Walking into the Mission San Gabriel Archangel is like stepping back 200 years into the early days of Alta California history. Founded in 1771, it is the fourth of a chain of 21 missions began by St. Junipero Serra, a Franciscan friar, to bring Catholicism to the New World.
In its heyday, it was the most prosperous of all the missions, with the largest winery, over 13,000 cattle and 6,500 sheep, and supplying most of the candles and soap to all the other missions. The mission was secularized after Mexico won its independence from Spain, but after the Mexican-American War, Abraham Lincoln returned it to the Catholic Church shortly before he was assassinated. The mission is named after the Archangel Gabriel, who announced the Incarnation to Mary, the mother of Jesus.
You start your tour walking out from a tiny gift shop crammed ceiling to floor with religious items into a peaceful, green courtyard, dominated by a majestic Crucifix, built as a memorial to the 6,000 Gabrieleno Indians buried at the mission. Colonnades line the perimeter, covered by a canopy of grapes, their 200 year old vines as thick as tree trunks. Set underneath this green leafy roof are the 14 Stations of the Cross, each depicting pictorially a scene from Christ’s sorrowful Passion.
You then enter into the church, whose Moorish buttressed four to seven feet thick walls and fortlike appearance are reminiscent of Cordova, Spain, where the priest who designed it was from. Outside there is a wall cut with openings to display six large bells, the largest weighing over a ton. Inside is a beautiful altar made in Mexico City brought over in the 1790s.
The original baptistry room has a silver Spanish baptismal font shell in use since 1771. To the right of the altar is an over 300 year old painting of Mary that, in a way, saved the mission. When the founding fathers of the mission were looking for a good site for it, they came across a group of Indians determined to drive them away. One of the priests spread the painting on the ground to show them, and the Indians were so impressed with the beautiful “Our Lady of Sorrows” that they offered signs of friendship instead.
Upon leaving the church, which forms much of the south side of the mission, proceed west to the work areas. You exit the cemetery to enter a quadrangle with an orchard of olive and orange trees and more grapevines in the middle. In one corner is a small building where grapes were initially stomped and later pressed to make into wine.
The museum building that completes the south side of the mission used to contain rooms for weaving, carpentry, storing grain, and sleeping quarters for the priests. On the west side of the quadrangle, which forms the west side of the mission, were quarters
for the men who worked at the mission, a smithy, infirmary, and girls’ schoolroom.
What struck me was how much activity occurred in such a relatively small amount of space. The replica of the priest’s bedroom looked like a small cell. The bed looked so short my legs would have stuck out the end, and there was only the thinnest of paddings on it for a mattress. But on the headboard was painted the most glorious image of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. I thought, “These guys were low on comfort, high in art.”
The museum also contains all kinds of interesting artifacts like a huge choir book with square notes painted on oversized staffs (my guess was the print had to be big enough for the whole choir to read off of one book).
There were als
o books as old as 1489; at one time, the mission library boasted 227 volumes. Lining the walls above your head are native paintings of the 14 Stations of the Cross, possibly the oldest collection of Indian sacred paintings in California, done in olive oil with wildflower pigments.
On the northeastern corner of the mission are the outdoor work areas, including four giant soap and tallow vats that each held 2,500 gallons, laundry and tanning tanks, and open fireplaces where pozole, or popcorn soup,
was cooked to feed the Indians who worked at the mission. At one time there were 1,300 Indians who worked on the mission lands. The bells would ring out at noon, reminding everyone to say the Angelus prayer to honor the Incarnation. Then the people would come in from the fields to eat. They probably drank right from the aqueduct that was placed right next to the fireplaces where the soup was cooked. The mission fathers designed an ingenious system of crude clay pipes underground that brought water from the Wilson River to the aqueduct where it was pumped to the laundry and tanning tanks, kitchen, and fields for irrigation.
Overall, I got a sense of real admiration for the people of the mission. They managed to work together to create a center of learning, spirituality, and incredible industry in the wilderness. The actual buildings were small by our standards, yet so much economic activity was accomplished in a compactly organized space. It was clear from the austere living quarters compared to the library and church filled with spiritual books and art what drove the Franciscan fathers. Come to San Gabriel Mission and experience that spirit and passion for yourself.