Under the cover of early-morning darkness on Jan. 21, a man climbed over the 7-foot-high brick wall of San Gabriel Mission Cemetery and wreaked havoc.
Using a rock, he smashed the head and arms off an almost life-sized white statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. The man, who was caught on a surveillance video, also tried to topple a 20-foot-hight statue of the Resurrected Christ using a garden hose as a lasso around the figure’s raised arm, which held a cross. The heavy granite piece shifted off its base, but remained upright. Only the cross and one finger were broken.
“Anybody who has a loved one buried in our cemetery took it personally,” Father Manuel “Tony” Diaz, administrator of San Gabriel Mission, told The Tidings. “A cemetery is a very personal, sacred space to most people. So anytime anybody goes there and vandalizes and causes damage, the families take it very personally. Because they want to defend their loved ones.”
The Claretian Missionary said the identity and motive of the vandal remains unknown. It would be pure conjecture right now to assume the person was emotionally or mentally disturbed, he said. The police told him another possibility was that the man was high on drugs.
Reporters brought up the possibility it might have been someone who was angry over Pope Francis fast-tracking the sainthood of Junípero Serra, the Spanish Franciscan who founded nine of California’s missions. Since the announcement, discussion of the mission system’s treatment of Native Americans has heated up, with historians and Father Serra scholars weighing in on both sides.
It’s also become known that the soon-to-be saint lived for a time at San Gabriel Mission, which he founded in the fall of 1771.
“I never raised that question, different reporters raised the question,” Father Diaz pointed out. “Any time the mission is on the news, it attracts more attention. With the Serra [canonization] announcement, a lot more visitors have come by and asked questions. Was Father Serra ever here? What kind of artifacts do you have from Father Serra?
“And along with the attention, comes the people who out of curiosity or who want to find a place to do damage might choose us just because we’re on the news. He lived here for a certain amount of time. We know that because some of the more ancient baptismal records show his signature.”
The priest said current parishioners at San Gabriel Mission are “sad that somebody would do that — to desecrate our cemetery and as least one of the graves.”