Fire de­stroys much of 249-year-old church

Enterprise-Record (Chico) - - FRONT PAGE - By Marcio Sanchez and Daisy Nguyen

San Gabriel Mis­sion was un­der­go­ing ren­o­va­tions and was set to re­open; cause of blaze un­der in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

SAN GABRIEL » A fire early Satur­day de­stroyed the rooftop and most of the in­te­rior of a Cal­i­for­nia church that was un­der­go­ing ren­o­va­tion to mark its up­com­ing 250th an­niver­sary cel­e­bra­tion.

Fire alarms at the San Gabriel Mis­sion rang around 4 a.m., and when fire­fight­ers re­sponded to the his­toric struc­ture they saw smoke ris­ing from the wooden rooftop, San Gabriel Fire Capt. Paul Ne­grete said.

He said fire­fight­ers en­tered the church and tried to beat back the flames, but they had to re­treat when roof­ing and other struc­tural ma­te­ri­als be­gan to fall, Ne­grete said.

“We were try­ing to fight it from the in­side, we weren’t able to be­cause it be­came un­safe,” he said.

Af­ter evac­u­at­ing the church, the crew was joined by up to 50 fire­fight­ers who tried to douse wa­ter on the 50-foot-high struc­ture from ladder trucks, he said.

“The roof is com­pletely gone,” the cap­tain said. “The fire tra­versed the wood rapidly, the in­te­rior is pretty much de­stroyed up into the al­tar area.”

The cause of the fire was un­der in­ves­ti­ga­tion, Ne­grete said.

The in­te­rior wall was re­done a week ago and crews had just fin­ished in­stalling the pews as part of a larger ren­o­va­tion of the prop­erty to mark the an­niver­sary of the found­ing of the mis­sion in 1771, said Terri Huerta, a spokes­woman for San Gabriel Mis­sion.

She said the fire­fight­ers’ ag­gres­sive stance and “a lit­tle bit of a mir­a­cle” kept the flames from reach­ing the al­tar.

The church had been pre­par­ing to re­open next week­end fol­low­ing a four­month clo­sure to slow the spread of the coro­n­avirus.

Se­lena Casada, 26, was in tears when she drove to the mis­sion af­ter she heard about the fire. She said she grew up in the parish and at­tended the el­e­men­tary school on the church’s grounds.

“I was bap­tized here, I had my first com­mu­nion here ... I was get­ting ready to get mar­ried here next year so this hurts,” Casada said. “It’s just re­ally sad to see such a his­toric place burned down be­cause this place means a lot to us.”

The church, built of stone, brick and mor­tar, orig­i­nally had a vaulted ceil­ing that was dam­aged by two earth­quakes in the early 1800s, she said. Fran­cis­can fa­thers re­placed the ceil­ing with a wood-pan­eled ceil­ing and the roof was last re­paired fol­low­ing some dam­age caused by the 1994 Northridge earth­quake, Huerta said.

The church was the fourth of a string of mis­sions es­tab­lished across Cal­i­for­nia by the Fran­cis­can priest, Ju­nipero Serra. The Ro­man Catholic priest forced Na­tive Amer­i­cans to stay at those mis­sions af­ter they were con­verted or face bru­tal pun­ish­ment.

MARCIO JOSE SANCHEZ — THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Cu­ri­ous on­look­ers stand out­side the San Gabriel Mis­sion in San Gabriel in the af­ter­math of a morn­ing fire Satur­day.

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