This is the fourth installment of my Mission Mondays series, exploring all 21 Spanish Missions along the California coast. You can read more about this series, and see a sketch map of all the missions, at this post.
Last week we visited one of the most famous, most visited and most photographed missions in the California chain. Mission San Gabriel is…well…less well known.
In fact, if I hadn’t specifically been on a mission to see all the missions, I would have breezed right by this one, without ever knowing it was here. Mission San Gabriel is not a state park (many missions are), not a tourist destination, not something I’d ever even heard mentioned before, not even in context with El Camino Real as a whole. It’s not even in Los Angeles proper, but tucked away in the enclave of San Gabriel—which is thought of as the birthplace of Los Angeles itself.
To the folks for whom this is their neighborhood church, I’m sure Mission San Gabriel is beloved—it is the oldest surviving brick-and-mortar building in Southern California, after all, and a beautiful example of a rare Moorish style of architecture. But this where the lack of an overall system for preserving the missions is really obvious—and sorely lacking. While places like San Carlos Borromeo and San Juan Capistrano get all the attention and money for upkeep, the smaller missions like San Gabriel are scraping to get by, and it shows. Maintaining an historic building is a constant battle anyway, but when you add in things like the baking sun, an active earthquake zone, and a much more modest neighborhood (as opposed to the wealthy towns like Santa Barbara and Carmel) every tourist dollar really counts. So I’d love to see some sort of connected system for the preservation and management of the missions—something like the California state park system or, more grandly, the National Park Service. I know that increased tourism would be a headache for an active church like this one, but spreading the wealth and visitors more equally among all 21 missions would be worth it, if you ask me.
Still, while San Gabriel might not have the flash and splendor of some of the more well-known missions, there’s a lot to love here. The details, in particular, had me enchanted—as did the fact that I was the only tourist there. Everyone else was a parishioner, and obviously intimately familiar with the place: to them, Mission San Gabriel is not a vacation spot—it’s home.