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ON THE ROAD : Romantic Church's Saga Awaits a Happy Ending

March 31, 1994|LEONARD REED | Leonard Reed is a Times staff writer

SATICOY — All the young couples, they're the ones who made it clear that this would be the chapel of love.

They'd veer off the 118 or the 126 when the one-room church would pop into sight and decide: This is the place, the only place, to get married and start a life together.

But the church wasn't open.

It just sat there, tiny and white and steepled in a giant field of blooming electric yellow mustard, with a gravel drive out front and no sign. The view in all directions was as breathtaking as the postcard-perfect scene had first appeared from afar: to the north, Ojai's Topa Topa ridge, striated and snow-crowned; to the south, Camarillo's Boney Mountain, steel blue and hulking above the Santa Monica Mountains.

The young and in-love would scrawl notes, slip them under the locked doors. They'd clamber off to the far edges of the church's 24-acre property, where a sign offered real estate deals and the owner's phone number. They'd call the owner, Bill Martin, at home. But every one of them would be turned down.

Martin stopped counting the calls after thwarting 100 couples in the late 1980s and ultimately took down his real estate sign. He no longer gets called.

"I just could never have expected that after putting the church here," Martin said.

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Bill Martin is a developer, not a priest. The church hasn't been a church for 26 years. Its location, on Darling Road near Wells Road, is a way station, a third stop in a yet-uncertain itinerary for Ventura County's oldest commercial wood structure. Indeed, the thing is up on blocks, with a steel I-beam beneath it, ready for a tow somewhere. A faux foundation of lattice work and modest landscaping hides from romantic eyes this U-Haul truth.

Martin bought the church in 1987 for a dollar. It was slated for demolition at its last site, at Violetta and Wells roads, where from 1966 to 1968 it was the Roman Catholic Church of the Sacred Heart. Sacred Heart had quickly outgrown the little church and moved on. Meanwhile, the old church fell into private hands, disrepair, disuse. But the church had known hard times and neglect well before Martin got to it.

It was built in the 1890s not as a church but as Arnold's General Store, at Telephone and Saticoy roads, in a burgeoning Saticoy downtown that would atrophy and fail when the Southern Pacific railroad decided to build its Saticoy depot elsewhere.

The eager St. Sebastian Roman Catholic Church of Santa Paula saw in Arnold's empty store a missionary outpost for the farm families of Saticoy. In 1915, John Thille moved the building to Violetta and Wells roads. While it wasn't declared a parish church in its own right till 1966, the building took on churchhood with a steeple, bell, altar, pews and hundreds in Saticoy who would center their spiritual life in it.

Today, the church bears few remnants of its time. Its fancy altar pieces and simple wood pews are gone. The original bell, given to nearby Cabrillo Village, was replaced by a junked Arkansas schoolhouse bell courtesy of a parishioner with relatives there; alas, that bell lies upside down in the belfry, a rainwater bucket felled by the quake.

But the church itself is well intact. It's no accident that it's alluring from the road. After spending the $10,000 to move it, Martin and his partners have spent $30,000 in restoring and painting it.

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What they don't know is what they'll do with it.

Originally, Martin had hoped to develop a mobile-home park on the mustard field, with the church as a commercial wedding chapel with scenic value. But changes in the county's land-use plan made that thorny. His latest plan is to lease or sell the mustard field for senior citizen housing and medical offices.

Or Martin, a history buff, might turn it over to an agency that would care for it right where it is--perhaps as a museum. Then again, the chapel of love might just disappear altogether. Martin might, he allows, give it away.

It would be a romantic vanishing, certainly, the hard reality of an alkaline field delightfully clotted with yellow weeds yet worth nearly $400,000 an acre.

Love, of course, has never known from price. Some, as a result, are truly among the lucky. Inside the church, tacked to the wall by the altar, is a fading snapshot of Mike and Delphine Ortiz from 1940. It is their wedding day. In this tiny modest church long before it got to the mustard field.

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