scene of the fire at San Gabriel mission, July 11, 2020/ Jon McCoy/Angelus News

A California man was charged with arson Tuesday in connection with a fire that ravaged a historic mission church in Los Angeles County last July.

Mission San Gabriel Arcángel, a church founded by St. Junipero Serra in 1771, suffered a devastating fire during the early morning hours of July 11, 2020. The fire destroyed the church’s roof and interior. The alleged arsonist, 57 year-old John David Corey, was charged in a Los Angeles Criminal Court on Tuesday.

Corey now faces two felony counts of arson of an inhabited structure and one count each of arson during a state of emergency, first-degree residential burglary, and possession of flammable material, according to NBC Los Angeles. He was known at the mission and had a history of conflicts with mission staff, law enforcement sources told the Los Angeles Times.

According to the San Gabriel Fire Department, Corey had already been arrested and sentenced to three years in prison for an unrelated incident when investigators pegged him as a person of interest in the Mission San Gabriel case.

"After a thorough investigation, investigators determined that Corey was responsible for the fire at the Mission San Gabriel,” the fire department said in a statement. 

The mission was the fourth mission founded by St. Junípero Serra, a Franciscan priest who founded a series of missions across California. Serra helped to convert thousands of native Californians to Christianity, and taught them new agricultural technologies.

San Gabriel would go on to be one of the most successful and productive of all the 21 California missions, and in 1781 would form the core of the city of Los Angeles.

The Archdiocese of Los Angeles, in a statement provided to CNA, called the mission “a historic cornerstone and spiritual heart of Los Angeles and the Catholic community.”

The mission’s pastor, Fr. John Molyneux, said at a May 4 press conference following the announcement of Corey’s indictment, “We pledge our continued cooperation with the District Attorney’s office as we seek justice tempered with mercy.” 

“Our community of faith at the Mission is close-knit and has been rocked by this incident. For many life-long parishioners, this fire has been a little death. But we are resurrection people, and look ahead to the future with a renewed sense of hope and purpose,” he said.

Corey’s possible motive for starting the fire has not yet been publicly announced. Anonymous law enforcement officials speaking to the LA Times said Corey was known to the mission and had quarreled with staff members in the past, and harbored anger toward the Catholic Church. 

Corey is set to be arraigned— have the charges read to him— on May 18. 

Father Molyneux thanked the local fire department and the detective assigned to the case for their work, and echoed the words of Christ in encouraging the mission community to “pray for those who persecute you.” 

The Los Angeles archdiocese similarly encouraged prayers for Corey “that he may know God’s mercy and love.”

The fire began around 4 a.m. on July 11, and destroyed the roof and interior of the 250-year-old structure. Local firefighters said they responded to an initial fire alarm at 4:24 a.m.. By the time they arrived, smoke and flames were visible from outside the church.

Eventually, 50 firefighters battled the four-alarm fire, according to the Los Angeles Times. Local fire department spokesman Captain Antonio Negrete called the damage “heartbreaking.”

Prior to the fire, much of the artwork in the church had been removed as part of an ongoing restoration. The mission’s 250-year jubilee celebration is planned for September 2021.

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A historic painting of Our Lady of Sorrows, depicting the Virgin Mary in a somber, dark landscape, was the only piece of artwork remaining in the church that survived the fire.

Many of Serra’s missions form the cores of what are today the state’s biggest cities— such as San Diego, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.

For Anthony Morales, tribal chief of the San Gabrielino Mission Indians and a parishioner of Mission San Gabriel, the damage caused by the fire was more than material.

“These are my roots,” Morales told Angelus News, holding back tears as he surveyed the scene last year hours after the fire had been contained.

“This is my church. All my ancestors are buried in the cemetery next door. Six thousand of my ancestors are buried on these grounds, and this is the church that they built. It’s just very devastating.”

The rebuilding effort at Mission San Gabriel is ongoing; currently the structure has a temporary wooden roof. 

Workers restoring the Mission have in the past year have made unexpected discoveries, such as walls painted with colorful designs that historians never knew existed, which were exposed under peeling layers of plaster. 

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Workers also discovered previously unknown layers of old brick and slabs of stone mined from the San Gabriel Mountains under the mission’s wooden floors, which buckled under the weight of the firefighters’ water. 

The archdiocese said the mission’s newly designed roof is set to be finished by the end of August, ahead of the mission’s 250th anniversary on September 11th. 

“We are thankful for all of the people who have worked so earnestly in the Mission’s reconstruction,” the archdiocese concluded. 

Despite St. Serra’s record defending indigenous peoples, images of the saint have for years been focal points for protests and demonstrations across California. In 2020, numerous statues of the saint were torn down or vandalized by protestors.

Some California institutions, such as the University of San Diego, have put their statues of Serra in storage to protect them. Mission San Gabriel had put its images of Serra, including a bronze statue, into storage for this reason not long before the fire.