Parishioners at St. John Vianney are determined to rebuild after an April 16 arson attack destroyed their Hacienda Heights, Calif. church.
“The church is completely destroyed, I mean down to ashes and dust. The pews, organ, everything,” parish pastor Msgr. Tim Nichols told the 5 p.m. Sunday Mass. He presented remnants of the altar and tabernacle and said only a few vessels and vestments were saved.
“The church that (founding pastor) Msgr. James O’Callaghan built is gone. But we’re going to build another one, okay?” he said, causing fervent applause. “We will rise again.”
The Mass was celebrated in a parish hall on the church property that is typically used for wedding receptions and other events. More than 1,000 people attended.
Auxiliary Bishop Gabino Zavala, who lives two blocks away from the 5,000-member church in Los Angeles County, was awakened by a neighbor pounding on his door soon after midnight on Saturday morning. From his front lawn he could see the fire’s flames shooting 150 feet into the air. He rushed to the church to join priests and parishioners watching the blaze destroy the church and the rectory.
The fire burned for almost three hours before firefighters were able to extinguish it.
“The investigators have been quite definitive to me, this was very definitely a deliberate act,” Steve Whitmore, a spokesman for the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, told the Los Angeles Times.
“It’s heartbreaking,” Msgr. Nichols told parishioners at Mass. He noted the responsorial psalm’s despondent refrain “My God, My God why have you forsaken me?” and pondered whether the disaster was “rewriting the book of Job.”
However, he rallied parishioners.
“Before there were churches, there was us, right? We’re the church, right? … We’re a community first and then we build the church buildings,” he affirmed.
He said reconstruction will take “two to three years” and “millions of dollars” because money from insurance will certainly not cover the full cost.
Alice Ameluxen, 43, grew up in the parish and her parents were among its founding parishioners.
“My happiest and saddest memories are here,” she told the LA Times. “I just feel like I lost my home.”
The fire caused an estimated $8 million to $10 million in damages. Parishioners have created a Facebook page called “Rebuild St. John Vianney Church” and a website to help draw attention to the rebuilding effort.
Present and former parishioners are using the page to share their memories and pledge support.
Various crimes have targeted Catholic churches in California in recent years. In January one or more vandals spray-painted the misspelled phrase “Kill the Cathlics” on churches in Anaheim and Irvine.
In May 2010 vandals broke into and ransacked St. Rose of Lima parish school in the city of Maywood in Los Angeles County.
Holy Rosary Church in Woodland near Sacramento has been victimized by theft and vandalism four times since 2007. St. Stanislaus Church in Modesto suffered a burglary and vandal attack which desecrated the sanctuary, knocking down and damaging four statues of the Virgin Mary.
The Facebook page and the website for rebuilding effort can be found at: http://www.facebook.com/RebuildStJohnVianneyChurch