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New World Order

Teen Leaves Material Life Behind to Join Catholic Enclave

April 16, 2001|DAVID KELLY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SANTA PAULA — Enrique Vergara traded in a life of rap music and personal freedom for Gregorian chants and strict discipline. Six months ago, the 18-year-old left urban East Los Angeles to look for God in the tranquil hills above Santa Paula.

His journey to the Catholic priesthood begins in a stately, Spanish-style, six-bedroom home bought last year to test the spiritual mettle of young men.

Four priests shadow him. They teach him Latin. They offer spiritual guidance and make sure he follows their highly disciplined, ascetic lifestyle. It is a kind of yearlong spiritual boot camp that separates the merely curious from the genuinely committed.

And if Vergara succeeds, this son of a cosmetologist and dry-cleaning store manager will be one step closer to joining the Canons Regular of the Immaculate Conception, a religious order tracing its roots to 3rd century North Africa and the teachings of St. Augustine.

Vergara says he does not mind the enforced solitude, the celibacy or even the fact that he now listens to recorded messages from the pope on his CD player instead of gangsta rapper Tupac Shakur. He spends much of his day in a white, spartan room decorated only with a crucifix.

"I don't get lonely. I'd feel more lonely if I were with 100 people with no one to talk to," said Vergara, a neatly groomed and serious young man. "I came here knowing it wasn't going to be easy. I still have a long way to go. You ask yourself who you are doing this for, and obviously you are doing this for yourself but you are also doing it for God."

A shortage of priests has affected the Canons Regular, like other orders. In the 1990s, the order saw a decline because of priests retiring or dying, but hopes to turn that around. The order has 60 priests worldwide and the four in Santa Paula make up most of its U.S. presence.

The order bought the house in the fall and moved to Santa Paula after more than three decades in Los Angeles, most recently in Silver Lake. Besides training young men such as Vergara, the priests took over two Santa Paula churches, St. Sebastian and Our Lady of Guadalupe.

Vergara is their first priest in training, or postulant, since moving to Santa Paula.

"Getting more young people is always a concern," said Father James Garceau, who lives in the house and is pastor of Our Lady of Guadalupe. "But it is a spiritual vocation and not like a company where we can just hire someone new."

Getting Used to Disciplined Life

Postulants spend their year moving from the demands of a competitive and material world to a more spiritual life, said Father Thomas Dome, who runs the program.

"They are being formed into a disciplined life," Dome said. "This period lays the foundation."

Vergara's highly regimented day begins at dawn with meditation followed by a service in the house chapel. He then helps prepare breakfast, sets the table and cleans up afterward. Lessons in Latin and the lives of the saints come next, followed by a spiritual conference with a priest. Then he vacuums, scrubs the bathrooms and attends another service in the chapel.

More prayers follow dinner and the house goes quiet for the "grand silence" that falls after 8 p.m.

"It teaches you humility, that's for sure," Vergara says.

If he survives, he will enter an even more cloistered phase, called the novitiate, for another year. After that, Vergara will attend a seminary and could take his vows to officially become a priest in eight years. He doesn't rule out spending the rest of his life in the Santa Paula house.

He could also get fed up and drop out.

"I could go and have a wife or a girlfriend, but I know I wouldn't be happy if I left this place," he said. "I have to detach myself from my pleasures. It's hard to do if one doesn't want to."

A Lifelong Leaning Toward Religion

Vergara was born in Mexico and came to this country when he was 1 month old. His parents were Catholic but not religious, attending church sporadically. But even as a small boy in elementary school, Vergara felt compelled to go to churches and pray.

"I don't even know what I wanted to pray for. I just wanted to go inside," he said.

As he matured, he was attracted to girls, played football and developed a taste for rap music and hip-hop culture. At 14, a friend invited him to a prayer meeting. He soon began reading the Bible and was suddenly guilt-ridden by his moral shortcomings.

"I wasn't the best person I could be," he said. "I wasn't the most charitable person I could be."

His life changed after his first confession, when he poured out his heart to a priest. He ran home and threw out his rap music and magazines. He prayed the rosary every day and attended 7 a.m. Mass before class.

His friends marveled at the change. Vergara had gone from popular athlete and all-around fun guy to a quiet kid toting a Bible and wearing a cross.

"They made fun of me," he said. "They showed me no respect."

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