They had been waiting for the moment for years.
After the sermon, and before Communion, their priest, the Rev. Canon Cindy Voorhees, stood before them in resplendent white vestments and proclaimed simply but exuberantly, "Welcome to St. James."
From pews that had sat empty for three years, a packed house at St. James Episcopal Church in Newport Beach rose Sunday to embrace Voorhees like a rock star with cheers and whistles.
It was the first service since 2015 at the church, which had been locked and mired in an emotional ecclesiastical and legal battle as the past bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles twice tried to sell the land to developers, incurring church sanctions before his retirement. A flock stayed together, following Voorhees to services at a park, in a museum and, for the last year, a community room at Newport Beach City Hall.
The past was inescapable Sunday, but so was the present.
Sue Rawlings brought her Havanese, Rawlie, as she always does — dogs are welcome at St. James' Mass — and without prompting the little dog, with red bows in her silky ears, trotted down the aisle directly to Rawlings' usual pew — to the right and two rows from the front.
Rawlings knows that church isn't necessarily a building, but she longed to see the brilliant, centerpiece stained-glass window.
"I missed the pews, and I missed the kneelers," she said.
Rawlings was one of the many faithful nomads. She expected emotion to overcome her when she crossed the threshold into the consecrated space of the sanctuary.
"But when I walked into that church, I felt like I was home," she said. "This is where we belong."
When Bishop John Taylor was installed as head of the diocese late last year, he was tasked with mending the wounds caused by his predecessor's attempts to sell the property. Former Bishop J. Jon Bruno locked the church in 2015, around the time of his first sale attempt to townhouse developers. Another attempted transaction in 2017 fell through and, ultimately, the diocese decided to reopen to worshipers.
Taylor preached a message of reconciliation and unity Sunday, a message that church leaders have been focused on for months now.
"Reconciliation, my friends, is for any herder who has squabbled with another," he said, referencing the property conflict in Genesis between the prosperous shepherds Abram and Lot.
The congregants were joyful throughout the service, which included Sunday school pupils making their formal entrance led by a boy carrying a child-scaled processional cross.
"Welcome home, people of St. James Episcopal Church," Taylor said.