The San Gabriel church, which was undergoing renovations for its upcoming 250th anniversary, went up in flames around 4 a.m., burning the roof and insides of the church.
Firefighters who first arrived on the scene saw dark smoke coming from the corner of the roof, before entering the building to fight the fire, Capt. Antonio Negrete of the San Gabriel Fire Department told the local Fox 11 news outlet.
“We were trying to fight it from the inside, we weren’t able to because it became unsafe,” Negrete said. "During the course of the fire, portions of the roof fell upon the firefighters.”
The interior of the San Gabriel Mission is damaged following a morning fire, Saturday, July 11, 2020, in San Gabriel, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
The crew was joined by 50 additional firefighters who worked to distinguish the flames by spraying water up 50 feet to the wooden roof, the outlet reported.
“The roof is completely gone,” the captain said. “The fire traversed the wood rapidly, the interior is pretty much destroyed up into the altar area.”
The bell tower and museum reportedly remain intact.
"It's a tragic loss for our city. It's our city identifier," Negrete told the local news outlet.
The fire was contained by 6:48 a.m., and no injuries were reported, the captain added.
The cause of the fire is under investigation. But the recent destruction of monuments to Junipero Serra, the founder of the California mission system – whom Indigenous activists view as a symbol of oppression – will be a factor in the investigation, Negrete said.
“This will be another box that they’re going to check off,” he added.
Robert Barron, auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, said he was “deeply troubled."
"Friends, I was deeply troubled to learn that the historic San Gabriel Mission church in Los Angeles was seriously damaged by a fire early this morning,” the bishop tweeted Saturday.
The church was the fourth mission founded by Serra in 1771, during the era of Spanish colonization.
Serra has been the target of protests in recent years because of the oppression that activist say was caused by converting Native Americans to Catholicism — forcing them to abandon their culture or face harsh repercussions.
In 2015, Pope Francis elevated Serra to sainthood, which reportedly heightened the opposition toward what he symbolized.
The church’s pastor, Father John Molyneux, said in a statement that “the California Catholic Conference of Bishops reminds us that the historical truth is that St. Serra repeatedly pressed the Spanish authorities for better treatment of the Native American community, [but] we recognize and understand that for some he has become a symbol of the dehumanization of the Native American community.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.