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Fire ravages 249-year-old Spanish mission in Southern California

The San Gabriel Mission was founded in 1771 by Franciscan priest Junipero Serra, who has become a flashpoint for activists denouncing colonialism and systemic racism.
Onlookers stand outside the San Gabriel Mission after a Saturday morning fire in San Gabriel, California. The fire destroyed the rooftop and most of the interior of the 249-year-old church that was undergoing renovation.Marcio Jose Sanchez / AP

A nearly 250-year-old Spanish mission in California containing artifacts dating back to the late 1700s was ravaged by fire early Saturday morning.

The roof of the Roman Catholic church at the San Gabriel Mission and much of its interior was destroyed. Capt. Antonio Negrete, public information officer for the San Gabriel Fire Department, called the scene "heartbreaking," NBC Los Angeles reported.

Jose Gomez, archbishop of Los Angeles, tweeted photos of the damage Saturday, asking for prayers as the mission begins its slow path to recovery.

No injuries were reported, and fire officials were trying to determine what caused the fire.

Founded in 1771 by Franciscan priest Junipero Serra, from Spain, the San Gabriel Mission is considered a historical landmark for many faithful in Southern California.

But Serra's legacy remains a flashpoint for many Native Americans and Latinos who condemn the colonization and brutalization of Indigenous populations in the region.

Last month, demonstrators toppled Serra's statue in downtown Los Angeles. In 2016, a statue of the priest in Monterey was beheaded and a similar incident occurred the previous year in Carmel.

Earlier this year, following widespread protests against systemic racism, the San Gabriel Mission removed his statue from the front of the church to a less public part of its campus.

"Whereas ... the historical truth is that St. Serra repeatedly pressed the Spanish authorities for better treatment of the Native American community," the mission said in a statement, "we recognize and understand that for some he has become a symbol of the dehumanization of the Native American community."

Despite Serra's checkered legacy, many residents consider the San Gabriel Mission an architectural marvel.

The altar, which was not damaged in the fire, was handcrafted in Mexico City and brought to California in the 1790s. Six wooden statues, which were hand-carved in Spain and brought to the U.S. in 1791, were restored in 1987 after an earthquake.