Painting saves the day for San Gabriel friars

September 8, 1771

On this day two Spanish friars founded the Mission San Gabriel Arcángel with a little help from “Our Lady of Sorrows.” 

Known as the “Godmother of the Pueblo of Los Angeles” its the fourth oldest mission of the 21 founded in California.  Legend has it the two priests, Fray Angel Francisco de Sonera and Fray Pedro Benito Cambon, (left, statue at mission) were met with a large party of indigenous Tongva people, one of the two dominant tribes in the Los Angeles Basin.

It was their intent, the story goes, to drive the newcomers out.  But when the friars placed their painting, “Our Lady of Sorrows” on the ground before them, the Tongva were so taken with its spiritual beauty, they instead made peace with the missionaries.  The 300-year-old painting that saved the day still hangs in  the church sanctuary. (Left, San Gabriel sanctuary)

The original mission built along the Whittier Narrows was designed by fellow friar, Antonio Crudazo.  Little is known of Crudazo other than he was originally from Cordoba, Spain, and that he administered the mission for a time.  He may go down as a hero in California history, however, having planted the state’s first orange grove in 1804.

 Crudazo’s original mission was abandoned in 1776 when the structure was destroyed in a flood. No visual representation of the building has ever been found.  It is unclear if he was responsible for the design of the second mission which was relocated five miles closer to the San Gabriel Mountains.  

The move inland didn’t save it from an earthquake, the Wrightwood Quake, that shook the entire basin in 1812,  destroying San Gabriel’s bell tower. (Left, the reconstructed tower)

It was an even bigger disaster at Mission Capistrano where the Great Stone Church collapsed during its first service, killing 40 Native Americans.  The pueblo at Los Angeles was also damaged.

Despite the setbacks, San Gabriel quickly became self-sufficient and subsidized other nearby missions including the pueblo at Los Angeles.  Associated with more than two dozen native communities, the mission’s prosperity was mostly due to the conscripted and unpaid labor of the indigenous people.  Considered inferior by the friars and needing conversion, San Gabriel priests performed more than 25,000 indigenous  baptisms between 1771 to 1834.  

Early photograph of San Gabriel Mission

California’s mission period lasted more than half a century, resulting in 21 religious outposts.  Plans for the 22nd in Santa Rosa in 1827, were canceled.  

The process of “secularization” was undertaken by the Mexican government beginning in 1833 with the “Act of Secularization of the Missions of California.”  Mission property was confiscated, causing the Franciscans to abandon most, taking nearly everything of value with them.

The exploitation of Native Americans during the mission era outweighs the accomplishments achieved by the Franciscans, but the period did much to establish California’s agricultural dominance that has lasted for 250 years.  Apples, pears, figs, grapes and olives, in addition to Crudazo’s oranges, all came with the missionaries.  The Franciscans also established California’s first vineyards for the production of sacramental wine.

California’s missions represent the state’s oldest structures and generate an immense amount of interest around the country.  Most are still owned by the Catholic Church.  All have been designated California Historical Landmarks and seven are on the National Register of Historic Places.  The  21 missions are open to the public, most with gift shops and museums and most still holding mass on a regular basis. 

San Gabriel Mission Church, Museum, Gardens and Gift Shop, 428 S. Mission Drive, San Gabriel, California, welcomes visitors throughout the year.  The museum and gift shop are open 9 to 4:30, Tuesday through Saturday and 10 to 4 on Sunday. Closed Monday except on Federal holidays.  Closed Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas.  

Admission for self-guided tours are $6 for adults, $5 for seniors, $3 for youth 6 to 17 and children under six free.  For more information on  San Gabriel Mission go to, call (626) 457-3035 or fax (626) 282-5308.  For information on religious services and observances call the Rectory Office at Monday through Friday between 9 and 1 and 2 and 7, on Saturday, from 9 to 1 and on Sunday from 10 to 1.  For more information on all 21 California missions go to

© Text Only – 2018 – Headin’ West LLC  – All photos – public domain or fair use.

♦Head On West strives for historic accuracy and uses a number of sources considered reliable.  When research differs on significant facts, the various points of view will be cited.