It was 7:30 a.m. and six priests gathered around a wooden breakfast table at the Dominguez Seminary east of Carson.
Each had fetched his own eggs and toast and, had the newspaper arrived on time, would have reached quickly for it.
"It's a serious group, so they all go for the front page," Father Patrick McPolin quipped. "I never have to fight for the sports."
Indeed, the seven priests and one brother who make their home at the peaceful 17-acre seminary and rancho on the eastern brow of Dominguez Hill are passionate activists whose work reaches into many Southland communities.
As members of the Roman Catholic Church's order of Claretian missionaries, they say they have been granted unusual freedom to pursue their individual callings as fund-raiser, healer, AIDS counselor, youth mentor and, in one case, minister to Hollywood stars.
"Regimentation ended in the seminary. We're all individuals here," said McPolin, one of the eight who live in spare comfort at the old seminary, now a museum and weekend retreat for teen-agers.
They are often too busy even to share meals. At the recent breakfast, two of the group were already out on business.
Brother Modesto Leon, 40, an anti-gang organizer dubbed "the celebrity" by his colleagues, had left early for one of the three schools he runs for teen-age dropouts. A morning meeting had also been set to firm up a Christmastime peace treaty among warring youth gangs in Pomona.
And Father Bernard Stacy, 66, called "the poor man's preacher" by the others for his work with immigrants in Long Beach and the South Bay, was in the San Joaquin Valley to conduct services among Mexican farm laborers.
As Claretians, an order with 150 members nationwide and 3,000 throughout the world, Dominguez's small priestly community mixes mysticism with missionary zeal, said Father John Raab, the priest in charge at Dominguez.
"We emphasize more action than contemplation. Our work is not to go to the chapel and chant (prayers) all day," Raab said of the order, founded in Spain in 1849 and brought to this country in 1902 to serve a growing Latino population.
Leon, whose success in reducing gang violence in East Los Angeles has been featured on the CBS television program "60 Minutes," said the Claretians' mandate is nothing less than to change the world.
"I think we are making history. I think the church is making history. . . . I see a need and I say, 'Let's do it!' " he said.
In the poor Latino community where Leon works most often, gang-on-gang killings dropped from 24 in 1978 to 4 last year and then 2 this year, said Sheriff's Lt. Al Scaduto. He said the inter-agency program Leon helped found more than a decade ago is a model for cities with gang problems.
In it, youngsters identified by parents, police, schools, churches and the courts as gang members are routed to agencies and businesses that provide jobs, education and counseling.
"Leon has been instrumental," Scaduto said. "He knows how to talk to these (gang) guys. They listen to him."
Although six of the priests are over 60, they remain what TV preacher and healer Father John Hampsch, 62, calls "smoldering firebrands" who are doing some of their best work.
A severe stutterer before a sudden cure in 1970 that he calls a miracle, Hampsch himself travels the region and the world, holding healing services about three times a week.
"I work in the miracle business," he said recently, the day before an eight-hour session of counseling and anointing the sick at St. Paul the Apostle Church in Westwood.
Fame as Charismatic
As his fame as a charismatic minister has grown through a nationwide weekly program on religious television, Hampsch has sold hundreds of thousands of audio and video tapes of his services, with the profits supporting a Claretian mission in West Africa, he said.
Father Juan Corominas, a 67-year-old veteran of the Spanish Civil War, has followed a lifetime of scholarship and university instruction with a special ministry at the rancho that he calls "my secret work."
Corominas, a Spanish-language professor at California State University, Dominguez Hills, and a Compton College instructor, also teaches about 50 Latino teen-agers through private lessons and club-like activities to take pride in their culture. Then he helps them get into college.
"This has changed my life. I am feeling like a father," Corominas said. "These people were to have been nothing, but now they're thinking another way."
He spent a recent evening in the rancho's library, teaching three students the dialogues of Plato in Spanish. "This is my idea of Socrates," he said.
'I Help Them Reconcile Death'
Raab, 43, who ran a seminary in Nigeria for six years before coming to Dominguez, frequently visits patients with acquired immune deficiency syndrome in Long Beach's large homosexual community.
"I help them reconcile death," he said. "I help them know the church has not rejected them. . . ."