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RELIGION : St. Monica's Unbroken Spirit


Hours after Monday's earthquake, hundreds of shaken parishioners hurried to check on St. Monica's Catholic Church, one of the older and larger Catholic churches in Los Angeles.

Many cried at the sight of the crumbled bell tower, the roofless sanctuary and the broken altar, where thousands of babies have been christened, marriages blessed and deaths mourned.

But 10 days later, the church where Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, Arnold Schwarzenegger and other luminaries worship is on the road to recovery thanks in part to its affluent members and community support.

It doesn't hurt that the restoration effort is being guided by a longtime parishioner who happens to be a structural engineer working on a project to strengthen Los Angeles City Hall against earthquakes.

The outpouring has buoyed officials of the landmark church, which was founded in 1886 and is housed in a 1928 Byzantine granite and terra-cotta building at 7th Street and California Avenue. Roughly 5,000 families are members.

"People have come here all last week with tears in their eyes . . . offering to help in any way they can," said Monsignor Lloyd Torgerson. "And unsolicited, they have (written checks and) said, 'Here, this is to help.' "

Volunteers have helped relocate Masses to St. Monica High School's gymnasium and clean up rubble at the church and adjacent elementary school, which sustained damage to its gable.

Parishioner Nabih Youssef, a structural engineer who is retrofitting Los Angeles City Hall, is a consultant on the restoration of the church and school. He estimates the rebuilding will take at least six months and cost $4 million.

Youssef oversaw the shoring up of the church after the Jan. 17 quake and has begun mapping the restoration of the building.

All in all, he said of the damage: "It could have been a lot worse."

Although the monsignor's chair was destroyed and pieces from the sanctuary fell on the granite altar, the building did not collapse, Youssef said, principally because it has a reinforced concrete skeleton. After the quake, the building was shored up to prevent a collapse during aftershocks.

"We are going to preserve every piece of material and replicate whatever is lost," he said. "If it were demolished it would be such a loss to the community."

Many agree.

Even from as far as Brooklyn, N.Y, donations were collected Sunday from about 1,100 members of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church at the urging of a cousin of a St. Monica parishioner.

"It's hard to explain to someone how important St. Monica's is to the community," said churchgoer Diane Buzzita, who was stunned to see several broken statues lying in the courtyard. "It's not like, 'Oh, the church is damaged, so we'll go somewhere else.' I think we'll find everyone will be saying, 'OK, what do we need to do to fix it? Let's roll up our sleeves.' "

Some members have offered to hold benefit concerts to raise funds for rebuilding the church. Although the Los Angeles Archdiocese has earthquake insurance, it is unclear how much of the policy would be paid out for St. Monica's.

The Rev. Ken Deasy, who has been known to liven up Easter services by donning bunny ears and calling himself the "Priester Bunny," turns philosophical when discussing the rebuilding effort. He recounted the story of St. Francis, who was told by God to rebuild the crumbling church of San Damiano--but not in the secular sense.

"God meant for St. Francis to rebuild the spirit of it," Deasy said. "Just the other day, I was talking about how we are a church not because we are a building, but because we are a people. We have served the poor, the sick and the aged and we will continue to. Though the doors have been shaken, they remain open. Though the bricks have crumbled, our spirit hasn't."

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