Baptism in Barstow

Father Erik Esparza baptizes a baby at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Barstow. He is one of only two priests at his parish, serving 1,200 families. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

The morning sun has barely crept above the horizon when 13 beginning seminarians emerge from dormitory rooms and wander into the chapel of their religious compound.

"God our Father . . . let not temptation ever quench the fire that your love has kindled within us," they recite from liturgy books.

Inside the Junipero Serra House of Formation, at the base of a rock-strewn mountain 60 miles east of Los Angeles, these men -- the youngest just 19 -- are getting their first taste of the priesthood, devoting themselves to prayer, obedience and celibacy.

They are a precious commodity in the U.S. Roman Catholic Church, which faces a critical shortage of priests that is magnified in fast-growing regions such as the Inland Empire.

This corner of Southern California has one diocesan priest for every 13,000 Catholics. Nationally, the figure is roughly one for every 3,500.

If there is a solution, at least in the Diocese of San Bernardino, it may lie at Serra House, a Mission-style complex where recruitment is handled by a gregarious nun wearing earrings, and religious guidance is left to two priests in sandals and short sleeves.

It is one of about a dozen formation houses across the country that give would-be priests an opportunity to test their resolve before they enter traditional seminaries.

But there are no miracles in this priestly incubator, only the beginning of a long, painstaking journey.

This year, the diocese has ordained just two priests. Last year, it produced a bumper crop -- six. In the 24 years since Serra House opened, it has contributed 45 priests to a diocese that stretches hundreds of miles from the cities of Riverside and San Bernardino through desert towns to the Arizona and Nevada borders.

"It's work of hope," said Father Jose Sanz, Serra House's rector.

The Diocese of San Bernardino was created in 1978 by Pope Paul VI, who carved it from the northern half of the Diocese of San Diego to give the burgeoning Catholic community of San Bernardino and Riverside counties a home of its own.

Back then, the new diocese had 76 active priests for 235,000 Catholics. Today, it has 91 for more than 1.2 million adherents.

With no local Catholic university or seminary to replenish an aging clergy, diocese leaders decided in 1985 to develop their own priests at Serra House, a converted convent in Riverside. The house has since moved to the nearby city of Grand Terrace, near Colton, occupying a two-story building with a red-tile roof at the top of a sloping residential street that neighbors call "holy hill."

Its residents -- some high school graduates, others from college or the business world -- spend one or two years living in its dormitories during the week, returning home on weekends, readying themselves for three years of philosophy studies at Loyola University in Chicago, followed by five years at seminaries in Camarillo or San Antonio.

The training includes a one-year internship in a local parish and a stint in the diocese's San Bernardino headquarters. After completing theology studies, seminarians return to be ordained by the diocese's bishop and assigned to one of its 94 churches.

It takes up to 10 years to turn a seminarian into an ordained priest.

At Serra House, the day begins with 6:45 a.m. Mass in the chapel. After breakfast, the seminarians disperse to Riverside Community College and other local schools to work toward bachelor's degrees in philosophy or other subjects. At 4:30 p.m., everyone returns for prayer in the chapel, dinner and the nightly news on a big-screen television in the recreation room.

During evening formation classes, the seminarians study the Catholic catechism, church history and liturgy, and discuss how chastity relates to their lives in the priesthood. A handbook offers guidance on celibacy: "The spiritual path transforms the experience of loneliness into a holy solitude based on a strong, lively and personal love for Jesus Christ."

The house itself is designed to foster reflection, the solitude of its loggia and courtyard broken only by the steady music of birds.