This Mission was founded September 8, 1771. It is perhaps the most noted of all the Missions at this time, in that it comes often under the eye of both citizen and tourist. Located at the western entrance of a great and most lovely valley, and in the center of population and travel in Southern California, it commands the attention of every one who would look upon desirable scenes and store the mind with happy pictures for the future. The valley is surpassingly beautiful, the lavishness of nature vying with the deftness of art in creating a pleasing picture. All who visit the temporal home of San Gabriel, the Archangel, muse with wonder upon its past, and go away with hearts enraptured with the romance and spiritual fictions of its history. At the College of San Fernando, in the City of Mexico, it was determined to dedicate a leading Mission to the Archangel, and for that purpose two prominent priests were instructed especially to visit Serra and indicate the purpose, besides assisting him in the task. The Mission was to be worthy of its exalted object.
The priests arrived, and after an extensive search for the best location, they came at last to the San Gabriel River. A Mission was founded, after a change of plan and site, at the present locality. This was about the year 1775, nearly a generation before the elaborate and commodious building now standing was finished. But the Mission work went on, and some five thousand Indians were taken into the Church in this period. The first convert was made about November 1771.
In 18o6, Father Jose Maria Zalvidea, from San Fernando Mission, a man of great zeal and energy and kindly purpose, was installed at the head of the Mission, and under his directing care it entered upon a fine career of prosperity; its accumulations of wealth made it a Mission of the first class in power and influence. This choice spirit is represented by the padre so popular in “Ramona.” All these Missions had a prominent feature in their architectural design, that of a great square tower at the main entrance of the large building, with a dome roof; and in this tower were hung the bells, from three to six, according to the character of the Mission in respect to wealth and influence. The great building was in every case rectangular, with porches and corridors arranged for convenience. The Moorish plans and style always dominated the construction.
This Mission is in very good condition, and cared for by the proper custodians, being used for regular services of the Church. Its surroundings are well kept, and it is really a picture to remember for a lifetime. The old mill about two miles north, in the hills, is a quaint structure as solid as the hills around it, but not in use for the original purpose. The pond and dam are as nearly intact as such relics of the past may be. The Mission is about four miles from Pasadena and nine from Los Angeles. It can be reached by electric roads and the railway from each of these cities, through orange groves, orchards, and vineyards, unrivalled in loveliness even in California. In its immediate vicinity eastward is the famous ranch of “Lucky Baldwin,” Santa Anita, containing sixty thousand acres, in a scenic region as fair as the Garden of Eden. In 1898 there lived at the Mission an old priest of Spanish descent, but born at the Mission in 1807. He was educated there, entered the Church, and took orders. He was a man of medium height, slender, dark-complexioned, with fine forehead and countenance, courteous manner, and characteristic speech, which indicated his ancestry. He was learned and intellectual, with a mind stored with the events and legends of Mission days. Often, while seated at the table under the old Mission grape-vine, in a garden near the Mission building, then a pleasure resort, with a drop of the juice of the vine to warm the currents of life, he would relate story after story of the old times; and at the conclusion of each, with pathos in tone and solemnity in look, he would turn his face upward and say, “My home is yonder in the skies. I have been waiting so long; when shall I go?” The memories of other days, when he had experienced so much of joy and sadness,-for he had seen the glory and shame of the brethren of his order, who had all departed, leaving him a solitary wreck behind, seemed to overwhelm him with a sense of the burdens of his life, and he longed for his eternal rest.
He had always lived at the Mission, and he clung to its fortunes through good and ill report. He occupied the apartments of the old padres, living and floating like a waif upon the sea of pious charity that in these latter days restored the decayed Mission to a faint semblance of its former condition. There was no bigotry in his nature. His love for humanity was boundless, and he prayed, hoped, and believed that all would in some way be finally saved. He had been a boyhood companion of Pio Pico, the last Mexican Governor of California. They had often played together under the old grapevine, planted one hundred and thirty-four years ago, which now covers a framework sixty feet square.