Outside the Sears and across from the McDonald's in the Esplanade Mall, Catherine Mervyn was calling the shots as her husband and a friend this week hoisted a piece of local religious history onto a wall.
"Come down a little on the left," she called out. "It's not quite level. There--that'll look nice up there, won't it?"
Finally in place was a plaque marking the approximate site of the 1877 Santa Clara Church, the first church in the Santa Clara Valley and the first Catholic church to be built in Ventura County after the construction of the San Buenaventura Mission 95 years earlier. It is to be unveiled before parishioners, church dignitaries, Oxnard city officials and holiday shoppers at a ceremony in the Oxnard shopping center at 11 a.m. Friday.
An unlikely spot for hallowed ground, the wall outside Sears sits a couple of hundred yards from Santa Clara's original location. That site is on a northbound lane of Highway 101.
"Little by little, everything is disappearing," said Mervyn, a retired Oxnard history teacher who led a yearlong campaign to commemorate the church. "I didn't want this to disappear too."
Built for just $1,500 before several additions over the decades, the tiny chapel was displaced by the freeway in 1954 and moved to a lot practically on top of it, at Rose Avenue and Ventura Boulevard. Freeway expansion next year will force it to move again, this time to a field next to Rio Mesa High School.
Still in use as a church, it is an anchor of the El Rio neighborhood, although a bigger, grander Santa Clara now administers it. The bigger church, built in 1904, looms over downtown Oxnard.
An author of inspirational articles for religious magazines, Mervyn was asked two years ago by Msgr. Charles O'Gorman to write a history of the church. During her research for the recently released "A Tower in the Valley," she struck upon the idea of honoring the church's first home.
"I started with City Hall," she said. "I gave them three choices: a plaque, a monument or renaming Esplanade Boulevard either Holy Cross or Santa Clara."
She eventually settled on the plaque, securing permission from Sears when she realized that would be the public building closest to the old church site. The Oxnard Knights of Columbus, Council 750, raised $970 for the plaque, which Mervyn hauled around in her car for six weeks before it was affixed to the wall Monday.
Shoppers and strollers exchanged memories of the church as they watched Bill Mervyn and Al Gonzales, armed with tape measures, drills and levels, wrestle it into place.
A security guard said he had been an altar boy there. A woman on a brisk march--one of a crew of dedicated mall-walkers--came over, lamenting a recent news article that said the church had been "replaced."
"It wasn't replaced," she fumed. "It was moved. How could they not know that?"
Gonzales, a lifelong church member who also belongs to the Knights of Columbus, stopped his labors to reminisce. "When I was about 10, I used to go there to help out. I'd swing on a rope to ring the bell for funerals. The church had bats back then, and they'd come flying out."