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THE LOS ANGELES EARTHQUAKE : The Earth Trembled, Faithful Celebrated at Battered Churches

October 05, 1987|DENISE HAMILTON | Times Staff Writer

Undaunted by apocalyptic tremors and crumbling walls, parishioners at some hard-hit San Gabriel Valley churches gathered in makeshift quarters Sunday morning to give thanks and assess damages.

Sermon topics stressed trust and hope over fire and brimstone. Some religious leaders reached for earthquake metaphors to make their point.

"The Lord spoke and the Earth trembled," Assistant Rector Father John Lathrop told a group of about 50 parishioners who sat on folding metal chairs in the auditorium of St. James' Episcopal Church in South Pasadena. Authorities cordoned off the rest of the church building with emergency tape after Thursday's 6.1 quake and Sunday's aftershock caused extensive structural damage to the bell tower of the 80-year-old Gothic Revival-style building.

At St. Mary of the Assumption Roman Catholic Church in Whittier, just a few blocks west of the Uptown shopping area devastated by Thursday's quake, Father Donald MacKinnon celebrated Masses in the church parking lot for thousands of the faithful. MacKinnon told shocked parishioners that five of the parish school's 16 classrooms and the entire convent had been declared unsafe by city inspectors.

Guitars and Singing

A more informal parking lot service took place in Pasadena at the First United Methodist Church, where 12 worshipers played guitars and sang. Authorities declared the building unsafe after Thursday's quake, and Sunday's aftershock caused part of a chimney to crash into a classroom, said Eldon Osborn, chairman of the church board of trustees.

And more than 800 people crowded into a church adjacent to the San Gabriel Mission after quake damage closed the 182-year-old mission and chapel Thursday. The loss of the 350-seat chapel created standing-room-only conditions at Sunday morning Masses.

Worshipers in damaged churches throughout Los Angeles said they were not afraid for their safety. Neither did they mind the unusual locales.

"It doesn't detract one iota from the sanctity of the service," said Cynthia Cable, a South Pasadena resident who attends St. James'.

"Our faith is shaken as much as the walls, but the deeper the foundation the more it will stand," said Father Arnold Gonzalez, the pastor of the San Gabriel Mission Church.

Closed Since Thursday

The mission has been closed since Thursday and has "a fissure from one wall to another," Gonzalez said. Sunday's aftershock caused no further discernable damage there, but crumbled some inner walls in the mission's century-old adobe museum, he said. Damage estimates were not available Sunday.

At St. Mary's in Whittier, the aftershock cracked a window over the side of the altar and weakened lamps hanging from the ceiling of the modern concrete church. MacKinnon said the building is structurally sound but does not yet know whether the convent and five classrooms can be saved.

In their Sunday sermons, pastors said the earthquake would draw parishioners closer together.

"Our faith does not depend on a building. WE are the church," Gonzalez said as he comforted a weeping woman outside the San Gabriel Mission. A large banner draped across the building that said "Welcome" in three languages stood in sharp contrast to fallen mortar.

Gonzalez said the temblors have traumatized his parishioners, many of whom are Latino and remember devastating quakes in their home countries. But the congregation also feels a personal loss: Lupe Exposito, the 22-year-old Cal State Los Angeles student killed in Thursday's quake, belonged to the parish.

Some pastors used Sunday's aftershock to inject levity into their addresses.

"A lot of you probably found it difficult to go back to sleep after you got that wake-up call for church this morning," joked Lathrop of St. James'.

Indeed, an upbeat mood prevailed in the South Pasadena church, where parishioners went ahead with a long-planned farewell ceremony for a popular minister who retired this week.

Going Out With a Bang

Eighty-nine-year old W. Hamilton Aulenbach, the church's assistant rector, told visitors he always knew he would go out with a bang and jested about divine intervention.

"When they learned I was retiring, they decided to have an earthquake," said Aulenbach, a priest for 61 years.

But the fate of St. James' remains a more serious matter.

Harold F. Knowles II, the church rector, said "the bell tower could fall at any moment." Church officials estimate that the quake caused between $500,000 and $750,000 damage and that Sunday's aftershock widened existing structural cracks.

The church has no reserves to fund restoration, but Knowles said the building may be eligible for special funding because it is a state historic monument. It was designed by noted architect Bertram G. Goodhue, who also built the downtown Los Angeles Public Library. Additionally, church officials said they may be able to tap into state and federal funds if South Pasadena is declared a disaster area.

Ministers said they were cheered by offers of financial and contracting help that have poured in since Thursday.

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