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Ventura County Religion

Landmark Ventura Mission Draws New Generation of Worshipers


VENTURA — The fact that it is a 216-year-old historical landmark doesn't mean the San Buenaventura Mission isn't a vital parish church. In fact, it's growing.

"We have 2,100 families registered in this parish, and if they all came to Mass at once, we'd be in trouble," said Msgr. Patrick O'Brien, pastor of the San Buenaventura Mission church since 1967.

O'Brien was joined last week by a new associate pastor, David Velazquez, to help handle the burgeoning duties.

Not all of the nine original California missions that Father Junipero Serra established in the 1700s are still functioning parishes, but this one is.

On a typical weekend at the downtown Ventura church, the priests celebrate seven Masses in three languages--Latin, English and Spanish. Once commonplace, the Latin Mass--conducted at the mission at 1:30 p.m. Sundays--is now unusual in a Catholic church.

And including the 200 annual baptisms, more weddings than there is time to perform, daily Masses, confessions, devotions and tourist walk-throughs, the old mission is constantly abuzz.

"We've had to turn down weddings because we don't want to be just a wedding chapel," O'Brien said. These days, out-of-parish couples who want to be married in the mission must supply their own priest.

"We're in the unique position of being both an active parish and a historical monument," O'Brien said with a trace of his Dublin brogue.

Essentially, he said, a Mass in 1998 is the same as one in 1798.

"Even non-Catholics like to attend Mass here," O'Brien said. "There's something permanent about this place--a continuity. We don't switch things just because a new pastor comes in."

It is, he added, "a blessing that we can't tinker with it."

It isn't unusual for five generations of a family to attend a wedding, baptism or funeral at the mission, O'Brien said.

Former U.S. Rep. Robert Lagomarsino of Ventura is a typical parishioner, at least as time is measured at the mission.

"I was baptized there in 1926," Lagomarsino said. "My father Emilio was too, probably just after 1900."

He compared the feeling he often gets when attending Mass at the mission with his wife, Norma, to the feeling he sometimes had when he looked up at the statehouse dome in Sacramento as a state senator or the Capitol building in Washington when he was a congressman.

"I'd feel a bit of awe and remind myself, 'I'm here,' " he said.

The territory that the San Buenaventura Mission parish covers is huge--from the Santa Barbara County line on the north to Seaward Avenue in midtown Ventura on the south, and inland as far as Sulphur Mountain Road.

Most historians agree that the mission was originally designed to be in Ventura because it is halfway between the missions of San Diego and Monterey.

Richard Senate, Ventura's coordinator for historic programs, said that when Serra dedicated Mission San Buenaventura on March 31, 1782, he probably stood two blocks away from the modern mission site "on the southwest corner of Palm Street and Thompson Boulevard--across the street from what is now Ventura's Greyhound bus depot."

At the time, the mission probably consisted of no more than a simple ramada--or patio--made of wood, Senate said.

And O'Brien assumes that Serra celebrated his first Mass outdoors.

A vacant lot now, that first rude structure burned in 1791. The adobe mission that exists today was begun nearby and consecrated in 1806.

"I particularly love the width of the walls," O'Brien said. "Six feet thick--almost 200 years old. Amazing that just plain adobe would last this long through earthquakes."

O'Brien's new associate pastor, Father Velazquez, celebrated his first Mass on Sunday.

Although he has studied in Rome and Spain, Velazquez was born in Monterrey, Mexico.

"And here in this church," he said, "I can see my roots."

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