Beyond the Pews at Mission San Gabriel Arcángel

The front of Mission San Gabriel on Mission Blvd.

I had Saturday to myself and I knew I didn’t want to be inside all day doing who-knows-what. Watch TV… lay around… fall in and out of sleep… all of the above? I already do more than enough of that after work during the week.

The previous days were a bit gloomy, followed by heavy pouring rain during the wee hours of that Saturday morning. Thankfully, it all cleared up around 7:30a.m. as I was getting ready to head out to my destination for the day: Mission San Gabriel Arcángel.

I hopped on the empty freeway around 8 a.m. after stopping by the bank ATM and a gas station. By the time I parked in the mission’s huge parking lot, it was 9:05 a.m. And for the next hour, it was just me and my camera before more visitors started trickling in.

This is the second Spanish mission I’ve visited in California. The first one I ever went to was Mission San Juan Capistrano, which I’ve been meaning to return to since it’s been several years now. And like San Juan Capistrano, Mission San Gabriel is incredibly stunning.

The mission was founded in 1771, making it the fourth of 21 Spanish missions in California. Today, visitors can tour the fully-functioning church on the southwestern end of the mission, which is the oldest structure of its kind south of Monterey, California. The church was built of cut stone, brick and mortar between 1791–1805.

LEFT: The bell towers of Mission San Gabriel. RIGHT: The front of the mission’s church, which is the oldest structure of its kind south of Monterey, California.

Another interesting structure here is the museum building, which originally housed a weaving room, the granary, carpenter shops, and sleeping quarters for the mission fathers. The museum — which was constructed in 1812 — now holds a great number of artifacts, including books dating back to 1489, garments from the 17th century that were used by the mission fathers, and a Spanish bedroom set dated 1623.

There are also many photos dating back to the late 1800s of Native Americans who lived and worked at San Gabriel, as well as photos of celebrities and political figures who visited the mission over the last several decades.

LEFT: An El Camino Real bell that was erected in 1906. CENTER: A book that was used in 1917 by mission guides. RIGHT: Paintings, portraits and other artifacts inside the museum building.
Old photos of Native Americans that lived on mission grounds.

There is also the Campo Santo Cemetery, which is the final resting place for Claretian Missionary Priests and Brothers who have served at the mission. At the center of the cemetery is a large crucifix, a memorial to the 6,000 Gabrieleno San Gabriel Band of Mission Indians buried here.

Memorial for the 6,000 Gabrieleno San Gabriel Band of Mission Indians buried at the Campo Santo Cemetery.

Like the cemetery, the rest of Mission San Gabriel is home to a wide variety of trees and flowers. Every turn I took, I found myself stopping to admire the olive trees, roses and sunflowers, and cacti and succulents . Even a trip to the restroom was a nice walk of its own because the pavement was lined with all sorts of unique plants.

Cactus plants found at Mission San Gabriel.
LEFT: Garden with the replica of a kitchen used in early mission days. RIGHT: Statue of Junipero Serra.

I think architecture and design are the first things one would notice or picture in their minds when it comes to Spanish missions. The images of churches, bell towers and old living quarters are what I immediately think of, but when I’m here in person, it’s impossible not to notice the beautiful gardens that occupy much of the premises, and it was especially a wonderful sight after the rain had ended.

A variety of flowers on mission grounds.
LEFT: Succulents at Mission San Gabriel. RIGHT: A rather fascinating, odd-looking tree on mission grounds.