While there was no immediate word on the cause of the fire, investigators from a regional task force and from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives spent Saturday afternoon in the front of the mission, where the fire is believed to have started, City News Service reported July 12.
Local Catholics who showed up at the mission the next day to pray were suspicious. The timing of the fire, and the broader attacks on St. Junípero statues and other church properties, was too much of a coincidence for them.
"We don't know how it happened, but it seems like the Church is under attack. There's a lot of resentment and a lot of anger," said Miguel Sanchez, president of the local "Knights of Bikes" chapter.
Sanchez and his fellow motorcycle-riding Knights of Columbus members were among the dozens who gathered outside the damaged church Sunday morning despite nearly triple digit temperatures to pray the rosary. Some came from as far as Orange and San Diego counties after word about the gathering spread through social media.
One of those was Barbara Quigley, a teacher at Our Lady of Perpetual Help School in Downey. She said the lessons of her fourth-grade California history class were worth keeping in mind.
"I'm not a stranger to teaching my students that a lot of the missions have gone through earthquakes and fires, and they've been able to rebuild," said Quigley, who drove from Anaheim to join the prayer group on Sunday morning.
"So I have full faith and confidence that our church will be able to restore the mission. It won't be the same, but [the mission] will still stay and we'll be resilient."
Resilience was the theme that morning inside the mission's Chapel of the Annunciation, where the mission's pastor, Father John Molyneux, CMF, made a bold pledge to Archbishop José Gomez.
"You will be back to celebrate our 250th anniversary in a rebuilt church," Father Molyneux promised the archbishop at the start of Mass.
Archbishop Gomez had visited the mission just after the fire was contained and came back the next day to celebrate the Sunday Mass and to show solidarity with grieving parishioners.
In his homily, he sounded a hopeful tone.
"This fire changes nothing," the archbishop said. "Mission San Gabriel will always be the spiritual heart of the Church in Los Angeles, the place from which the Gospel still goes forth."
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Archbishop Gomez invoked the intercession and example of the mission's founder, St. Junípero, a Spanish missionary who advocated for the rights of California's native peoples, including the Gabrielino-Tongva Tribe, who built San Gabriel.
"St. Junípero and the first Franciscan missionaries answered the Lord's call and sacrificed everything to bring his word to this land," he said. "Now it is our turn to make sure his word is proclaimed to the next generation."
After the Mass, Kathleen and Elizabeth Chelling said they were encouraged by the archbishop's message.
"I think that for a lot of years, there has been this kind of complacency in a lot of Catholic circles," said Kathleen, who drove up from Orange County with her sister to participate in the rosary and stayed for Mass.
"I hope that these difficult times can serve as a wake-up call," she added. "If you look at a lot of the saints' lives, a lot of them came from time periods of difficulty. Instead of turning into despair or bitterness or walking away, they used it as motivation to go deeper."
A tragedy like the fire, she added, "is a reminder of how deeply Jesus is needed."