Our Lady of Sorrows painting recovered from burned California mission church

la dolorosa Angelus News A centuries-old mysterious painting of “La Dolorosa” was recovered inside the Mission San Gabriel on Sept. 15, the feast of Our Lady of Sorrows. | Daniel Macias/Angelus News

A historic painting of Our Lady of Sorrows survived a devastating fire this summer at a California mission church, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles has said.

The painting is one of two images of Our Lady of Sorrows at the mission, the other of which has an alleged miraculous past.

The church at Mission San Gabriel Arcángel, which St. Junipero Serra founded in 1771, burned July 11 in a fire being investigated for arson.

Restoration efforts for the mission church are still in the debris clean-up phase, with a full rebuilding likely to take at least a year, Angelus News reports. The four-alarm fire at the mission in July involved 50 firefighters and destroyed the mission's wooden roof and interior.

Much of the artwork in the mission church had been removed several months before the fire as part of an ongoing restoration, ahead of the mission's 250-year jubilee celebration planned for September 2021.

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

Workmen in September discovered the painting intact under a burnt crossbeam, having suffered only minor damage. It was unknown at that time what, if anything, remained underneath the substantial rubble in the sanctuary.

A recent inventory of the mission's artwork by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art dated the painting to the 18th century, though the exact date and the identity of the artist is not yet known, Angelus News reported.   

One of the pieces of art removed from the church was another painting of Our Lady of Sorrows- "La Dolorosa" in Spanish- which is associated with an alleged miraculous event around the year 1771, whereby Mary's intercession appeared to save the mission from destruction.

At the time, Spanish soldiers in the area were occasionally provoking serious conflicts with the indigenous Tongva population. On one occasion, a Spanish soldier raped two indigenous women.

The Spanish Catholic missionaries very often did not share the same goals, tactics, and values as the Spanish military. The Franciscan missionaries who founded Mission San Gabriel wished to disassociate themselves from the soldiers, and moved the mission from its original site to a site about 3 miles away.

St. Serra protested the soldiers' misdeeds, writing to the Spanish viceroy at the time that "a plague of evils" had broken out in San Gabriel.

The missionaries could do little to stop the soldiers. The indigenous community, angered by the soldiers' abuses, at one point confronted the mission.

"The missionaries came out with a banner of Our Lady of Sorrows, and they unfurled it, and the Native people were literally pacified in that instant. It's long been construed as a miracle for that community," Dr. Ruben Mendoza, an archeologist and professor at California State University-Monterey Bay, told CNA earlier this year.

According to a biography of St. Junipero Serra, the Tongva people, upon seeing the image of Our Lady of Sorrows, "threw down their bows and arrows and the two chiefs rushed forward to place at the feet of the Sovereign Queen the beads they wore around their necks to show their great esteem."

The intercession of Our Lady of Sorrows by way of the painting is widely believed to have saved the mission at that time, Mendoza said. San Gabriel would go on to be one of the most successful and productive of all the California missions, and would go on in 1781 to form the core of the city of Los Angeles.

Diva Zumaya, the art expert from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, believes the painting unfurled for the Tongva has been heavily painted over in the years since its creation.

More in US

Among the art that had been removed from the church- and thus survived the fire unharmed- are many pieces created by the Tongva people, including a set of Stations of the Cross. Much of the art created by the Tongva, including an image of the crucifixion on the Twelfth Station, depict Christ and Mary as resembling indigenous Californians.

The archdiocese has so far raised some $200,000 through donations to help rebuild the mission.

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

"These are my roots," Morales told Angelus News, holding back tears as he surveyed the scene 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."

Traveling almost everywhere on foot and practicing various forms of self-mortification, Junipero Serra founded mission churches all along the coast- the first nine of the 21 missions in what is today California, many of which would form the cores of what are today the state's biggest cities. Pope Francis canonized Serra in 2015 during a visit to the United States.

The Spanish taught the Natives new agricultural techniques, as well as instruction in the faith, performing thousands of baptisms. Serra advocated for the rights of Native peoples, at one point drafting a 33-point "bill of rights" for the Native Americans living in the mission settlements and walking all the way from California to Mexico City to present it to the viceroy.

(Story continues below)

Statues of the saint have this year become focal points for protests and demonstrations across California, with images of the saint being torn down or vandalized in protest of California's colonial past.

A group of activists in San Rafael, CA this week defaced a statue of Serra on private property with red spray paint before tearing it from its foundation.

A statue of the saint was torn down in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, on June 19 by a crowd of about 100 people, and on the same day a statue of the saint was torn down in Los Angeles.

Rioters pulled down and defaced a statue of Serra in Sacramento on July 4, inspiring a local Catholic to set up a makeshift shrine to Serra on the statue's empty plinth July 5, and lead other Catholics in cleaning graffiti from the site.

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 into storage for this reason not long before the fire.

Our mission is the truth. Join us!

Your monthly donation will help our team continue reporting the truth, with fairness, integrity, and fidelity to Jesus Christ and his Church.