David Charlebois’ connection with Mission San Gabriel spans a lifetime. As a child, he visited the mission for his fourth-grade mission report. Years later, he and his wife were married there. And just two weeks before the July 2020 fire, he had completed restoration work on its interior. 

Now, the next chapter in his relationship with the mission is being written. 

A historical art restoration contractor in Southern California for more than 60 years, he has worked on landmarks from the Angels Flight railway in downtown LA to Griffith Observatory and famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s textile block houses. But his favorite project is the restoration of his beloved mission, all while maintaining the integrity of the labor, the lives, and the efforts of those who first laid its foundations.

For Charlebois, helping rebuild the place that nurtured his faith is more than a job. He credits that faith with “seeing him through” many trials in life, including a bout with cancer, the loss of his daughter as a child, and serving in the Vietnam War.

Charlebois looks over plans at San Gabriel Mission. (Sarah Yaklic)

Charlebois’ interest in restoration work was sparked as a kid, reading books about architecture around the world, and learning about the different houses in his own neighborhood. As a teenager, he landed a job with a contractor making $3 an hour. “Working with him, his stress was always quality and integrity,” he said. “That’s what I found pleased my soul, was to do a beautiful job, to be part of a team that does beautiful work.”

Charlebois believes that in being called to work in construction and restoration, God has been teaching him patience. “Without patience, you can’t do a proper job in construction, much less in preservation,” he said. “You can take that through all of your life, that we pray and yet we don’t have an immediate answer.” 

When his daughter Stacy was diagnosed with cancer, Charlebois’ patience was severely tested. “She struggled for six years, and passed, and we prayed and prayed. It was over 35 years ago, and we understood that science had not yet progressed to that level.

“But here, 35 years later, I had cancer, and the science was able to treat me. Is it possible that those prayers, long ago, were answered in many different ways, by the children that are helped now, by the medical science that was able to treat me?

“It’s patience that’s the key, understanding that the Lord will advance, in little steps, our understanding. And we’ve got to allow him to do so.” 

(Isabel Cacho)

Charlebois’ patience has also helped him honor the work of the craftsmen that came before him, from the Indians to the missionaries. In his restoration work, Charlebois focuses on maintaining the integrity of the original efforts. “Otherwise, why save anything? Why not make it all out of plastic?” 

“We should appreciate the history that we have around us,” he said. “It gives a sense of who we are as a people … it will help anchor each of us to our community, to see what came before.” 

To watch Charlebois’ story, visit lacatholics.org/stories or follow #LACatholicsStories on social media.