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Parish reflects L.A. — and it's thriving

Once largely white, St. Catherine of Siena in Reseda is now mostly Latino. Immigrants and a new priest have revitalized the church; members have high hopes for the archdiocese under new leadership.

May 26, 2010|By Mitchell Landsberg, Los Angeles Times

His parishioners describe Father Paul Griesgraber as "old school," a term that is almost laughably open to interpretation, given the 2,000-year history of his particular school, the Roman Catholic Church. In his case, it is used with affection and respect to describe a priest who trusts in the majesty of the Catholic Mass and invests it with deep spirituality — in both English and Spanish.

He is also a priest who brings people streaming through the doors of his church, St. Catherine of Siena in Reseda, a place that, in many ways, reflects the larger Archdiocese of Los Angeles. Once largely white, St. Catherine's is now mostly Latino. Immigrants have pumped new life into the parish, and Spanish-language Masses draw larger crowds than those in English.

"The church was dead," Olga Calderone, St. Catherine's health director, said bluntly of the time before Griesgraber arrived last summer. "Now we are bringing the cultures together. ... This is the beauty that Father Paul has brought to our church."

It is also what parishioners at St. Catherine's hope the next archbishop of Los Angeles, Jose Gomez, will bring to an archdiocese that has been battered in recent years by a devastating sexual abuse crisis even as it has grown to become by far the largest Catholic community in the nation.

Gomez, who arrived in Los Angeles on Saturday, will be officially welcomed to the city Wednesday afternoon with a Mass at the downtown Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels. As co-adjutor of the archdiocese, Gomez will work alongside Cardinal Roger Mahony, then succeed him when the prelate retires early next year.

In interviews over the last week, parishioners and staff at St. Catherine's talked about their hopes and concerns for their church as it faces a transition locally and confronts a pernicious threat globally: a scandal of sexual abuse by priests that Pope Benedict XVI recently called "terrifying."

Almost without exception, those interviewed at St. Catherine's said they were pleased with the selection of Gomez, a native of Mexico and a U.S. citizen who has been archbishop of San Antonio since 2004. They had qualified praise for Mahony, who was seen as a compassionate and largely effective archbishop who, many believed, had stumbled in his handling of sexual abuse cases.

Many expressed confidence, however, that Mahony had enacted appropriate safeguards against future priestly abuse, and some made the argument — implicitly rejected recently by the pope — that the scandal had been blown out of proportion by the news media.

It is hard to say to what extent these views reflect those of all Catholics. The people interviewed were regular churchgoers, outwardly the most faithful of the faithful, and may be more forgiving of the church's human failings than more casual Catholics.

Still, what emerged repeatedly from their conversations was a passionate belief in the Catholic Church as an institution, immense satisfaction with the stewardship of their local parish, and a slightly more skeptical view of the greater church hierarchy, both locally and in Rome — views that are in line with surveys of Catholics nationally.

"Sometimes I pray to God," said parishioner Delia Garay, "and say, 'Why are there so many disappointments with humans?'"

On a recent weekday morning, about 100 people gathered at St. Catherine's for daily Mass, scattering themselves through the church's cavernous nave. Built in the mid-1960s to support a booming San Fernando Valley, the church has a modern, light feel, with pink walls and tall, narrow stained glass windows.

Griesgraber was at the altar, speaking in a warm, resonant voice. At 58, he is a tall, thin man with a chiseled face. A lifelong churchgoer on the Westside of Los Angeles, he came late to the priesthood, resisting the call for years while working in jobs that included handyman and real estate developer. When he came to Reseda after a relatively brief stint at a parish in Pasadena, he knew nothing about the Valley or St. Catherine's.

He told this story in his homily, adding that once he arrived, "I felt instantly that I was home, that I had been here forever."

Gomez, he said, will be in the same situation: "He's coming from a whole 'nother world. ... We don't have a lot in common with him; he's not part of our neighborhood." But, he assured the congregation, "what he does share is that inner light of the Lord. ... His cares will become our cares, and our cares will become his cares."

Later, in the rectory, Griesgraber spoke about his efforts to rebuild the parish in the last year, quadrupling the enrollment of the elementary school, adding more Spanish Masses, reopening a vacant convent to house volunteers who teach in the school and otherwise serve the church while they ponder a life as a priest or nun. And he talked about the transition in leadership in the archdiocese, which Mahony has headed since 1985.

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