Arsonist’s fire destroys St. John Vianney Church
“We are really the family of God, and that’s who we are in good times and, especially, in difficult times,” said the archbishop, standing in front of a makeshift banquet table altar covered by a white cloth and adorned with two short candles.
“So we together will build a church, but keep in mind as Msgr. Tim reminded all of us that, as the church, ‘we are the people of God.’ And if we support each other, we love each other and work together, that church is going to be rebuilt in three days,” he added with a small smile.
Archbishop Gomez acknowledged that the coming weeks and months were going to be a challenge to parishioners and their priests: Msgr. Tim Nichols, pastor; associate pastors Father Ricardo Viveros and Father Ricardo de Alba; and Father Mike Sezzi, in residence.
“But keep in mind that we are praying for you and that you have our loving support,” he stressed. “And I pledge my support to you all that we can do this. I’m looking forward to the day we are going to do the dedication of the new church.”
Earlier in the liturgy, Msgr. Nichols, from a wheelchair, delivered what he called no “ordinary homily.” The pastor, who is recovering from a March 1 fall that severely injured his right knee, drew spontaneous sustained applause when he said, “We’re bigger than the building.”
“When Msgr. [James] O’Callaghan [the founding pastor] came here, it was just dirt,” he added. “So, unfortunately, I’m here to tell you we’re back to dirt.”
But then he pointed out that in the early history of the church there were no churches because it was illegal to even be a Christian.
“I won’t sugarcoat this, but they say the rebuilding of the church will take two to three years,” reported Msgr. Nichols, drawing gasps from the congregation. “So we have to be prepared for a long journey. And I want to sit here in front of you --- and not stand --- and say that I will be here with you for this journey….
“I’ll be honest with you that my heart is broken, since I loved our church and I’ll miss it,” he confided. “Like a dear friend, I will mourn the loss of our building, but will fall in love with our new church we build together.”
‘A deliberate act’
The horrendous fire was reported a few minutes after midnight April 16, at 1345 Turnbull Canyon Road. Flames as high as 150 feet could be seen from the nearby Pomona Freeway. Los Angeles County firefighters, who battled the blaze for nearly three hours, were able to save the rectory next door.
But the contemporary California mission-style church’s distinctive stained-glass windows --- including one above the main entrance of St. John Vianney, the famed “Cure of Ars” --- dark wood pews, massive pipe organ and Spanish wood-carved crucifix behind the travertine marble altar were destroyed. While the church, which seated more than 1,000 persons, was declared a total loss, the sacristy suffered only smoke damage, saving vestments, lectionaries and sacred sacramental objects. Priests recovered the Blessed Sacrament from the partially melted tabernacle.
Damages were estimated between $8 and $9 million to the parish’s first permanent church, which broke ground on January 15, 1967, and was dedicated by Cardinal James Francis McIntyre in November 1969.
Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, FBI and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives personnel were on the scene. Steve Whitmore of the Sheriff’s Department told the Los Angeles Times, “The investigators have been quite definitive to me. This was very definitely a deliberate act.”
On the Friday night before the fire, church volunteer Dottie Mullane was inside St. John Vianney Church, straightening things up after the weekly Lenten Stations of the Cross service until after 10 o’clock. After getting a phone message that “we no longer have a church,” she and her husband, along with their two dogs, got back to the church around 3 a.m.
“And it was blazing away with lots of smoke,” said the 71-year-old woman ---whose three sons, David, Donald and Doug, were altar servers at the church --- before attending the Saturday evening vigil Mass in the parish center. “There wasn’t anything you could do except watch. And I’m still devastated because I’m here every day cleaning the church or doing something.“But then a woman came up to me last night and said, ‘You know, Dottie, we are the church.’ And she’s right. We are the church. And all I can say is thank you, Lord, no one was injured, other than Jesus in the tabernacle --- and he’s still with us.”
Vivian Ramos, a friend who had two of her children confirmed at St. John Vianney, was nodding in agreement. “This is a beautiful parish,” she said. “It has been my second home. So right now is very, very emotional. But we are a strong community. Our church is gone but the community is still here, and we’re going to pull together and we’re going to build it even stronger. I know that.”
Standing nearby was Margaret Kaiser, a parishioner of 28 years who attends Mass daily. The 62-year-old woman said she couldn’t help but see her suffering church community as a sign and symbol of steadfast Catholic faith in secular Southern California.
“It’s ironic that it happened during Lent, because, as we say, from ashes to ashes we will return until we’re resurrected in the Resurrection with Jesus Christ,” she said. “That’s the first thing I thought of. Everything is here. This is where we come with our burdens, our joys, where we support one another when a family member is sick.
“And I believe that this fire is just a sign of our time,” she added. “From the ashes we will resurrect. The community will resurrect. From bad things, God can make the crooked straight.”
Also attending the vigil liturgy was Bob Strickley with his wife Jane, St. John Vianney parishioners since 1974. Their four children were all confirmed at the suburban parish and three were also married in the church. The couple found out about the fire, amazingly, from a daughter in Okinawa, Japan, who learned about it on Facebook from friends.
"We were devastated,” Jane said. “Just devastated.”
“You just can’t believe what it does to your insides,” Bob observed. “And then you look and you say, ‘We’ll just build a new one.’ And that’s what it comes down to. The parishioners are going to be affected, but I think it’s going to draw us all together and make us a better church.”
Engulfed in flames
Father “Ricky” Viveros was asleep in bed in the rectory when the sound of shattering glass woke up the associate pastor of St. John Vianney Parish. When he sat up and looked behind him, the whole church was engulfed in flames. And those flames were moving towards the rectory.
“My first reaction was for the other priests, that they were all out of the house,” he recalled during a post-Mass interview. “I knew we didn’t have much time. We got out just in time, the firefighters told us. But they saved the rectory. Besides the smoke, everything is intact. They did a wonderful job --- the sheriffs and the fire department. And many of them were parishioners. So you saw the pain in their eyes.”
The young priest, who was ordained in 2008, as a seminarian did his internship at the Hacienda Heights parish before coming back to St. John Vianney in 2009 as associate pastor. Many parishioners attended his ordination and first Mass. “So I have a six-year relationship with the people here,” he noted. “So in many ways, this is my second home.”
And at first, those people, according to Father Viveros, were emotionally distraught by the conflagration that destroyed their beloved reinforced concrete masonry and tile-roof church, built by beloved Msgr. James O’Callaghan.
“But now I think they’re just inspiring each other,” he said. “I mean, as a priest I was awestruck how, at two o’clock in the morning of the fire, 400 people were here praying together, and they already had a game plan of how they were going to get our hall ready for Mass tonight. So it was the initial shock, and then they realize ‘we’re the church.’ They looked around, they saw their loved ones. So there were brief moments of sorrow, but then really a sense that ‘we’re going to rise above this.’”
During his five years as archbishop of San Antonio, Archbishop Gomez only had one little 100-year-old mission church burn down. Now as the spiritual leader of Los Angeles’ five million Catholics since early March, he has a large suburban church with more than 5,000 families utterly destroyed by arsonists.
“It’s interesting that it’s happening just before Holy Week, because that’s also about the commemoration of the passion and death of Our Lord, and then his glorious resurrection on Easter Sunday,” he told The Tidings. “So as we come to the holy days, we feel the heavy weight of the cross. But at the same time we know that the Resurrection will come.
“So it’s also a lesson for us. Because that’s what our life is all about. Our Christian life is joined together with Christ in his passion and death, and then with Christ at the Resurrection. So it’s a good example for us as Christians. Sometimes we have to go through suffering, but we have the certainty of the Resurrection, of the joy, you know, that Christ is alive.”
Archbishop Gomez said he was very happy that Masses had already started being celebrated in the parish center. He also looked forward with tremendous hope and elation to the rising of the new church.
“I will be here for the rebuilding of the church for the St. John Vianney community --- absolutely,” he stressed. “We are going to support the community in any possible way that we can. And it’s important for the whole St. John Vianney community to be together right now and to continue working as a community.
“It’s a good time to reflect on what we are about and how we are here to support each other,” observed the archbishop. “Buildings are important, but people are much more important. Somehow good is going to come out of this.”