A year ago, Msgr. Tim Nichols, recovering in a wheelchair from a fall and serious knee injury, addressed still shell-shocked St. John Vianney parishioners — many of whom had watched their contemporary California mission-style church destroyed in an arson-set conflagration less than 24 hours earlier — at the Palm Sunday vigil Mass celebrated in the parish hall.
“I’ll be honest with you that my heart is broken, since I loved our church and I’ll miss it,” said the somber pastor of the Hacienda Heights, Calif. church dedicated by Cardinal James Francis McIntyre in November 1969. “Like a dear friend, I will mourn the loss of our building, but will fall in love with our new church we build together.”
Two weeks ago, during his homily at the April 15 vigil Mass in the same parish hall, associate pastor Father Ricardo Viveros recalled how he woke up at 12:01 a.m. early Saturday on April 16, 2011, to the sound of shattering glass. At first he thought it was somebody breaking into the rectory. But as he started to stand, he sensed a big orange globe behind him. And as he turned around, looking out his second-story bedroom window, he saw that the whole church was engulfed in flames.
“And many of you have asked me: ‘Father Ricky, how was that experience for you?’” he said. “I have to tell you that I wasn’t scared, I wasn’t worried. It was one of the holiest experiences that I’ve gone through. And the reason why was I often asked myself, ‘Why am I back at St. John Vianney? God, what’s going on?’
“You know, I was assigned here, after a year when I was a seminarian here. And it all made sense at that moment for me on my spiritual journey.”
He noted that “we’ve all been ‘doubting Thomases’ during the past year,” frustrated that the walls of the burnt-out church are still standing and that insurance claims haven’t been settled. Some, he said, might have even started doubting that God has any plans for St. John Vianney Parish.
“God’s plan is so much bigger than a church building,” Father Viveros stressed. “God’s plan for all of us was to be transformed. We the Church are being called to transform ourselves every day. And this past year, I’ve been so touched to see how many of you have stepped up, have gotten involved in ministry. You have formed new friendships. And the fact that you have chosen to stay during this difficult time shows your love of Christ and for this community.
“So our year of grieving and mourning is over,” he declared with a half-smile. “Jesus is saying that part is behind us. We can no longer go to the tomb and look for what we were. Jesus is saying the church is alive and well today. So, starting this evening, I will no longer allow any grumbling about our fire.”
And when the congregants stopped laughing, he said, “OK? It’s time to move forward because the devil wants us to stay focused on the past, right? But God is the God of today. We can’t go back in time. We can’t change what happened. But all we can do is focus on where our mission is today.”
‘Tear down the walls’
After the vigil Mass, there was an auspicious “Tear Down the Walls” Jericho Walk, with Father Viveros cradling the Blessed Sacrament in a cross-like silver monstrance. The procession, with more than 100 parishioners, stopped at the corners of the church grounds for Scripture readings from Joel and Isaiah, a prayer to St. Michael, recitation of the third Glorious Mystery of the Rosary, “The Decent of the Holy Spirit,” and Psalm 59, 16-17.
While walking, people sang verses of the David Haas hymn “We Will Rise Again,” ending with the apropos chorus: “We will run and not grow weary/For our God will be our strength/And we will fly like the eagle/We will rise again.”
Once back in the O’Callaghan Center, the parish hall, there was all-night adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. Members of the congregation were invited to spend time thanking God for the old church and praying for the building of the new church.
The purpose of the Jericho Walks – there was a second one April 22 – was to shore up both the psyches and souls of St. John Vianney parishioners, after a year of celebrating liturgies and services in the parish hall and a nearby tent.
“People are still mourning the loss of the church,” Msgr. Nichols told The Tidings. “People have remembered that they were baptized there, they had First Communions there, they had their marriages there, they went to Mass there. So a lot of this is still within the first year very sensitive. We’ve had people actually looking at the church from outside and crying. So there’s been a tremendous loss over this.”
Construction only began recently on what’s being called a “Midterm Church,” which will have a cement floor, heating and air conditioning, rows of chairs and a tent-like covering. The weather-proof structure, which will seat about 750 churchgoers compared to 1,000 in the old church, should be finished by June.
“We think the Midterm Church will be up — and people always groan when I say this — but it would not be overwhelming to think of it lasting four years,” the pastor said, noting that “we’re still miles away” from coming up with specific plans for the new church.
‘Oh, it really did happen’
All of this, of course, has taken its toll on the parish priests — Msgr. Nichols, Father Viveros, Missionary of the Holy Spirit Father Ricardo de Alba and Father Mike Sezzi, in residence at St. John Vianney.
“I’ve seen the burnt-out church for a year, and even now sometimes when I go inside I get very emotional,” said Msgr. Nichols. “The walls are still standing and it looks like Berlin 1945 — pretty much like it was after the fire and the original clean up. And from the priests’ standpoint, it’s been extremely difficult to try to do ministry cramming everything into small spaces. We’re a very busy parish with 5,500 families. So it’s been very challenging.”
But after a moment, his tone changed: “It’s also been a very life-giving experience and has renewed the faith of our people. So we’re still fully blessed here.”
Two longtime parishioners agree. Sharon Altman, 65, has belonged to St. John Vianney Parish since 1972. Her two children received all the sacraments in the Hacienda Heights church except for being married there. And on that horrendous Saturday night last April, she stood nearby feeling distraught and helpless, incredulously watching that church being engulfed in flames shooting 150 feet into the black sky.
“It’s been hard with some of the church still standing,” she said. “In fact, most of the time I don’t like to look that way. And then every once in a while, I kind of look and say, ‘Oh, it really did happen.’”
Altman says the parish priests have worked hard at steadfastly holding up the spirits of parishioners, trying to make things more upbeat than they really were. She makes a face and shakes her head about going a year without even a temporary church. But quickly adds there’s now at least some visible progress, pointing to where ground has finally been broken.
The Jericho Walk also raised her spirits. “Oh, it was wonderful,” she said. “It kind of let you express your feelings inside about what you went through that night. And I think the whole experience, it’s made us all closer. I think we’ve come together as a church. We’re the church, no matter where we have to be.”
Sixty-four-year-old José Pena, who’s been a parishioner for three decades, can’t even remember all his family’s events that have taken place in St. John Vianney Church. One of the most recent, and moving, was the funeral Mass for his mother celebrated by Msgr. Nichols.
As the Spanish choir director, he’s had to make major adjustments because of the arson fire, such as having the choir on the stage behind the altar in the O’Callaghan Center. Personally, he’s also struggled.
“It’s something that you don’t reconcile why — Why somebody would want to do something of that magnitude that affects so many people?” he wondered aloud. “It’s forgiven, but hard to understand why. And it’s already one year, and we still have the carcass of the old church there facing us every day, every morning. When you come to church, it’s the first thing you look at. So you say, ‘When?’”
Pena’s spirits, however, were also lifted by the Jericho Walk to “tear down the walls.”
“It feels like, OK, now we’re doing something a little more proactive,” he pointed out. “And like Father said in his sermon, it’s time to forget the past and start looking at the future. Instead of ‘poor me, poor me’ and ‘how much I have suffered,’ it’s time to forget all that and go forward.”
Posted with permission from The Tidings, Southern California's Catholic weekly newspaper.