Ep. 037: Mission San Gabriel, Godmother of L.A.

How California's fourth mission led to the founding of America's second-largest city

UPDATE July 12, 2020: Sad news from the Mission.

Both photos Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times

I was born and raised in the San Gabriel Valley, in the shadow, as it were, of Mission San Gabriel Arcangel, just under three miles away. The fourth California mission to be established, it has a few unique features--and one achievement to its lasting glory (or shame) which has garnered it the title "Godmother of the Pueblo of Los Angeles." Learn all about it in this episode of


As mentioned in Episode 025 about Mission San Antonio, the missions system in California started at San Diego, near the border of what is now Mexico (California was all a Spanish province then); leaped up to Monterey and Carmel; then continued in between at San Antonio. San Gabriel, then, was between #1 and #3, and the system would continue to be filled in and extended until it ran from San Diego to Sonoma.

Finding Mission San Gabriel

The back door of the old mission church faces east; note the external choir stair on the left. The two statues in the niches are of the mission's founders, Padres Angel Fernandez de la Somera and Pedro Benito Cambon; the one in the right foreground is Junipero Serra, "father" of all the missions.

The mission that I grew up near was actually the second site of San Gabriel. The first, now sometimes called the Mision Vieja or "Old Mission," had been six or seven miles to the south, along the Rio Hondo River in what is now Montebello. It was abandoned due to flooding. But even that site was not the one originally planned. Several sources tell us that the original plan was to place the mission in Orange County, on the Rio de Los Temblores, or the River of the Earthquakes--called today the Santa Ana River.

From what I can find, the missionaries moved past the Santa Ana River because they couldn't find a suitable site for agriculture. But there was another event, and whether it happened in today's Orange County or at the mission's first site on the Rio Hondo is unclear.

It's a Miracle!

It seems the natives weren't too happy with the land grab, and were fixing to attack the party--until, as the mission's pamphlet has it: "...one of the padres produced a canvas painting of Our Lady of Sorrows, and unfurled it before the wondering eyes of the menacing heathens. Immediately, as if transfixed by its sight, they threw down their bows and arrows; the chieftains laid before the picture of Our Sovereign Queen beads they wore about their necks in a token of peace and respect. In the years to come this wondrous event was ever considered a miracle, and in commemoration the marvelous painting is on display to this day for the veneration of the faithful in the sanctuary of the old Mission Church." (And so it is; I've seen it.)

The mission's facade; compare to the Cordoba mosque below. When I took the photo, the campanario was being repaired after the 1987 Whittier Narrows Quake. (Ignore the man with the clock--a story for another time.)

Again, several of the accounts that I've read leave it unclear exactly where this happened. One actually says (a bit disingenuously, I think) that after the natives laid down their weapons, "Respectful of both Native American feelings and of earthquake potential, the missionaries and soldiers moved on. On September 8, 1771, after crossing the San Gabriel River, they founded a mission in present day Montebello." That seems to settle the site of the "miracle" as Orange County, but other accounts contradict it.

The Mission Today

The one-time Cordoba mosque, inspiration for the mission's design (see above)

The mission's facade (actually, the left side wall of the church) today is striking; El Camino Real (the "King's Highway") once ran right below the Moorish-looking wall. The priest who designed San Gabriel, Fr. Antonio Cruzado, was from Cordoba, Spain. One of the grandest buildings in that ancient city was the Great Mosque, built in 784 over a previously-existing Christian church. After 1236, when Cordoba was re-Christianized, it became a cathedral again, and was so in Fr. Cruzado's time. The most striking similarity between the two is the long wall punctuated by square buttresses--capped with crenelations in Spain (according to old prints--and Street View), but with pyramidal finials in California. The exterior stairs to the choir loft are also a signature of this church. (Interior stairs weren't added until 1908.)

Click here, then click again to see this image full-sized.

Please refer to the diagram of the mission grounds taken from the mission's pamphlet (click to enlarge); I'll just comment on a few of the "highlights" here.

After paying the entry fee in the Gift Shop, we move out to a patio (2) with a stereotypical fountain and then into the less-cheery (but still beautiful) Campo Santo (3) or cemetery, with a large memorial cross (4). A sign reads that around 6,000 Indians were buried in this rather small space between 1778 (three years after this site's founding) and 1865, by which time the property had long been out of Franciscan hands. The sign notes that "many of them were stricken in the devastating cholera and smallpox epidemics of 1825." Right. European diseases against which they had no immunity. Since 1939, priests and brethren have also been buried here in the cemetery, but several early Franciscans are under the church floor in front of the altar.

The cross serves as a grave-marker for over 6,000 Native people.

There are trellised grapevines here, the oldest said to have been planted in 1774. Nearby, on the side of the church, are the marks of the bell tower which was damaged in an 1812 earthquake and subsequently removed; the six-bell campanario on the street side replaced it.

Site of the former bell tower, felled in an 1812 quake

The rest of the grounds display pretty much what you'd expect: a well, a kitchen, vats for making soap and tallow, and so on. Also of interest are the mission models, first put on display in 1922 when the Mission Playhouse was opened to host the highly-romanticized 1911 Mission Play by John S. McGroarty. The mission museum (built for sleeping and other uses in 1812) has many fine works of art, including a set of "Stations of the Cross" painted by natives, and considered one of the best pieces of Indian work in California. The pigments were made from crushed wildflowers in an olive oil base, and the canvas was once the sail of a ship.

Vats in the mission's garden used for making tallow and soap

Not shown on the plat is the Chapel of the Annunciation, a modern church that runs parallel to the old mission church, on the right or north side of the drawing, and a large cemetery beyond that. The mission's website says that all weekday masses are in that Chapel, and I think it's used for the associated schools' activities as well.

A room in the mission's museum

The Interior of the Church

But the real heart of the place is the edifice designed by Fr. Cruzado. While there have certainly been renovations and retrofits, it retains its ancient atmosphere. Constructed between 1792 and 1805, it's 150 feet long, and its five-foot-thick walls are 30 feet high. Up to 400 worshipers can fit inside.

The altar features six statues hand-carved in Spain, brought here in 1791. The "miracle" portrait of "Our Lady of Sorrows" stands to the left.

The altar was made in Mexico City and installed at the church in the 1790s. The six statues on it were hand-carved in Spain, and came "around the Horn" (the tip of South America) by ship in 1791. The afore-mentioned painting of Our Lady of Sorrows still stands to the left of the altar. The wooden pulpit--accessed by almost ladder-like stairs--is original.

The baptismal chapel is also quite a sight. Located in the center of the church's right side, facing the now-restored street-side door which was the original main entrance, it is entirely original. The hammered copper font was given by King Carlos III of Spain (died 1788); the silver shell used for baptizing was used on the first "neophyte" (Indian convert) back in 1771!

Impressions of San Gabriel

There is a trove of "Californiana" available to those who know where to dig--which I have been doing for decades. I want to share two of my "finds" with you.

My (battered) 1915 first edition of The Penance of Magdalena

First is a drippingly romantic story found in The Penance of Magdalena and Other Tales of the California Missions by J. Smeaton Chase, a seemingly well-educated Englishman transplanted to California in his mid-20s, where he wrote numerous books. (I actually have a 1915 first edition of this book in my library, though my other books by Chase are all reprints.) This book seems to be a reworking of some oral tales, and the one about our mission, "The Bells of San Gabriel," is as artificial and filled with stereotypes as the era gets--and that's saying some.

Let me quote the opening passages verbatim, before summarizing the rest.

Rather a desolate little spot is the campo santo [cemetery] of San Gabriel; rather desolate, and very dusty. The ramshackle wooden crosses stagger wildly on the shapeless mounds; the dilapidated whitewashed railings, cracked and blistered by the sun, look much as though they might be bleached bones, tossed carelessly about; and the badly painted, misspelled inscriptions yield up their brief announcements only to a very patient reader. On the whole, depressing; but in a sleepy, careless way, like the little tumbledown houses of the Mexicans, across the road; like, also, the old Mission itself, yellowing and crumbling in the warm California sun into early decay.

Walking slowly about among the humble mounds, my mind lazily weaving from the names and dates of Sepulvedas and Arguellos and Yorbas, with their romantic sound, a half-sad, half-delightful tapestry of fancy, I found myself at one inclosure of an appearance so different that I stopped to regard it particularly. It was the grave of a poor person, clearly, and not in that way noteworthy, for poverty was the air of the whole place. But it was carefully fenced with a high white railing; there were fresh flowers upon it; and it was evident that affectionate hands tended it. The short inscription, translated from its Spanish, recorded--

Ysabel, wife of Ramon Enriquez,
born July 20, 1875: died October 23, 1893
Much beloved

Eighteen years old, married, and dead! a sad strand of color this, to run into my tapestry, gay with silver lace, coquettish fans, and high-heeled Spanish slippers. Eighteen years old, married, and dead; and muy querida, much beloved! My thoughts stayed behind, as I moved on, and the words, with their soft inflection, would recur dreamily to me, again and again--muy querida; alas! muy querida.

There follow three short scenes. In the first, the mission bells are being rung by an experienced hand, that of "old Gregorio." It is the yearly fiesta, and people are coming from all over. There will be a procession, "and what Mexican would not ride thirty miles to see a procession?" Many have come to see "the beauty of the valley," a young girl named Ysabel Alvarado, "who is to walk at the head of the procession to the church." But Ysabel's thoughts are on the dashing Ramon, who would be returning from his job in Los Angeles.

When Ysabel, ready, appears at the door, the crowd lets out a collective "Ah!" and "Ramon Enriquez, gazing with all his soul, says, under his breath, 'She is like an angel of heaven; yes, truly an angel is she, my Ysabel.'" The procession enters the church, the bells ringing happily, "Muy querida, muy querida."

The scene changes. A young boy is now clumsily ringing the bells, and the padre calls to him, "What a noise thou art making, Juanito! I think San Gabriel will be stopping his ears. Run up the choir steps, boy, and call to me if thou seest them coming." So he does, and sees the wedding procession of Ysabel and Ramon approaching. At last, Ysabel approaches with Ramon, "to whose proud, dark face hers is often lifted with happy smiles at the words of admiration and friendly wishes that reach their ears." And Juan rings again, Muy querida, muy querida...

The third and final tolling is just the one big bell, ringing steadily and slowly, for a simple procession, starting out from "the new, white cottage that Ramon Enriquez built, a year ago, for his bride." As they reach the church, "the Padre comes out, followed by four young men, who carry--alas! my heart tells me what they carry--the brightness and lightness of the face and form of Ysabel Enriquez: and there lies upon her breast a tiny baby form. Alas! muy querida! Ramon walks behind, and looks neither to right nor left, as they take their place at the head of the little procession. And so they go, up the white, dusty road, to the campo santo."

And the story ends: "Yes, it is a desolate little spot, the campo santo of San Gabriel."


The next person I'd like you to meet is "The Scotch Paisano," Don Hugo Reid. For much of my life I thought Reid had lived in a little house on the small lake inside the L.A. County Arboretum in Arcadia (famous as the place where a "little person" used to call out, "Boss! De plane!") In fact, Reid and his wife, an Indian girl raised at San Gabriel Mission, lived very near the mission itself. The actual "Hugo Reid Adobe" had been a sort of headquarters for administering his lands up Arcadia way, and it's doubtful he ever slept in it (being just five or six miles from his house). But the one we see isn't even that one: the original adobe was slightly to the west of the one we were always told was "authentic." Reid only owned the property--actually, land given to his wife's family--for around seven years. A subsequent owner knocked down the original house and built the one we see today--still old, but not "original."

The "Hugo Reid Adobe" (not really) as it looked in 1903. (source)

Reid is an interesting and multifaceted character, but I want to focus on just a sliver of his life here. In his last year, he wrote a series of 22 "letters" to the Los Angeles Star newspaper titled "The Indians of Los Angeles County." (Remember, he was married to one.) Twelve of the letters continued to be widely circulated, but according to Susanna Bryant Dakin, author of the wordily-titled A Scotch Paisano in Old Los Angeles: Hugo Reid's Life in California, 1832-1852, Derived from His Correspondence, the remaining ten "vanished from sight, after the first publication in [1852]." All 22 were at last privately printed in 1926, and she quotes California historian and bibliographer J. Gregg Layne as saying that because "the last ten dealt with the mistreatment of the Indians by the mission padres, they had been rigidly suppressed."

So what, exactly, was so shocking about Hugo Reid's "letters"? Here's an excerpt from "Letter No. 19: New Era in Mission Affairs." The subject is Padre Jose Maria Zalvidea, who served as the mission's pastor from 1806 to 1827. While praising Zalvidea's industry--the mission pamphlet says his "guiding genius... made San Gabriel the wealthiest of all the missions"--Reid also details the severity of punishments under his administration. For example, he suspected that women sometimes killed their babies, so

when a woman had the misfortune to bring forth a still-born child, she was punished. The penalty inflicted was, shaving the head, flogging for fifteen subsequent days, iron on the feet for three months, and having to appear every Sunday in church, on the steps leading up to the altar, with a hideous painted wooden child in her arms!

This policy is attributed directly to Zalvidea himself.

A few paragraphs later, Reid writes:

He was not only severe, but he was, in his chastizements, most cruel. So as not to make a revolting picture, I shall bury acts of barbarity known to me through good authority, by merely saying that he must assuredly have considered whipping as meat and drink to them, for they had it morning, noon and night.

If there is any good news in all this, it is that Don Hugo's letters stirred up concern among some individuals and institutions, and some steps were taken to improve the Indians' lot. For example, someone writing under the name "Philo" wrote an article that began,

The light that has been thrown upon the history of the Indians of Los Angeles County, in the interesting letters published in a series in the Star, must have a practical tendency to ameliorate their condition. No doubt every philanthropist, upon the perusal of those letters has asked, if nothing can be done for the prospective and permanent welfare of this unfortunate race. In taking up this subject, I hope to suggest such measures as will secure the prospective good of the Indians of this Southern part of California.

But Hugo Reid did not live to see any changes come about.

Los Pobladores 200

In a year which quite frankly I cannot remember--let's say, 1995?--I joined a fascinating group of people for a nine-mile walk.

These people were dressed in what most people would call "traditional Mexican clothing." The gentlemen wore flat black hats, frilly white shirts, short black jackets, and tight black pants over black boots. The ladies were in lacy white blouses with long black skirts, or in all-white dresses. Most of the men, women, and children wore red sashes around their waists.

A gaggle of Pobladores from the Labor Day walk in--1995?

For these were the descendants of the original pobladores, the settlers of the Pueblo of Nuestra Senora La Reina de Los Angeles, "the town of Our Lady Queen of the Angels"--now often called L.A. On September 4, 1781, these hardy souls had set out on the last leg of their trek from the provinces of Sinaloa and Sonora, now in Mexico. They would walk nine more miles, to the site of the Indian village whose name was recorded by the Spanish as "Yang-na." There, they built reed huts and commenced to making a city.

The "new" pobladores with whom I walked that morning were nearly as hardy, having gathered at Mission San Gabriel at 6 a.m. to set out for the city. They looked pretty much generically "Hispanic." Which ain't necessarily so.

Because just in time for the 200th anniversary of the city's founding--1981, not coincidentally the first year of the annual pobladores’s walk on Labor Day weekend--a woman named Miriam Matthews, who was the first college-trained black librarian in California--discovered "the REST of the story."

And that is that there were more people with black heritage than any other in that group of 44, being 11 married couples and their 22 children. Here's the count, using the terminology found on a plaque placed on the Los Angeles Plaza in that bicentennial year:

Two of the adults were Negro and eight mulato; nine were Indian and one mestizo; and only two of the men were "pure" Spanish. Of the children, 15 were mulato, five mestizo, two Indian, and nine springing from all three "roots": the European, Indian, and Negro. (To be specific, three in one family were the offspring of a mestizo father and mulata mother; and six in another family had an Indian father and mulata mother.)

That means in all, there were two Negros, 15 mulatos, 11 Indians, five mestizos, and two Spaniards, as well as the nine of more mixed heritage.

The church on the Plaza in Los Angeles was planted as an offshoot of the mission in 1814; this structure dates to 1861.

In about three hours' time, my companions and I reached the Plaza, where our arrival touched off a balloon release and a mighty fiesta celebrating the city's founding--and, perhaps, celebrating the broader understanding of our city's origins, launched from San Gabriel Arcangel, "Pride of the Missions."


And that's pretty much it. Thanks for coming "home" with me! And until next time, may you and your loved ones and all sentient beings be well and happy.

Adios, Amigos!

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In the next episode: Let's take a look-see at the "Five Great Temples of Guangzhou" (sort of) and meet the First Patriarch of Chan (Zen) in China.