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After church fire, grieving parishioners attend Palm Sunday service

Parishioners at St. John Vianney Church in Hacienda Heights mourn the destruction of the building by an arsonist. Federal and L.A. County investigators are looking into the blaze.

April 17, 2011|By Seema Mehta, Los Angeles Times
  • Blanca Cardenas of Hacienda Heights hugs daughter Michelle, 11, while daughter Emily, 5, holds a cross made from palm fronds at the parish hall Mass. A day earlier a fire destroyed St. John Vianney Catholic Church in Hacienda Heights.
Blanca Cardenas of Hacienda Heights hugs daughter Michelle, 11, while… (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles…)

Alice Ameluxen wept as she stared Sunday at the burned-out shell that was the St. John Vianney Church. An arsonist's fire destroyed the stained glass windows that had cast a warm golden glow on the dark wood pews, the massive pipe organ and the simple wood crucifix that hung above the stone altar.

The 43-year-old had grown up in the Hacienda Heights Catholic church. A half-century ago, her parents were among its founding parishioners. Nearly every milestone in Ameluxen's life, from taking her first Communion to getting married to grieving at her parents' funerals, had taken place within its walls.

"My happiest and saddest memories are here," she said, clutching the hand of her 7-year-old daughter, Jean. "I just feel like I lost my home."

That was a common sentiment on Palm Sunday, as more than 5,000 members of the parish and others from the community struggled to come to terms with an arson the previous day that had destroyed the building.

Bishop Gabino Zavala, who lives two blocks away, was awakened by a neighbor pounding on his door just after midnight Saturday morning. He ran to his front lawn and saw flames shooting 150 feet in the air. He rushed to the church, finding himself alongside priests and parishioners helplessly watching flames destroy the church and the rectory.

"I was unfortunately here to witness the horror of watching our church go up in flames," said the Rev. Msgr. Tim Nichols. "The challenge is not to look backward. It's heartbreaking."

The FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are investigating the fire along with L.A. County authorities.

"The investigators have been quite definitive to me, this was very definitely a deliberate act," said Steve Whitmore, a spokesman for the Sheriff's Department, who said he could not release additional information because of the ongoing investigation. "They're following up these leads as we speak."

On Sunday, a hastily rearranged Mass was held at a parish hall on the church property that is typically used for wedding receptions, Bible study and other events. More than 1,000 people attended the 10 a.m. gathering, spilling out of the hall. Many lined the walls, while others stood outside, craning their necks to try to hear the service.

Sunday was Palm Sunday, or Passion Sunday, when Christians mark Jesus' entrance into Jerusalem prior to his crucifixion. The pre-Easter message about Jesus' suffering, betrayal and crucifixion was especially poignant given what the parish had seen over the preceding 36 hours. The first reading was from the Old Testament book of Isaiah: "I gave my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who plucked my beard; My face I did not shield from buffets and spitting. The Lord God is my help, therefore I am not disgraced; I have set my face like flint, knowing that I shall not be put to shame."

Church leaders vowed to rebuild the church, which they said could cost $10 million and take two to three years.

"On this Passion Sunday, we focus on the death of Jesus but more importantly, we're looking at resurrection. So we're going to rise again with a new church. Praise the Lord," Nichols said, as the crowd cheered loudly.

Despite the attempts to carry on with business as usual, stark reminders of the parish's straits were obvious. There were no hymnals, because they had burned in the pews, so many people did not know the words to the songs. Before taking Communion, parishioners knelt on the hard linoleum floor. The blessed wafers and wine were distributed at the front of the church, but also outside, to ease congestion.

Nichols said the physical location of the Mass didn't matter. "The good news is that we're not in church today, but the church is here because the church is in our hearts," he said. "And we are the people and we are the church."

St. John Vianney was an institution that reached well beyond its Catholic parishioners. Hacienda Heights residents would frequently attend the church carnival and Early California Days festival. This weekend, that community began to extend a hand. Residents left flowers along the property's edge. The local Mormon church and a high school offered facilities for worship, though Nichols said parishioners wanted to stay close to the church building.

Parishioners tried to put on a brave face, but they struggled, especially as they looked at the ruins of the church, which was ringed in safety fence and yellow police tape. A sign deemed the building "unsafe." Sections of Spanish-tile roof and brick wall remained, but the inside was nearly unrecognizable. An acrid smell was heavy in the air.

"I believe this whole world is going to hell in a handbasket," said Reinhold Leiser, an 82-year-old usher at the church. "It's going to be a struggle. But we're going to come out of it, and we're going to build the most beautiful church. I'm convinced of it."

Ameluxen strained as she thought of the person who set the blaze.

"There aren't even words," she said. "I'm sorry for them. I'm sorry they would feel so evil they could do something so terrible."

"I hope God can forgive them for this," she said, before adding. "I'm sure he will."

seema.mehta@latimes.com

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