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The Mission Position

I know people who have returned euphoric from Poland’s Auschwitz museum after witnessing the gaping contradiction between the bucolic landscape and eerie peacefulness of the former death camp and the psychotic brutality that once occurred there. It is a place of reckoning with the huge range of what it means to be human — a church service without a sermon.

We have our own such museums attached to each of the California missions, the most immediately local being in San Gabriel and Mission Hills (San Fernando). These too were centers of genocide, however unwitting, what San Gabriel Mission curator John Frantz describes as “relocation centers” for the local Tongva tribe, respectively renamed the Gabrielenos and Fernandenos by the Spanish.

For the natives, mission life turned out to be the initial phase of tribal eradication after a fairly peaceful and prosperous thousand-year history. The evidence suggests that the Spanish rectors and priests of the early 19th century were earnest in their desire to save the souls of the indigenous population, but their sincerity doesn’t mitigate the realities of the burgeoning real estate market, which included slave labor, floggings and incarceration enforced by soldiers.

These brutalities, like the tribes themselves, are now ghost presences hovering in narrow stone walkways and around trickling fountains. And the old sanctuaries in both San Fernando and San Gabriel share the striking similarity of Moorish architecture from Spain — long, narrow interiors with high ceilings punctuated by chandeliers. The altar at San Fernando arrived via a circuitous route, and its baroque woodwork can be traced to a wealthy silk manufacturer named Domingo Angel, who first had it installed circa 1687 in the chapel attached to the Congregation of St. Philip Neri, in Ezcaray, Spain.

Having been constructed of wood and adobe, the San Fernando Mission literally fell to pieces from its abandonment to the weather after the Mexican government secularized all of the missions in the 1830s. Most of its treasures were looted, and its roof eventually collapsed. There are photos of its disrepair in the museum. What you experience today, therefore, is an on-site replica. Of the three gardens, the one behind the church that contains a gurgling brook is dedicated to Bob Hope, who’s buried there along with members of his family. Not far from Mr. Hope is a shrine memorializing the thousands of natives who perished under the duress of being saved.

The sanctuary at San Gabriel was built of redwood, brick and mortar — which allowed the structure to partly withstand the earthquakes of 1804 and 1812 that rattled the region. The original site, founded in 1771 (10 years before the establishment of the Los Angeles pueblo, 10 miles to the west), was located near the Whittier Narrows, but torrential rains in 1776 flooded the place and forced the transfer of the operation to its current site in San Gabriel. The gardens still include four original subterranean brick cisterns that were used to make soap for the entire chain of missions. Industry also included a huge winery, cattle and sheep. The sanctuary shelters a painting that’s mythic in California lore: Our Lady of the Sorrows, reputed to have brought a group of hostile natives in San Diego to their knees in awe and wonder.

Curator Frantz has been busy pulling artifacts out of storage, so the museum is as rich in photos and vestments (such as one worn by Father Junipero Serra at San Gabriel) as it has been in years.

But the reason to see these missions is larger than the historical facts they contain. Sophocles and Shakespeare allude to the long-term consequences of our deeds — cosmic repercussions that shape where and how we live, from our own Civil War to the war in Iraq. One can’t possibly fathom the deeper meanings of California in general, or Los Angeles in particular, without sitting quietly in the mission gardens, these shrines to people who, like us, called these rivers and mountains home. They were here too, conquistadors and their slaves, filled with righteousness and suffering. To feel their ghosts brush up against you in the wind is to receive a kind of gift — just a feeling, really — that our own legacy could be just as fragile as theirs is now, on faded pieces of cotton and in books with crumbling pages.

San Gabriel Mission: 427 S. Junipero Serra Dr., San Gabriel. Tickets $3-$4; children admitted free. (626) 457-3048.

San Fernando Mission: 15151 San Fernando Mission Blvd., Mission Hills. Tickets $3-$4; children admitted free. (818) 361-0186.

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