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After 100 Years, Still a Beacon

St. Victor's in West Hollywood marks its centennial as a haven of diversity. In recent years it has seen an influx of young families.

September 10, 2006|James Ricci | Times Staff Writer

A hundred years of social change have eddied around St. Victor's Church in West Hollywood.

Originally an outpost of Catholicism meant to serve isolated communities of Mexican oil field and railway workers on the far western fringes of Los Angeles, it saw its congregation change over time to include early film industry figures, then post-World War II tract-house families, then substantial numbers of gay men.

The sounds of the place evolved from near-rural quiet to the high-pitched cacophony of baby boom schoolchildren at recess from the parish's once filled-to-capacity school, to the funeral music of the early AIDS epidemic.

Which, in turn, has given way to the wails of newborns at baptism, as increasing numbers of young families settle in the church's environs.

On Saturday, with the church's choir and massive pipe organ in full voice, the narrative of St. Victor's was given thunderous celebration at a centenary Mass presided over by Cardinal Roger Mahony, who said the church has had a "wonderful 100-year span." In his sermon, he spoke of the importance of the broader church to be inclusive to all people.

The present-day uniqueness of St. Victor's, said Msgr. Jeremiah Murphy, who is 69 and has been pastor at the church since 2000, is traceable in part to the congregation's sizable contingent of entertainment industry hopefuls and gays.

St. Victor's is known for its decorous, classical approach to ritual and, especially, to sacred music -- a characteristic specifically nourished by former pastor Msgr. George Parnassus, who ran the parish for 23 years and now serves in an emeritus capacity.

The highly accomplished choir at St. Victor's, unlike those of many other parishes, has no dearth of male members. "We have no shortage of men who can sing," Murphy said. "But, then again, this is West Hollywood, and there are a lot of actors and so forth here."

Beginning with Parnassus' tenure, the parish long has been welcoming to gays.

Catholic doctrine forbidding gay marriage and Pope Benedict XVI's declaration that men with "deep-seated" homosexual tendencies should not be allowed to enroll in seminaries have fed the widespread perception that the church and gays are adversaries. The perception, Murphy said, is a false one.

"I find the gay community takes religion seriously and are very faithful to religious exercise -- saying the rosary, doing meditation, going to church," he said. "That may be the reason they're hurt more when the church is portrayed as against them."

Sexual orientation is irrelevant to religious belief, said church member John Aiello, a 46-year-old former casting director. Aiello is chairman of the church's finance committee and life partner of 52-year-old Bryan Smith, a lawyer and recent Catholic convert who sings bass in the choir.

"Our faith is our faith," he said. "It's spiritual. It's not political. It's not an orientation thing."

Gay church members include those who have committed themselves to chastity -- a requirement for receiving the Eucharist -- as well as those who are sexually active.

"We try to shepherd them toward the ideal," Murphy said, "but we also accept them as they are and honor their contributions to the church and to society."

St. Victor's also has fostered candidates for the priesthood. One of four newly ordained priests from Los Angeles County is from St. Victor's, with six other parish men in various stages along the route to priesthood.

The church sponsors a group called Holy Wood of the Cross, for young waiters, bartenders, parking valets and others who hope for careers in the entertainment business.

"A lot of them say if they don't make it in Hollywood, they'll enter religious life," Murphy said with a grin.

Unlike some other parishes, St. Victor's has no organizations that are exclusively for gays. Gay congregants, Murphy said, are active in all parish organizations and include among their numbers lay chaplains and Eucharistic ministers who bring communion to hospital patients.

The diversity at St. Victor's played a large role in attracting Jessica and Justin Cable, natives of the San Gabriel Valley, to the congregation. Jessica, who is 28, and Justin, 29, were married in the church in October 2004. In August, their son, Nathan, now 2 months old, was baptized there.

"It was important to me to have a traditional church that's so open to different cultures and different lifestyles," Jessica Cable said as she rocked the baby in her arms outside the church before the centenary Mass.

"Before coming here, I wasn't so diligent about coming to Mass every week," she said. "After I graduated [from] college and moved out of my parents' house, I kind of lost that. But we started coming here as a couple and just fell in love with it."

As Murphy sees it, the integration of gay and straight people in the congregation is a natural outgrowth of the changes underway in West Hollywood, where an influx of straight people is altering the demographic.

"I see many young married couples moving in the area in the last five years," he said. "We're having more baptisms than we've had for a long time."

St. Victor's school closed in the late 1970s for lack of children. Its building is leased to a private, nonreligious school.

A future for a new St. Victor's school, however, might be stirring in the church's soundproof children's room, which looks out onto the altar. "For a long time, it wasn't used at all," Murphy said. "Now sometimes at Mass it's completely filled up."

james.ricci@latimes.com

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