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Stolen Painting ‘La Dolorosa’ Will Be Returning To California Mission

June 28, 1991

PHILADELPHIA (AP) _ A more than 200-year-old painting of the grieving Virgin Mary will be returned to California’s Mission San Gabriel 14 years after it was stolen by a man now in prison for an unrelated theft of rare books, the FBI said today.

The painting, ″La Dolorosa,″ was the basis of a legend that surrounded the founding of California’s Mission San Gabriel back in 1770, the FBI said. The mission is about 10 miles northeast of downtown Los Angeles.

It was stolen, along with other objects, 14 years ago after being on display for decades inside the mission in a standing, wrought-iron frame near the altar, authorities said.

It turned up along with other paintings and books after William March Witherell was arrested, according to Linda Vizzi, FBI spokeswoman. Earlier this year, Witherell, of suburban Los Angeles, was convicted of stealing rare books from the University of Pennsylvania in 1989.

Ms. Vizi said two other paintings have been traced to California’s San Fernando mission, also outside Los Angeles. It and some rare books were discovered missing in June 1977. Authorities found the items from the California missions while investigating the Pennsylvania theft.

The unsigned painting ″La Dolorosa″ shows a blue-veiled Mary with her hands clasped in anguish over the death of Jesus.

According to mission history, two Franciscan priests had set out from San Diego in August 1770 with a small band of soldiers to found the mission at San Gabriel. The group was threatened by hostile Indians, but the Indians quieted down when they saw the painting, the legend goes.

San Gabriel was the fourth of 21 missions founded by Father Junipero Serra and his associates across California.

Witherell lived a few blocks from the mission, according to Ms. Vizi.

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