SAN GABRIEL (CNS) - A multi-agency investigation was underway Sunday following a four-alarm fire that caused "extensive damage" to the historic 249-year-old San Gabriel Mission.
Meanwhile, Los Angeles Archbishop Jose H. Gomez conducted a late- morning Mass at the Mission on Sunday and said a fundraising campaign is already underway to rebuild as the church's 250-year anniversary approaches.
"This destruction comes as we are getting ready to celebrate the 250th anniversary of this great mission. But this fire changes nothing. Mission San Gabriel will always be the spiritual heart of the Church in Los Angeles, the place from which the Gospel still goes forth," Gomez said during the homily.
"You trace your roots all the way back to the beginnings of the Christian faith in California, before the founding of the United States. In fact, you are one of the few Catholic communities in this continent that can claim to be founded by a saint. Last night I was praying to your founder, St. Junipero Serra, and reflecting on his words and witness," the archbishop continued. "And I thought, what would St. Junipero tell us this morning? And I remembered his beautiful little prayer: `Let us bear every hardship for the love of You and the salvation of souls. In our trials, may we know that we are loved as Your own children."'
The San Gabriel Mission was founded by Franciscan Father Junipero Serra in 1771, a few miles southeast of Pasadena.
Gomez was joined at Sunday's service by San Gabriel Mission pastor Father John Molyneux.
The fire at 4:25 a.m. Saturday sent firefighters to 428 S. Mission Road, where the first to arrive reported a large column of smoke and flame coming from the corner of the roof, said Capt. Antonio Negrete of the San Gabriel Fire Department.
"During the course of the fire, portions of the roof fell upon the firefighters," Negrete said. "They were evacuated and initiated a defensive fire attack."
The fire was knocked down at 6:48 a.m., he said. No injuries were reported.
"It's a tragic loss for our city. It's our city identifier," Negrete said. "We're trying to cope with it."
The entire wood roof was gone, and the building sustained "extensive damage," including destruction of pews, he said, although the altar was saved.
Negrete told the Los Angeles Times the bell tower and museum remained intact.
On Saturday afternoon, investigators from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and a regional task force including San Gabriel, Monterey Park, Monrovia and San Marino investigators were busy in the front of the mission where the fire was believed to have started, Negrete said. They could not get farther back because firefighters were still putting out hot spots, he said.
A dog from the Los Angeles Fire Department was also on the scene sniffing to see if any accelerants were used to start the fire, Negrete said. A report on the cause was not expected for a week.
The San Gabriel Fire Department said the initial investigation showed no sign of arson.
"We need to be diligent in our investigation and check all of the boxes," Negrete said. While arson investigations are routine with all fires at houses of worship, Negrete noted this blaze came at a time of criticism of the California missions and damage to several statues of Serra.
Church staff removed a statue of Serra from public view last week and put it in safe storage, Negrete said.
Gomez tweeted photos from the scene a short time later.
"Our beloved #SanGabrielMission, founded in 1771, devastated by fire before dawn," Gomez wrote. "St. Junipero Serra, pray for this land that you helped to found."
He offered prayers and wrote a letter to the broader faith community outlining the damage done.
"Thanks be to God, nobody was hurt," he wrote. "Thankfully, the historic paintings, the Stations of the Cross, and other artifacts had been removed from the sanctuary as part of the renovations being done to prepare for the mission's 250th anniversary next year."
The Church has already begun the rebuilding effort, setting up a special fund for the task: http://lacatholics.org/restoration.
"Mission San Gabriel is the historic cornerstone and the spiritual heart of Los Angeles and the Catholic community here," Gomez added in the letter, recalling the significance of the founding to the development of the region. "It was families from this mission, who in turn founded Los Angeles 10 years later, on September 4, 1781, walking nine miles west from the mission, crossing the Los Angeles River, and establishing El Pueblo de Nuestra Senora de los Angeles de Porciuncula."