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Church Split on Whether to Reinforce or Rebuild

May 07, 1989|ROCHELLE WILKERSON | Times Staff Writer

DOWNEY — Msgr. John M. Young presides over a divided church.

Parishioners at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church are split over whether to reinforce the brick building with steel or to demolish it, sell the property, and use the money to build a new sanctuary.

"Psychologically and emotionally it has divided the parish," Young said of the 2,300 families on Our Lady's mailing list.

Many members react emotionally to the possibility of the church being razed.

"My younger son had his First Communion there, my older son had his confirmation there and my husband was buried there," said Estella Darrah, 83. "A lot of us feel that we should keep the church."

'It Is a Thing of Beauty'

June Mottola has been a member of the congregation for 34 years and attends Mass daily. "I hope," she said, "they will restore the existing building.

"It is a thing of beauty, a landmark and a place of promise in the city. We go to Mass everyday. That's why we may have stronger feelings than most."

A landmark in the community since 1931 at 10727 S. Downey Ave., the future of Our Lady became uncertain as a result of the October quake two years ago. The brick bell tower was cracked and had to be removed. A statue of the Virgin Mary was also taken down from above the front entrance.

Even if the church is reinforced with steel--at an estimated cost of $1.25 million, according to one contractor--there is no guarantee the building will be strong enough to meet earthquake standards.

There are those in the congregation who argue that Our Lady withstood all of the major earthquakes--the Long Beach quake in 1933, the Sylmar quake in 1971 and the Whittier quake in 1987.

"But how safe is safe?" asked Mike Disco, a member for 15 years. "The big quake is going to come anyway."

There are those, however, who are willing to abandon the old church and build a new one.

"To me, church is people; not buildings," said Mario Polselli, a member since he moved here from New York in 1975. He said he is willing to follow whatever direction the church recommends.

Young said that although there has been no official poll taken, younger members tend not to be as firmly attached to the building as older parishioners. Young also admits that some members have begun attending parishes in nearby communities.

Some have found the church uncomfortable and crowded since two-thirds of the sanctuary was sectioned off. The separation of the older part of the sanctuary from the newer Nave--which is reinforced with steel--was done for safety reasons, although there is no immediate danger of plaster falling, Young said.

Legal Ramifications Uncertain

But the pastor of five years wanted to be sure that if anything fell on the pews from above, it would be heavenly blessings and not plaster from the ceiling.

"I don't know what the legal ramifications could be," Young said.

The partition of the interior has reduced the seating capacity from 600 to 250 maximum.

People arrive early for the Sunday Masses at 9:30 and 11. Latecomers stand in the back and along the side aisles.

"To say the least, it is inconvenient," usher John Zurella said.

If the decision is to tear down the church, much more than memories will be lost.

The main sanctuary of the church is Italian Gothic in design. Our Lady's altar is made of white marble imported from Italy. It was added to the church in 1950 when the Nave was joined to enlarge the church.

There are 16 large stained glass windows that line the sides of the cathedral. Below the windows are nearly two dozen smaller stained-glass windows. Numerous mural paintings of saints adorn the ceiling like art treasures.

The fate of the church will be determined in a few weeks after a committee presents its findings May 15 to the laity after five months of research. Recommendations by Young and the parish feasibility committee will then be sent to the Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles, where the decision whether to repair the church or build a new one will be made.

Committee Chairman Jim Doran, a retired project manager for an oil company, said a new building will seat as many 800 people and cost an estimated $1.4 million.

"Whether we stay with the old or build the new, both are multimillion-dollar projects," Doran said.

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