Consuelo Guerrero remembers attending Mass back in the 1930s, when services at the city’s small stone church were sporadic and depended upon the availability of a visiting Roman Catholic priest.
“We just didn’t know if we were going to have a priest,” she said. “They’d ring a bell when there was, so people would know that we’d have services.”
Guerrero, her mother and her daughters were married in the old Our Lady of Guadalupe Mission, the city’s first Roman Catholic church, which became unusable after the earthquake that shook Southern California last October.
“We have a lot of sentimental reasons why we wouldn’t want that church demolished,” said Guerrero, whose father helped build the mission and who can recall the days when it had a dirt floor. “The church doesn’t have the money to repair it, so for me it would be great if the city would buy it and keep it.”
In a city known for its high-paced development and appetite for knocking down old things to make way for the new, a movement is under way to save a 71-year-old church linking the town to its past.
Outwardly, the stone-and-mortar mission seems no worse for wear from the earthquake, but engineers commissioned by the Archdiocese of Los Angeles have determined that its knobby, unreinforced walls are unsafe and need earthquake renovations costing upward of $100,000. For the past two months, the mission has not been used.
The city, after hearing that the archdiocese was unwilling to repair the church, has expressed interest in buying the small structure and preserving it as a historic landmark.
Although no offers have been made, both church and city officials say that an archdiocese-to-city transfer would be looked upon kindly by both parties.
“It’s in a very preliminary stage,” said archdiocese spokesman Bill Rivera of the ongoing talks. “Right now, the archdiocese is looking into what the value of the property might be.”
The preliminary estimate for seismic repairs topped $100,000 for the 100-by-200-foot structure, he said, but full renovation costs would probably be higher.
Wedged between an auto shop and Morada Street on industrially cluttered Arrow Highway, the tiny mission looks out of step with the burgeoning development and redevelopment that has marked Irwindale’s recent history.
Irwindale City Manager Charles Martin said the city is considering buying the structure because of the mission’s importance to the residents. Last year, the mission was declared a historic landmark by the City Council.
“It was built by the people of this area, rock by rock,” he said. “It’s more than a historic monument, it’s part of the community.
“A lot of the old-timers here watched it being built. The community feels it’s part of its heritage.”
In 1965, the archdiocese built a 700-seat Our Lady of Guadalupe Church at Cypress Street and Irwindale Avenue to replace the 90-seat mission, which was then largely relegated to ceremonial use. But most of the 1,200 families in the Irwindale parish have attended services at some time in the little church, which city officials say makes the mission an important sentimental anchor for the city.
In 1917 developer Thomas J. Rourke donated the land for the mission to the then-Archdiocese of Monterey and Los Angeles, said Father Patrick M. Hughes, Our Lady of Guadalupe’s pastor. The thousands of rocks which make up the walls were lifted from the San Gabriel River bed by parishioners, who spent a few hours each weekday and Saturday building the mission.
“The people who built it were not builders,” he said, adding that the construction is less advanced than the California missions built a century earlier.
Although the mission’s bumpy walls appear to have fared better than the nearby San Gabriel Mission, which sustained gaping fractures from the same quake, Hughes said the church has design flaws that are a major concern.
“This could be standing 100 years from now without damage from a quake,” Hughes said. “But after all, when you allow 100 people in here, you are responsible for them.”
Martin said the city got wind of the church’s predicament through the community grapevine. “There are very few secrets here,” he said of the tightknit town of barely 1,000 residents.
Last Used in August
Hughes said that the mission was last used in August, when a memorial Mass was conducted for Father Anthony Z. Marigo, the city’s first full-time priest.
Even if the city buys the mission, its ultimate use is in doubt, Martin said. Just like the archdiocese, the city may not be willing to pay for a total seismic repair. With restricted use, he said, it may not be necessary to bring the church up to current earthquake codes.
“It depends on how much occupancy we’re going to have as to how much we’re going to do with it,” he said. “If it’s just going to be a historic monument, that’s another thing.”
Rivera said the archdiocese is aware of the significance the mission holds for Irwindale. Rumors that the archdiocese had considered selling the church to a developer were unfounded, he said.
The possibility of the city purchasing the church has generally been favored by parishioners as the best option, Hughes said.
Even so, Guerrero, whose family connection to the mission spans generations, said it will hurt to see the archdiocese let it go.
“Really, even this is breaking my heart,” she said. “It’s sure a sad story, but I hope it has a happy ending.”