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In the Footsteps of the Franciscan Friars

May 09, 1987|WILLIAM S. MURPHY

As you enter the gardens of the Mission San Gabriel, you are following in the sandaled footsteps of the Franciscan padres who walked over this same ground more than two centuries ago. The mission was founded Sept. 8, 1771, the fourth to be established in a cordon of church settlements along El Camino Real--the King's Highway. They were to be the outposts of the Spanish empire in California. Father Junipero Serra had been given the task of developing the mission chain by Jose de Galvez, the Spanish monarch's visitador general in Mexico.

The garden contains a number of artifacts from that era when California was under the Spanish flag and later under Mexican rule. A four-pounder cannon that when fired could have been heard across the San Gabriel Valley dominates the patio. The soldiers of the garrison called it a frijolera , or peashooter. It was buried at the end of the Mexican War in 1847, probably to keep it from falling into the hands of the victorious Americans. The weapon was discovered in a dry river bed after a 1914 flood. Also in the garden are the tannery vats that were excavated in 1902. Here the Gabrieleno Indians would scrape the hair from cattle hides after soaking them in a solution of water and tanning bark. The hides were then used for trade.

One can also see the open fireplaces where corn was cooked in huge iron kettles to feed the Indians. There are soap and tallow vats. Candle making was one of the mission's principal industries. It also operated the largest winery in California. In time, San Gabriel's vineyards and fields produced a bountiful harvest and several thousand Indians formed its busy community.

When the mission was founded, the Franciscans were given cattle, horses, mules, swine, sheep and goats. The cattle multiplied into huge herds that grazed across a fertile valley.

Built of Adobe in 1812

The building that houses the museum was constructed in 1812 of adobe bricks. It originally enclosed the sleeping quarters of the mission fathers, a weaving room, grainery and carpenter shop. On display is a colorful collection of vestments worn by the early fathers during church services. One room contains paintings of the Stations of the Cross done by Indians during the early 1800s. They are considered the oldest Indian sacred art in California. Olive oil was used as a paint base and the colors were derived from wildflowers.

The church is considered unique among the missions. It was built of stone, brick and mortar between 1791 and 1805, designed by Father Antonio Cruzadao, who was raised in Cordova, Spain. The Moorish influence is evident in the mission's buttressed walls, its vaulted roof and the fortress-like appearance of the church. Early paintings and photographs show that little has changed since the church was built. Only a wagon trace bordering the building has been replaced with a paved street.

On Sept. 4, 1781, 11 families left the Mission San Gabriel to found the pueblo of Los Angeles 10 miles away. They had been recruited in the Sonora and Sinaloa areas of Mexico. The Spanish government granted each family a house lot, a tract of land, livestock, seeds and agricultural implements--all to be paid for within five years with the produce of the land.

Independence in 1822

In 1822, Mexico won its independence from Spain, and at that time California was informed that henceforth the Mexican flag would fly over its territory. Under Mexican rule, Americans were forbidden to enter California. They came just the same. Jedediah Smith headed a trapping expedition that crossed the Sierra Madre range in 1826 and became the first group of Americans to enter California overland. Hospitality awaited Smith and his party at the San Gabriel Mission, but the Mexican governor, Jose Maria Echeandia, was openly hostile.

Eventually, Smith shared the fate of many mountain men of the era. On May 27, 1831, he was killed by the Comanches on the banks of the Cimarron River while leading a trading caravan from St. Louis to Santa Fe. But the wall had been breached, and other Americans streamed through the passageway. Pio Pico, the last Mexican governor of California declared in 1846: "We find ourselves suddenly threatened by hordes of Yankee emigrants. . . ." The war with Mexico followed, and California was acquired by the United States.

The mission has been administered by the Claretian Fathers since 1908. There are 9,000 members in its parish today, including 500 Vietnamese. On Sundays, two Masses are conducted in English, one in Spanish and one in Vietnamese. The mission is open daily from 9:30 a.m. to 4:15 p.m. It is on Mission Drive between Santa Anita Street and Junipero Drive. From the San Bernardino Freeway, take the New Avenue turnoff north. Admission is $1; ages 5 through 12, 50 cents; younger than 4, free. Information: (818) 282-5191.

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