On July 1, Mission San Gabriel Arcángel fully reopened to the public for the first time since the pandemic and the devastating arson attack in July 2020.
I had the privilege a few days beforehand to bless the exquisitely renewed altarpiece, along with the new museum and garden space, and to take part in an emotional ceremony with descendants from the original mission.
The mission was founded in 1771 by St. Junípero Serra and his Franciscan brothers and was built by and for the Tongva natives, the first peoples of this land.
The ceremony was built around their prayers, rituals, and sacred music, all in their native tongue.
One of their songs included these moving lines: “O my ancestors, listen to my heart / O my ancestors, here is my heart.”
It reminded me of those words from the Letter to the Hebrews: “We are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses.”
These words remind us that our faith is never a solitary journey. We owe the gift of faith to our ancestors, to those who have gone before us, that great cloud of witnesses down through the ages, who professed the Catholic faith and proclaimed it.
The missionaries came to this country with that noble intention, to share what they believed was the greatest gift they could ever give, the gift of knowing Jesus Christ and his love and salvation.
As you enter into the restored mission museum, you encounter a white wall inscribed with the names of the 7,054 Native Americans baptized at the mission from 1771 to 1848.
It is a striking visual testimony to the truth that every soul is precious in the eyes of our loving God. And it is beautiful to reflect that the original baptismal font used by St. Junípero and the Franciscans is still there in the mission’s baptistry.
The Franciscans kept track of every baptism, every marriage, and every burial. For them, this was not simply paperwork, it was “soulcraft.” They were charting the faith journeys of the souls entrusted to their care, as they made their way through the challenges of this world to the love that never ends in heaven.
The new mission museum is world-class. And as its co-curator, University of California historian Steven Hackel, Ph.D., said in the opening ceremony, there is no museum in Los Angeles that tells the story that the mission museum tells, “a unique and vibrant history where the past so palpably informs the present.”
He is right. The past is alive and “present” here. As I walked the mission campus, I felt the strong sense that I was on holy ground, walking among the souls of the 5,000 Natives who are buried here, proud sons and daughters of this land’s ancient peoples who had met Jesus Christ and decided to make him the way and the truth for their lives.
In one of the museum rooms, along with some masterpieces of colonial-era Spanish painting, there is a confessional that scholars believe St. Junípero used. I thought of all the countless souls reconciled to God through the mission’s ministry, all those men and women who heard those beautiful words from the mission priests: “I absolve you from your sins. ...”
Mission San Gabriel will always be the true spiritual heart of Los Angeles. The mission marks the birthplace of the Christian faith here and, 10 years after the mission was established, the city itself was founded by men and women who came from the mission.
The mission is a sign of the Chistian beginnings, not only of our city, but of our nation.
I have often remarked how, in God’s providence, the feast of St. Junípero Serra falls on July 1 and the celebration of America’s independence on July 4.
This too is “God’s reminder” that the missionaries were here first, that the people of this country were called Christians long before they were called Americans.
The same “worldview” and values that inspired St. Junípero and the missionaries are reflected in our Declaration of Independence, which is rooted in the belief that all men and women are created by God out of love and endowed with equal dignity and equal rights, and called to a transcendent destiny.
The American dream still depends on this belief.
Pray for me and I will pray for you.
And as we mark America’s independence, let us pray that our neighbors and leaders will continue to treasure our Christian heritage and know that these Christian values are essential to our nation’s ideals and institutions.
Let us entrust ourselves and our nation to the Immaculate Heart of Mary our Blessed Mother. By her intercession, may we be renewed in our dedication to continue the work of the missionaries and to bring Jesus into the lives of every person in this land.