Christmas in a SoCal Barrio
It is a sweet parish, in the whitewashed Spanish California mission style, with a well-loved rose garden fronting the rectory. As you step outside, you’re likely to see a young Hispanic woman pushing a baby carriage; she makes the Sign of the Cross as she traverses the church’s threshold.
Holy Innocents Church is located smack dab in the depressed Long Beach neighborhood made famous by the rapper “Snoop Dogg.” Father Peter Irving has been the pastor here since 2006. Before that, he was pastor of SS. Peter and Paul Church in Wilmington, CA, where he was involved in an extensive restoration of that exquisitely beautiful Romanesqu-style church.
Battling a plan that would have sold the little church and a neighborhood that initially couldn’t care less, in the last eight years Father and his parishioners have bravely bucked the tide and heroically restored Holy Innocents. In this candid interview with REGINA Magazine, Father Irving shares the story of the barrio church that refused to die – and the ripple effects emanating from Holy Innocents today.
VENERABLE MOTHER MARIA LUISA JOSEFA OF THE MOST BLESSED SACRAMENT, foundress of the Carmelite Sisters of the Most Sacred Heart, was a parishioner of Holy Innocents — a refugee from the bloody persecution of Catholics in Mexico. She attended daily Mass and taught catechism.
CARDINAL WILLIAM LEVADA, A LONG BEACH NATIVE, WAS BAPTIZED IN OUR CHURCH and spent the first 11 years of his life here. He has faithfully served the Church and most recently worked alongside Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI as Prefect of the Sacred Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith.
ON MY FIRST VISIT TO THE PARISH RECTORY, I SAW A DRUG DEAL go down just a few feet from me. I always dress as a priest; the dealer and customer saw me as plainly as I saw them but they were completely unabashed. All my priesthood I have served in parishes of this type where, unfortunately, this kind of activity is a part of daily life.
MY FIRST MASSES AT HOLY INNOCENTS were on a sweltering July 1-2 weekend in 2006. The number of Mass-goers was very low; no more than 35 at the Sunday English Mass and some more at Spanish Mass. But the little church was nowhere near full.
Why was this, Father?
These low numbers did not really surprise me. To be honest, Holy Innocents, at the time, was not a very welcoming place. Everything, inside and out, was ugly, dirty and dilapidated. It is difficult for me to describe in words just how shameful the conditions were, but I will make an attempt.
The rectory was in shambles and became temporarily uninhabitable on account of an infestation of bird mites. I recall offering Mass and being distracted by the incessant cooing of pigeons. For decades, pigeons literally ruled roost at Holy Innocents, nesting in the attic above the altar boys' sacristy, and leaving in their wake thick cakes of excrement. This unhealthful residue brought on the infestation of bird mites and also produced a distinctly pungent odor.
BECAUSE THE CHURCH WAS NOT INSULATED, in the long, warmer season in Southern California the church was hot and smelly. During the shorter winter season the church could be quite cold — and all the while that unpleasant odor was always in the air.
I WAS CONVINCED OF TWO THINGS: First, I would not be the pastor who would stand up one day to tell my parishioners that the Archdiocese had sold their neighborhood church.
SECOND, WITH THE HELP OF GOD, Holy Innocents church could be turned into a beautiful place for the glory of God and the salvation of many souls.
Was the church always like this?
No. The original interior design was simple but decent — a Gothic-style altar attached to the wall, with two marble statues of adoring angels flanking it, a communion rail, side altars to Our Lady and the Sacred Heart, and two smaller statues of St. Therese and St. Anthony.
So, what happened to Holy Innocents?
The interior of the church suffered over the years but the most radical of damage was in the 1970's. The beautiful Gothic altar was reduced to chunks of marble by a sledge hammer. Fortunately, someone had the forethought to find a home for marble sculpted angels in a convent of nuns.
An austere altar/table comprised of two rectangular pillars and a long, thick and heavy slab of Carrera marble for the mensa (the “table top”) replaced the original altar. This new altar was moved away from the wall to allow for Mass facing the people. In place of the former altar (with its tabernacle) the celebrant's chair was placed on a raised platform.
A rather unsightly tabernacle was obtained and situated on a wood platform in a niche where the side altar of the Sacred Heart once stood. I don't think I need to mention that the architects of this renovation—let us presume with the best of intentions—also removed the communion rail and carpeted the entire sanctuary floor.
Sounds like a ‘wreckovation.’
The wall behind the celebrant's chair was covered from floor to ceiling with bronze colored contact paper. This became the “reredos” to which was affixed a cheap and somewhat odd crucifix of the type one would purchase in Tijuana, with a nail in each of Lord's feet. Everything else in the church—pews, doors, ceiling— was painted a light beige. They covered the severely water damaged natural wood floors in the nave with tan-colored linoleum. In the sanctuary they laid a mustard-colored carpet.
Thirty years later when I arrived, that linoleum had turned dark brown. In the sanctuary, they had installed blond colored, wood-simulated plastic flooring (Pergo). By this time the sanctuary flooring was beginning to peel and sections of it had begun to break loose. There was significant wood rot and evidence of termite damage just about everywhere.
Again, I presume that those responsible for this “make-over” were acting with the best of intentions. But this does not alter that fact that that the end result of their efforts was a total “uglification” of a simple, but decent, Catholic church.
For a good portion of the years I have served here as pastor, this was what I faced day after day, weekend after weekend, as I offered Masses, witnessed marriages, baptized infants and all the rest.
So, did the Archdiocese have a plan?
Well, the previous pastor had concocted a plan to sell the little church and the property on which it stood to the City of Long Beach. Negotiations with the City had progressed along and preliminary papers were already signed by the Archdiocese and the City of Long Beach while I was still at SS. Peter and Paul.
This information was disclosed to me shortly before I began my term at Holy Innocents and I was not pleased. According to this plan, the monies gained from the sale of the church property would go toward building a new, modernistic church on a property adjacent to our parish school located about a mile away. I energetically fought this proposal and it took some time to convince the Archdiocesan officers to abandon it but in the end—thanks be to God—I prevailed.
Wow, that’s really great!
Most people thought I was crazy. After all, the church and rectory were in such a deplorable state that very few could see the little gem that lay hidden beneath an old, unsightly and disintegrating church building which looked and smelled more like a barn than a house of worship.
You certainly took on a huge project.
By January 2007, six months after my arrival, we began in earnest to remake Holy Innocents church. In those early years this work consisted of mostly cleaning, patching and painting. Methodically, and over several years, we sent the pigeons packing, fixed the leaking roofs, cleaned the filthy floors, fumigated, tore down the tall iron fences that circumscribed the church building, re-wired the entire building, re-plastered the exterior and did some minor landscaping.
IT BECAME INCREASINGLY OBVIOUS TO EVERYONE that Holy Innocents was moving in a new direction. This attracted more people and by then it was necessary to add more Masses.
THROUGH ALL THIS, our parishioners were amazing. I think they enjoyed watching everything unfold.
THEY WERE GRATEFUL that their poor, virtually abandoned church was being restored.
So, for four years it was all about the cleaning and fixing.
“Yes, it wasn't until August 2011, however, that the work of beautifying the interior of the church began in earnest. A long-time friend (who is a Notre Dame-trained architect) and I devised the plans and set out with great enthusiasm.”
THE CHURCH NEVER CLOSED for Sunday Mass during the four months of intense labor.
DAILY MASSES WERE OFFERED in the church hall located behind the church.
I WAS BLESSED TO HAVE A SKILLFUL TEAM OF WORKERS (carpenters, painters, plasterers, floor layers, etc) who flawlessly executed the architectural plans.
BY CHRISTMAS EVE 2011 THE SANCTUARY WAS 95 PER CENT COMPLETE as the stained glass window above the altar as well as the new statues for the sanctuary niches were not yet ready.
MIDNIGHT MASS, DECEMBER 24, 2011, SAW THE HOLY SACRIFICE OF THE MASS offered on a new, ad orientem altar which incorporated the mensa of the original altar remnants.
THE FINANCING OF THIS ENORMOUS PROJECT was nothing short of miraculous — a project that lasted over (and continues!) many years.
THE BULK OF THE MONIES CAME FROM OUTSIDE SOURCES but parishioners made donations and contributed to occasional second collections. You can donate to their building restoration on their website here
THIS LABOR OF MANY YEARS OF BEAUTIFYING THIS HOUSE OF GOD on the corner of 20th Street and Pasadena Avenue in the heart of Long Beach continues.
PEOPLE LOVE THEIR CHURCH. It is so conducive to prayer. They are very grateful to the Lord that this now very beautiful and always historic church was not sold to the City of Long Beach.
AN INFAMOUS, LATE TERM ABORTION CENTER is within the parish boundaries, but in the last eight years 845 babies have been saved.
TODAY, HOLY INNOCENTS has an active pro-life apostolate.
I should note that it has been several years since I've seen drugs being sold openly in the vicinity of the parish church. I am convinced that this is in part attributable to the fairly dramatic spiritual and physical renewal that Holy Innocents has undergone over the last 8 years.
Before, the church was closed most of the week. Now, the church is open every day and there are many Masses and confessions. In my experience as a priest I have found that when a parish's Sacramental life becomes more intense there is a positive ripple effect in the community.