When 72-year-old John Fantz returned from a break to the San Gabriel Mission museum, where he’s been serving as volunteer curator since his retirement as a Larchmont district electrologist in 1988, he observed a young woman standing in the cool display room — one in a chain along the ancient wood-and-stucco wing adjoining the Mission courtyard. Huddled with the woman were her teenage niece and nephew.
“Is something wrong?” asked Fantz, an ebullient teddy bear of a man resonating with enthusiasm and kindness.
What happened was a kind of confession, which Fantz heard as though he were a priest — somethinghe makes no claim to be.
Two summers ago, the woman said, she was visiting the Mission with a different teenage nephew. She took photos of him in the gardens with her cell-phone camera, and when she viewed them later, images of Gabrieleno Indians appeared in the screen — the faces of children with tortured expressions, the back of one man with cascading black hair.
“No, noooh,” Fantz interjected. “That’s just superstition. There’s a rational explanation for what you saw. Any professional photographer would be able to explain it to you …”
The woman continued, her voice cracking with emotion. “Last year, we came back and took a picture of him by the fountain. And when we looked at it later, there were skulls all around him. And now he’s got cancer. They gave him just six weeks to live. I think I gave it to him.” Her eyes were now tearing.
“Who knows why these things happen?” Fantz said gently, unwavering. “I had cancer. I was in the hospital. People came to me and said, ‘I’ll pray for you.’ I said, ‘Don’t pray for me. I’ve lived my life. Pray for the children here.’ Who knows why these things happen? Just give him all the love you can.”
There was an awkward silence, until Fantz reached out his hand, and the woman cautiously embraced him.
Fantz was born in Whittier, in 1936. He grew up there and still lives there. He’s been married for 50 years and has two daughters and three grandchildren. As a teenager, he was entranced by the Mission’s history, which he learned from former tour guide and San Gabriel pioneer Edward Salcido. (Salcido opened the first hardware store in San Gabriel, which is now a historic landmark.) Fantz attended San Gabriel Mission High School at the time.
“After school, I was here Saturday and Sunday just following Salcido around. He was 72 at the time. One day, he was feeling worn down, and he said, ‘John, take these folks. You know the spiel.’ And I did. That’s when I got bit by the bug.”
Pastor Michael Montoya put him on the payroll in 1951 — 25 cents a tour.
In 1953, Fantz joined the seminary, aiming to be a Claretian brother.
“That didn’t last long,” he says. “I just …” He weighs his words carefully. “I just like girls.” Fantz reflects that he probably joined the seminary to escape adolescence.
“I am not an obedient person,” Fantz explains, adding that he’s a “readaholic” who became entranced with philosophy of all shapes and stripes, from Leibnitz to Voltaire, from Bertrand Russell to Emerson. “I don’t follow rules. In the sacristy closet, there was a vestment once worn by Father Junipero Serra in 1784. It came here from China by way of Manila. I did something without permission. I went to Aaron Brothers and paid $450 to get it framed, gave the receipt to the business manager, so I presumed permission. I learned that in the seminary. The business manager asked me, next time, please ask permission, but I’m still presuming permission.”
When Fantz returned to the Mission as a retiree in 1988, he was stunned to find the museum walls bare, as they had been since the 1987 Whittier Narrows earthquake jolted the region.
Fantz says that he’s spent maybe $5,000 of his own money restoring the museum. “My wife gave me hell — I can’t blame her. So I can’t do that anymore. That was my donation.”
Today, the walls and casements are filled with photographs from the early 20th century, plus 17th- and 18th-century paintings, including an original by José Correa that depicts 4th-century virgin martyr Saint Ursula — all with labels handwritten by Fantz.
“I’m responsible for all the displays now. It is my legacy.”
The bereaved woman still stands in the center of the museum, next to a glass case holding 18th-century manuscripts.
“Follow me,” Fantz says. The woman and her two young relatives follow Fantz to an adjoining room, to a cubicle where a rope hangs from a rafter. He instructs the three of them to hold the rope, to clutch it tight, and to think of their ill nephew, to pray for his peace and recovery. Six knuckles turn white clutching the rope, while Fantz grips it at a point higher.
“Okay, now pull,” says Fantz. “And keep pulling.”
Suddenly, the loud clang of a mission bell — sweet and singular — engulfs the room, the mission, and wafts out over graveyards and train tracks, over the homes and foothills of San Gabriel, as it has for almost 300 years, sending its beckonings and prayers into the sky.