For Alejandra Quintana, the motivation to become an altar server at Dolores Mission was simple enough.
"I just like to help out," says Alejandra, who lives near the church in Boyle Heights. "It felt good."
Seeing girls at the altars of Roman Catholic churches is fairly common now, but the Vatican endorsed the practice only in 1994, the year after Alejandra was born. She has been an acolyte for five years, along with her younger sister, Gabriela, 12.
Altar servers assist the priest at Mass -- the central act of Catholic worship -- by performing various duties, such as participating in the ritual washing of the priest's hands and presenting the bread and wine to be consecrated for Communion.
Had Alejandra heard of the ban against girls? Yes, she'd heard. "I thought that was not fair," she says.
The prohibition went back centuries.
In 1755, Pope Benedict XIV issued an encyclical that alluded to Pope Gelasius I, a 5th century pontiff: "Pope Gelasius in his ninth letter to the bishops of Lucania condemned the evil practice which had been introduced of women serving the priest at the celebration of Mass."
Gelasius had written that "we have heard with impatience that disrespect for sacred things has come to this level that even women are tolerated to administer at the sacred altars."
Although some Catholic churches experimented with having altar girls in the 1960s, the Vatican reaffirmed the ban against girls in 1970 and again in 1980 before lifting it 14 years later. But even then, bishops were given the option of restricting the duties to boys.
One diocese, based in Arlington, Va., only began allowing girls to serve in March 2006. And according to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, a diocese in Lincoln, Neb., is the only one in the United States that still refuses to allow altar girls.
The reality at Dolores Mission is far different. The church relies on about 25 acolytes; seven are girls.