October 15, 2020  |  By:   |  Press Releases  |  

As the Mission’s clean-up process continues, on Sept. 15, Feast of Our Lady of Sorrows, workmen discovered underneath a burnt crossbeam an intact 18th century painting of the Virgin Mary in dark clothes in front of a foreboding dark landscape— 

The story of the discovery of an intact painting of Our Lady of Sorrows on the day of her Feast Day, under the rubbles left by the fire that destroyed the main sanctuary of Mission San Gabriel Arcángel, published today on the Archdiocese of Los Angeles’ digital and print media platform Angelus News, is a reminder of hope and healing to Catholics in this times of pandemic.

“On Sept. 15, 2020, as workmen were cleaning away rubble from the baptistry of the fire-wrecked Mission San Gabriel, they found something under the burnt timbers and plaster that startled them,” reads the article, “The legend of ‘La Dolorosa’ finds new life in the ruins of Mission San Gabriel,” by Gregory Orfalea. “There in the debris, underneath a burnt crossbeam, was a painting showing the Virgin Mary in dark clothes in front of a foreboding dark landscape: Our Lady of Sorrows.

“Amazed, they went and found the Mission’s communications director, Terri Huerta. The timing of the discovery, she immediately realized, could not have been more appropriate. ‘My God,’ she exclaimed. ‘This is the Feast Day of Our Lady of Sorrows,’” continues the article.

The Mission’s communications director Terri Huerta told Orfalea that the Mission’s team wants the Mission San Gabriel Arcángel to be a place of healing and hope. “That we found ‘La Dolorosa’ in ashes, but surviving on her own Feast Day, it’s encouraging!” she said.

Most of the valuable artwork inside the Mission had been removed months before the fire that happened in the early morning of Saturday, July 11, 2020, due to renovations and improvements leading up to the Mission’s 250th anniversary in September 2021. Among the artwork remaining in the church, the one of the Mater Dolorosa was the only that survived the fire.

“It is terribly sad. Thanks be to God, nobody was hurt. But the damage is extensive — the roof is destroyed and much of the old church is ruined,” wrote Archbishop Gomez in a letter to the faithful in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles the day of the tragic event. “Thankfully, the historic paintings, the Stations of the Cross, and other artifacts had been removed from the sanctuary as part of the renovations being done to prepare for the mission’s 250th anniversary next year.”

It was unknown at that time what remained underneath the rubble, until the workmen found the painting two months later. The destroyed sanctuary remains in the debris clean-up phase, restoration will take longer, according to the article. “There is no dollar estimate yet of costs for the rebuilding, though the team thinks it will take at least a year to complete. As a result, the jubilee festivities next fall may need to take place outside the church,” states the Angelus News  article.

The “surprise discovery comes as a small, seemingly miraculous silver lining in a devastating episode of the mission’s history,” says the article. “So has the more than $200,000 raised through donations to help rebuild the mission.”

The history of the Mission involves many local families, who founded Los Angeles on Sept.4, 1781, ten years after the Mission was founded. The families walked nine miles west from the mission, crossing the Los Angeles River, and establishing El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora de los Ángeles de la Porcíuncula.

Among those families were Tongva Indians, who thought the Virgin Mary was alive when they were presented with the image of “La Dolorosa,” due to its expression of sorrow, according to the Angelus News article. That image, though, was not the one found under the debris after the fire; it is a smaller one that was removed from the church before the fire.

“I inspected the smaller ‘La Dolorosa,’ unfurled to the Tongva,” says Orfalea in the story. “It is quite striking. Mary’s eyelids hang down her eyes, themselves in shadow, there are clear tears on her cheek, and her hands are clasped, praying… According to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s Diva Zumaya, who conducted a recent inventory of the mission’s artwork, the two ‘La Dolorosa’ date back to the 18th century.

“Traditionally, there are seven ‘sorrows’ associated with Our Lady of Sorrows: Mary’s heart pierced at the prediction of Jesus’ fate at his presentation in the Temple; the flight into Egypt fleeing Herod; searching for a lost Jesus in Jerusalem; meeting him on the road to Calvary; standing at the cross; receiving Christ’s body; and finally, the burial of her Son,” states the Angelus News story.

“Investigators are still investigating the possibility of arson, not yet proven, though according to Jill Short of the Archdiocese’s Construction Department, ‘no one has been able to link it to an accident, like an electrical short,’” according to the article.

For more information and to support the Mission San Gabriel Arcángel in restoring the church, please visit https://lacatholics.org/restoration/.