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Fiesta Marks 50th Year of Mission in Solana Beach

October 15, 1992|MARILYN TOSTADO

Fifty years ago, as its sons were being called to fight in World War II, the families of the Mexican-American community of Eden Gardens in Solana Beach decided to build a church.

The war had brought new urgency to the need for a spiritual center for their community. The church--which they named for St. Leo--had its first real home in a converted barracks; its first pastor was an Army chaplain.

In the half a century since, St. Leo's has fought in many wars--the ones against poverty, racism, drugs, illness and ignorance. On Sunday, it will take a day to celebrate its triumphs and survival since its founding in 1942.

The church bell will ring at 10:30 a.m., when Bishop Gilbert Chavez arrives to celebrate a special outdoor Mass. Mariachis will play at the bilingual service and a fiesta will follow.

Master of ceremonies Ray Renteria will welcome the pioneer families who came to Eden Gardens from Mexico in the '20s and '30s to make a new life. Many of them were the founders of the church and still make Eden Gardens their home.

Celine Olsen, mayor of Solana Beach, will present St. Leo's with a commendation for its many contributions to the community--especially its newest outreach program, a medical clinic.

Most Sundays, about 300 attend services at St. Leo's, which is administered by St. James Church in Solana Beach.

Through the years, St. Leo's has come to serve the physical as well as spiritual needs of the Spanish-speaking community.

A few years ago, dozens of volunteers of all religions worked at the Amnesty Center at St. Leo's, helping more than 800 immigrants to receive green cards and start new lives.

At the Head Start preschool program operated at the mission, more than 200 children prepare for entry into the public school system.

Older students can participate in a youth group and learn about computers at "La Clase Magica" after school.

When the people of Eden Gardens took a stand against drugs in their community, it was at the mission. Citizens, law-enforcement officers and young people met at St. Leo's in 1988 to form Eden Gardens Against Drugs. Recovering substance abusers meet at St. Leo's on Tuesday and Wednesday evenings.

Most recently, in a program that is still evolving, the mission has become a center for medical care.

On Saturday mornings, doctors, nurses, social workers and others have begun volunteering their time to staff a medical clinic that cares for those who have no other way of getting medical attention. Children will be able to receive their school physicals and inoculations at the clinic as well as dental checkups in a mobile dental unit.

The first priest to serve St. Leo's was Father John Donohue, who had been chaplain at the wartime military base established at the nearby Del Mar Race Track.

Donohue, who learned Spanish in Puerto Rico, became interested in the people of Eden Gardens as he watched them walk to Del Mar each Sunday to go to church. At first, Donohue said Mass in one of the adobe homes in Eden Gardens. Then plans were made to convert a barracks into a church on land donated by residents. Donohue was named pastor, a role he filled until 1958.

Later, when the freeway ended up cutting through church land, the barracks had to be torn down. Parishioners turned the parish hall--a cement floor with palm fronds for walls--into a permanent church. Using their hands and donated materials, they completed the simple mission still in use today.

Time and again, parishioners contributed their labors to the church and pulled together to protest actions that they felt threatened its survival.

In 1966, another Catholic church, St. James, was constructed less than a mile away. Because of the proximity, the diocese decided that St. Leo's would be designated a mission rather than a "national church," as it had been.

The change meant St. Leo's would be administered through the St. James parish and no longer have its own priest. Its role, though, would remain the serving of the Spanish-speaking community.

In the years since, St. Leo's and St. James have developed working partnerships and have collaborated on numerous projects.

Msgr. Lawrence Purcell is currently pastor for the two congregations. He has extended an invitation to the community and those interested in it to join in the celebration this Sunday.

St. Leo's Mission is at 936 Genevieve St. in Solana Beach.

As part of Sunday's 50th anniversary celebration, a fiesta will be held from noon to 6 p.m. with a dinner served at 1 p.m. There will be live music, dancing, games and a folklorico program.

Proceeds from the event will benefit the new medical office.

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