As it has since 1950, a gold figure of the Virgin Mary looks out over the Pacific from atop Mary Star of the Sea Catholic Church. Arms outstretched, the statue welcomes seafarers to what used to be the fishing village of San Pedro.
And, although much has changed over the past 45 years, both in the town and at "Mary Star," a handful of parishioners of Italian descent are helping the church preserve the tradition of "St. Joseph's Table," brought to these shores by their forebears, who settled in San Pedro seeking a bountiful catch and a better life.
St. Joseph's Table is an annual ritual of thanksgiving observed on the Sunday closest to the saint's feast day. It will be celebrated at Mary Star beginning at 11:15 a.m. on March 19. Kicking off the festivities will be a musical procession--led by the Knights of Columbus and Joseph Sepia's Los Angeles Italian Band--from the church out into the streets and back again for High Mass. Local youths will take part in a ritual re-enactment of a biblical scene. At a dramatic moment, the crowd will enter the church auditorium, where a free meal for the entire community will be waiting on St. Joseph's Table. Additional food will be distributed to the poor of San Pedro who do not attend.
The gala luncheon commemorates the end of a drought in Sicily in the Middle Ages. Starving peasants prayed to St. Joseph to intercede with God for rain. When their prayers were answered, they vowed never to forget their gratitude.
A statue of St. Joseph is always prominently displayed on the table. Everyone who steps up to view it receives a bag containing a roll and an orange or lemon--symbolizing the food that sustained the Sicilians during the famine.
Leading the cries of "Viva San Giuseppe!" will be Nino Accetta. Now retired, Accetta caught sardines, anchovies and mackerel, as did his father and two brothers, before foreign competition closed the canneries and left commercial fishing vessels to languish in the harbor.
Though Accetta's family hails from Palermo, he says the annual "table" in San Pedro is far from an Italians-only affair. Msgr. Patrick Joseph Gallagher, the Irish-born pastor of Mary Star, concurs. He recalls that his first St. Joseph's procession fell on St. Patrick's Day. "Nino had the band surprise me by striking up 'Wearin' of the Green,' " he chuckled.
Today, many cultures have been absorbed into the church community. Founded in 1889 at another site in San Pedro by Italians and Croatians, Mary Star now has a multiethnic congregation of 6,000 families, about a third of whom are Latino.
Accetta, 70, is a driving force on the informal committee that organizes the meal as a yearly fund-raiser. Last year, he said, the church gave three needy high school students $300 each toward college expenses, "one from San Pedro High, one from our church's high school and one to a seminary student." In addition, the meal raised $1,700 for the church, he said.
"A lot of churches charge for the meal to raise money," Accetta said. "We're sticking with the old tradition and just accept donations." The takings are pure profit, because the "poor man's meal"--featuring such ethnic staples as pasta and calamari salad--is prepared by volunteers. This year, in addition to scholarships, donations will pay for some of the recent repairs made to the statue of Mary, so that it can continue to beckon sailors to safe harbor in San Pedro.
Mary Star of the Sea Catholic Church is at 1241 W. 21st Street. (310) 833-3541.
* The Rev. Rosey Grier and the Rev. Susan Stafford will speak on "The Clergy and Issues of Confidentiality" at an 11:45 a.m. luncheon Thursday hosted by Clergy Network in Los Angeles. Last December, Superior Court Judge Lance A. Ito ruled that remarks made by O.J. Simpson to Grier in jail need not be revealed in court. Grier, a Christian minister and former professional football player, is the founder of an inner-city youth program. Stafford is a chaplain intern who has worked with AIDS, cancer and leprosy patients. Phone (213) 655-2023 for a complimentary reservation.
* "Pastoral Care in 2001: Is Changing Care Changing Temples and Churches?" is the subject of a Clergy Network luncheon in Reseda at 11:45 a.m. Tuesday. The speaker is the Rev. Bonny Allen Rice, a hospital chaplain. She has worked in a hospice and has trained others in clinical pastoral education. Rice is the founder of "The Compassionate Heart," a seminar that trains lay people in pastoral care. For a complimentary reservation, phone (800) 707-2224.
* Middle Atlantic Regional Gospel Ministries will hold its annual conference from 6:30 p.m. Thursday through noon March 19 at First Church of God in Inglewood. Authors and Christian leaders from Nigeria, the Bahamas and throughout the United States are scheduled to speak. All sessions--including worship, workshops, keynote speakers and music--are open to the public. Donations will be requested from non-registered participants. Some topics are Pentecostal ministry to the urban community, and planning an African American religion observance day. Speakers include the Rev. E. Myron Noble, founder of the ministries; the Rev. Felix I. Omobude of Benin City, Nigeria, and the Rev. Benjamin F. Reid, pastor of the host church. For registration information, phone (213) 757-1804.
* Such Disney music classics as "Zip-A-Dee Doo-Dah" and "When You Wish Upon a Star" will be performed in Hebrew at Disneyland on March 19 by the children's choirs of Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills. About 165 youngsters between the ages of 8 and 14 will appear at Carnation Plaza from 11 to 11:30 a.m., under the direction of music director Tina Caplan Weiss, who commissioned the songs' translations. (310) 273-6242.
* Women's Ministries of Church of the Open Door, First Church of the Nazarene and Lake Avenue Congregational Church, all in Pasadena, will join Sierra Madre Congregational Church in presenting "The Secret of Serenity," a seminar to be led by Elisabeth Elliot from 9 a.m. to noon next Saturday at First Church of the Nazarene. Elliot is an author and former missionary to Ecuador. Her husband, Jim Elliot, was killed in 1956 while traveling to work among the Auca Indians. Two years later, Elliot and her daughter went to live with the Aucas to continue his work. A former adjunct professor at Gordon-Conwell Seminary in Massachusetts and writer in residence at Gordon College, she has written more than a dozen books. Admission is $5. 3700 Sierra Madre Blvd., Pasadena. (310) 696-9257.
The merriest holiday of the Jewish calendar, Purim, takes place from sundown Wednesday through sundown Thursday, commemorating the saving of the Jewish people from annihilation 2,000 years ago by a courageous Jewish queen in Persia. According to Rabbi Lawrence J. Goldmark of Temple Beth Ohr in La Mirada, "The holiday has acquired a deeper significance over the centuries, and now is a day on which Jews reaffirm their commitment to religious freedom for all people." Purim is celebrated by attending synagogue readings of the Megillah (scroll) of Esther, giving to charity, sending sweets to friends, dressing in costume and rattling noisemakers. Purim spiels, or plays, featuring satire, slapstick and parodies of religious services, also are held.
* The Young Jewish Urban Action Project of American Jewish Congress will prepare and distribute meals to homeless people in West Los Angeles from 4:30 to 7 p.m. March 19. A social hour will follow. Reservations required. (213) 651-4601.
* An adults-only Megillah reading at 8 p.m. Wednesday at Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles will incorporate the wit of Hollywood screenwriters Lowell Ganz ("City Slickers") and Wayne Federman ("Radio Days"), comic Cathy Ladman, poet Bill Wallis and literary consultant Natalie Lemberg. 3663 Wilshire Boulevard. (213) 388-2401.
* Musician and humorist Lenny Solomon will bring "Shlock Rock" to Cal State Northridge as part of a Purim celebration at the Shoshone Room of the Satellite Student Union. Free services include a Megillah reading and will begin at 6:45 p.m. Wednesday. The concert starts at 8:30 p.m. Tickets are $15 for adults, $10 for children 4 to 10 years old, $5 for students. Children 3 and under are free. (818) 368-2221.
* Temple Beth Am in Los Angeles will hold its annual Purim carnival from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday. (310) 652-7353.
* Purim carnivals will be held March 19 at the following synagogues. Please phone for hours and locations: Temple Akiba, Culver City (310) 298-5783; Temple Beth Israel, Pomona (909) 626-1277; Temple Menorah, Redondo Beach (310) 316-8444; Temple Beth Ohr, La Mirada (714) 521-6765 or (310) 691-2551; Wilshire Boulevard Temple, Los Angeles; (213) 388-2401; Temple Etz Chaim, Thousand Oaks (805) 497-6891.
Southern California File welcomes submissions by mail c/o Religion Editor, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053, or by fax to (213) 237-4712. Items must be brief and arrive at least three weeks in advance of the event announced. Please include a phone number, date, time and full address.