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Man Charged With Arson in Fire That Devastated Nearly 250-Year-Old San Gabriel Mission

A man was charged Tuesday with setting a fire last summer that devastated the historic San Gabriel Mission.

John David Corey, 57, faces two felony counts of arson of an inhabited structure and one count each of arson during a state of emergency, first-degree residential burglary and possession of flammable material. He is accused of breaking into the historic mission and starting a fire that quickly spread to the roof and burned the length of the church. 

It was not immediately clear whether he has an attorney. An arraignment dated hasn’t been set. 

The early morning fire caused extensive damage July 11 to the nearly 250-year-old San Gabriel Mission, a landmark in the history of Southern California that contains artifacts dating to the late 1700s. The building’s floors, walls and domed ceiling are original.

Archbishop José H. Gómez was at the scene of the devastating fire on that July Saturday morning. He tweeted photos of the damage, including one that showed the devastation inside the building.

“Pray for this land that you helped to found,” Archbishop Gomez tweeted at the time. 

Parts of the roof fell on firefighters, but no injuries were reported. 

The church’s interior wall had just been redone about a week before and pews were installed as part of a renovation to mark the 1771 founding. 

The Mission was founded on Sept. 8, 1771 and became a site of significant historic importance in Southern California. Built with stone, brick and mortar, it’s considered one of the best preserved Missions in California.


The inside of the church at Mission San Gabriel Saturday, July 11, 2020.

It was damaged in an 1804 earthquake, forcing its arches to be taken down so a new roof could be installed. Another earthquake damaged the building in 1812,  destroying the bell tower. The 1987 Whittier Narrows earthquake also caused damage, as did the 1994 Northridge quake.

The church was the fourth mission established throughout California by Franciscan priest Junipero Serra, the Roman Catholic priest criticized for his mistreatment of Native Americans. Statues of him have been defaced in protest for years, and statues in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Sacramento were among those toppled during recent protests for social justice.

The San Gabriel Mission moved its bronze statue of Serra from the front of the church to a location out of public view.

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