Instead of viewing the aftermath of the San Gabriel Mission’s July 2020 arson as a crisis, the Rev. John Molyneux had a different point of view.
It was a chance for a fresh start.
“I think it’s been a crisis that provided us with a great opportunity to work on a church that really needed to be worked on,” said Molyneux, the pastor of the Mission.
The fire damaged the Mission’s roof and interior, including the pulpit and altar. Fortunately, firefighters extinguished the fire by the time it reached the altar’s steps. Over the last two years, the 251-year-old church underwent restoration work that brought about revitalization and rediscovery.
On Thursday, church leaders offered a glimpse of that work, ahead of a Mass that will celebrate the end of its jubilee. The Mission will open its doors to the public during a one-day event on Saturday, Sept. 8. The church will close again for additional art restoration work, which requires a dust-free environment.
It is projected to reopen in early December.
The renewal of the church was a far cry from July 10, 2020, when Los Angeles Archbishop Jose H. Gomez woke up before dawn to hear the news that the mission, founded by Junipero Serra in 1771, was burning. He noted then that the roof had been destroyed and there was substantial damage to the old church.
“By God’s grace and the efforts of more than 10 fire engine companies, the fire was stopped at the steps of the altar. We are so grateful for the outpouring of support from our Mission families both near and far,” Molyneux wrote that summer on the mission’s website.
A fundraising campaign was launched to repair the damage, with work beginning first on the roof.
Fallen debris from the burnt roof and ceiling, and firefighters’ heavy equipment caused some cracks in the floor tiles.
Ean Frank, project manager from the historic construction team Spectra Company, said the team focused on retaining the original materials instead of worrying about the floor’s visual aesthetic. Instead of replacing the tiles, the team used two-part epoxy to bond broken pieces back with the original tiles.
The ceiling has also been restored with redwood lumber that was stained and finished with period-appropriate finishes, according to Frank. The work provided a strong, warm contrast compared to the church’s white walls. Other work included cleaning and restoring the building’s stucco and restoring the windows with glass from Germany.
Restoration to the paint on the interior items such as the altar and the pulpit is handled by RLA Conservation. Aside from cleaning soot damage, the company works to preserve as many layers of the original paint as possible.
An analysis done of the pulpit revealed layers of paint, from blue to green and repeated layers of green. Repeated layers show that the church decided to renew the green paint instead of applying a different color, according to Sonia Jerez Fraj from RLA Conservation.
In an effort to preserve the old paint, a protective layer is painted onto the pulpit before blue acrylic paint — hand-mixed and color-matched as close as possible to the older blue paint seen from the analysis — was painted.
Stripping the old paint from the pulpit also revealed changes in the church’s visual aesthetic decisions, such as a panel that had an overlap of a star and a flower. The Mission decided to the stars should be overlayed with thin gold sheets for the current restoration.
The company is making restoration progress on the altar, which also sustained some water damage when firefighters were extinguishing the fire, starting from the top. Cleaning efforts have revealed the medallions were shinier once the soot was removed.
The approach to the restoration treats the church as not just a place of worship but a place for the community to learn history.
A black square frame on the church’s left wall showcases the building’s original wall, which was revealed when an analysis of the wall needed to be done.
“In some ways, [the church] is kind of like a living museum as well,” Molyneux said Thursday.