Last Sunday at the stroke of midnight, a solitary worshiper knelt in a small prayer chapel at St. Hilary Catholic Church in Pico Rivera.
But that was nothing unusual.
A congregant also was praying at 10:30 p.m. on Feb. 4, 1975, and at 3:45 a.m. on Oct. 17, 1961.
For 35 years, the chapel has been in use nearly nonstop thanks to the local Perpetual Adoration Society, which asks members to enter and pray one hour a week.
“You don’t get much publicity about the blessings in life, but that hour has been a boost to our family,” said John J. McWeeney, 77. He did the shift from 10 to 11 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 4, 1975, as he has done for the last 35 years. He and his wife, whom he still calls “my bride,” regard the hour of prayer as more a reward than a duty.
“You go away from that hour feeling like a newborn child almost,” he said. “We thank God we had that hour.”
The idea of around-the-clock prayer goes back to the first days of the Christian church when the Apostle Paul wrote of “prayer without ceasing,” said Father Gregory Coiro, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. “It’s hard for an individual to do it, but as a community, we can do it.”
Church officials know of no church in the local archdiocese that has been doing it longer than St. Hilary. A handful of parishioners have been involved since the beginning on Nov. 7, 1958. The practice has become rare in modern times, partly because of a decline in interest and partly for security reasons.
“We had to lock up (many) churches at night,” Coiro said. “In a lot of places the church is locked up during the day.”
At St. Hilary, men or couples take the night shifts. People find their own substitutes or call a shift leader for help. A different volunteer manages the a.m. and p.m. shifts of each day.
Society members are asked to pray for world peace and the healing of the sick. They also pray that some young members of the congregation will enter the priesthood or another church occupation.
Beyond that, the forum is open for any kind of prayer. Congregants also are welcome to meditate and read from the Bible or other religious books that are provided.
From 3 to 4 a.m., on Tuesday, Oct. 17, 1961, Charles Fleming was giving thanks for the birth of his seventh and youngest child, who was born four days before. “The good Lord always saw to it that I got a raise or promotion to care for my children,” said Fleming.
On his way to another morning shift, Fleming smoked the last cigarette in a pack.
“I told my Lord I would quit smoking because it was bad for me and besides, cigarettes went up 50 cents a pack,” said Fleming, a 67-year-old engineering consultant. “The next morning I woke up and I didn’t want a cigarette. I never smoked a cigarette again. I could not have done that without the Lord’s help.”
Prayer cannot answer all questions, solve all difficulties, but can can give people the strength to deal with problems, said Father Christian Van Liefde, the church’s Pastor.
On the other hand, Van Liefde doesn’t deny the possibility of miracles.
His own shift is the first hour of the week, on Sunday from midnight to 1 a.m.
The church is open and unlocked all the time, and has not suffered from vandalism, officials said.
The 15-by-30-foot chapel is a simple room of chairs, kneeling stations and bookshelves. A fountain of holy water sits by the door. Bone fragments of saints and other holy relics rest in alcoves of red, blue, green, pink or yellow stained glass. Panes of sliding glass separate the room from the church’s main altar, where candles cast soft light.
At the entrance, the “adorers” sign an attendance book. On the opposite wall, a board lists parishioners in need of blessing, including those who are ill, those who had recent surgery and those who have died.
The name board alerted hundreds of congregants to pray for the granddaughter of 62-year-old Mary Eva Gomez. The 7-year-old has survived seven surgeries to correct a heart problem.
The adoration society was the brainchild of the late Percy J. Bell, the founding pastor of the St. Hilary parish.
Bell became excited when he heard about a Texas church with around-the-clock prayer, but had doubts about getting started until he remembered something his older brother had told him: “The American people will never be attracted to a small challenge. Give them a big one or skip it.”
Besides, “If Texas could do it, so could California,” Bell wrote in 1968.
Congregants remembered Bell as a diminutive, determined man with a soft but resonant voice. He piloted planes, sailed boats and rode a motorcycle. Behind his back, some parishioners affectionately dubbed him Little Caesar, because he never seemed to take no for an answer.
“He really believed that at the core of our life of faith has to be that relationship with the Lord in prayer, that the strength and energy to live a good life comes out of our prayer,” Father Van Liefde said.
Bell easily filled the 168 hours of the week with more than 400 volunteers. He made the adoration chapel from a room formerly reserved during services for parishioners with crying children.
Bell retired in 1970. His successor, Father John F. Killeen, helped keep the group strong for another 20 years. He liked to quote the poet Alfred Lord Tennyson: “More things are wrought by prayer than this world dreams of.”
The adoration society was more than 30 years old when Bell died on Aug. 15, 1990.
Other area churches with shorter-lived adoration societies include Nativity Catholic Church in Torrance, St. Dorothy Catholic Church in Glendora and St. Therese Catholic Church in Alhambra. Nuns at The Monastery of the Angels in Hollywood also conduct a perpetual prayer ritual, but the lay public only participates on special occasions.
In Pico Rivera, the hour for Alice Camarillo is 10 to 11 a.m. on Saturday, just as it has been since November, 1958.
Camarillo, the current president of the adoration society, finds herself often saying thank you in her prayers. “Ten healthy children, 19 grandchildren, a wonderful husband,” said Camarillo, checking off blessings. “I will be married 50 years in May.”
She spends some of her time recruiting younger people to take over. A recent call for volunteers gathered more than 40 new names.
“I can hardly wait to add them to the list,” she said.