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A church is reborn

Focus on ethnic traditions revives St. Cecilia's in South L.A. Urged on by a priest, Latin and African laypeople took charge of the parish's direction.

February 10, 2008|Sam Quinones | Times Staff Writer

With clarinets, trumpets and tubas, the Oaxacan Echo youth band blasted its raucous music into the ceiling of St. Cecilia Catholic Church in South Los Angeles on a recent Sunday afternoon.

Hector Mata, a Oaxacan immigrant, watched from the wings.

St. Cecilia's was packed. That's the way it's been ever since the church began holding monthly Masses honoring the Virgin of Soledad, patron saint of the Mexican state of Oaxaca.

Mata, 59, helped organize these Masses and subsequently helped resurrect a church.

Standing at Normandie Avenue and 42nd Street, St. Cecilia's has a congregation made up mostly of Latino immigrants. But Sunday services at the church were as barren as its collection plate when Father Luigi Zanotto arrived a decade ago from Oaxaca.

Zanotto, an energetic 60-year-old Italian priest, was determined to change that by reaching out to a community he knew well. He urged Oaxacan parishioners such as Mata to form their own church groups and arrange their own Masses, and then invited others to follow their lead.

They responded by making the church their own. This included venerating saints, such as the Virgin of Soledad, who were more popular in their native villages. The church is now home to two other saints from Mexico, one each from Guatemala and El Salvador, and another from Nigeria.

St. Cecilia's was reborn.

Once dependent on subsidies from the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, the church is now self-sustaining. Each of four Spanish-language Sunday Masses attracts hundreds of parishioners. Archbishops, cardinals, bishops and consuls from Africa and Latin America also have visited.

"This church now is the definition of a parish -- which is the communion of communities," Zanotto said.

Mata, who used to go to church out of obligation in his native country, said he had never known a priest who invited believers to share responsibility for running the church.

Immigrants in Los Angeles often "enclose themselves in their customs and live in their own world," Mata said. St. Cecilia's "gave us a great opportunity to . . . open ourselves to the broader world."


St. Cecilia's congregation was predominantly white when the church opened in 1927. Then in the 1960s, blacks began moving into the neighborhood. By the mid-1990s, they were being replaced by Latino immigrants.

The massive church resembles many in Latin America, with its towering arches, enormous stained-glass windows, marble floors and side altars.

But the new residents were slow to discover St. Cecilia's, whose clergy remained distant. Church doors were kept locked. The pastor didn't speak Spanish, and the church's aging sound system sent the Sunday homily echoing off the concrete walls. Masses rarely topped 200 people, a fraction of the church's capacity.

Eventually the pastor, realizing that new times required new skills, invited the Combonis, an order of missionary priests, to run St. Cecilia's.

Zanotto arrived in 1997. He had spent 13 years in Mexico and was fluent in Spanish.

He embraced St. Cecilia's new neighbors. He unlocked the church and its rectory, and hired a Spanish-speaking secretary. He brought in nuns from Colombia to go door to door, asking residents what they might need. He held annual posadas, a Mexican Christmas celebration.

Then in 2000, Oaxacan immigrants from San Francisco Cajonos approached Zanotto about holding a special party and Mass to raise money for their Mexican village. Among them was Hector Mata.

Since arriving in the United States 42 years ago, Mata had started his own gardening business, learned English, sent two daughters to college and become a citizen. The only part of his life that had not changed was his relationship with the Catholic Church.

Zanotto urged the Oaxacans to arrange the Mass themselves. He told them the church was theirs, but so was the responsibility for organizing and promoting the service.

Zanotto knew Oaxaca. He had served for seven years in an Indian parish in the Oaxacan mountains in the 1970s. He lived in a thatched hut and rode a horse to the remotest of his parish's 40 villages.

The church anchored the mountain villages, but priests were a rare sight, so native Indians ran their own services. Decisions were made communally, as they had been for centuries. When a priest did arrive, he ran things without input from church members.

Oaxacan villages have "a sense of community that the church is the contradiction of," Zanotto said.

His experience in Mexico prompted years of reflection on the role of the priest and his parishioners.

The priest, Zanotto came to believe, must put his ego aside and trust his flock to take the church reins. Then, he said, their faith would deepen.

So when Mata and the others came to him, Zanotto asked them to arrange a Mass for all Oaxacans.

After two months of publicity, they organized a Mass attended by 300 people.

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