St. Sebastian’s Church, built of concrete and stones quarried from the Santa Clara River, stands at the corner of Santa Paula and 9th streets like a giant paperweight keeping the neighborhood of old wooden houses from blowing away.
Generations of Santa Paula residents have worshiped at this anchor of community life--christening, schooling, marrying and burying their loved ones there for 100 years.
“We have some parishioners who have come here for 70 or more years,” said Father James Rothe, the church’s pastor. “I have one who said his grandmother was married in this parish.”
And on Sunday the 5,000-member Catholic parish, the third oldest in Ventura County, will celebrate its centennial with an 11 a.m. Mass celebrated by Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, archbishop of Los Angeles, and Auxiliary Bishop Thomas J. Curry of the Santa Barbara Pastoral Region.
The celebration of the church’s long-standing and important role in Ventura County comes as it is experiencing a rebirth of sorts. It reopened its elementary school in 1988, recently built a patio and garden and has enhanced its charity programs.
Parishioners attribute much of the renaissance to Rothe, who designed the new patio and was instrumental in restarting the long-closed school.
The school, opened in the early 1950s, was closed in 1971 because a group of nuns who taught there were transferred. It now has about 275 children from preschool through eighth grade.
“It fills a need here,” Rothe said. “Parents who wanted to send their children to Catholic school in this area had to send them to Ventura.”
Now the demand is so great that some classes are overbooked.
“Some grades we can accommodate a few more, but others--like kindergarten--are jammed to the gills,” Rothe said.
The parish also has kept open its doors to Ventura County’s needy.
“We give food, . . . we give clothing to those who need it and we help them pay bills or rent sometimes,” said Sal Aguayo, 69, who volunteers at least 10 hours a week in the church’s expanding charity work.
The church started its branch of the St. Vincent de Paul Society, a charity group, last year, formalizing its long tradition of charity work.
Among other things, society volunteers make thousands of sandwiches each month for Ventura County’s homeless and for other Catholic charities.
Aguayo said he happily devotes his days to the church.
“I’m retired,” he said. “I have the time.”
The history of St. Sebastian’s Parish dates formally only to 1896, but its heritage traces back to 1782, when Father Junipero Serra established Mission San Buenaventura. That Ventura parish spawned the Santa Clara Parish near El Rio in 1885, which in turn spun off St. Sebastian’s a century ago.
The new parish’s territory extended eastward from Santa Paula to Rancho Camulos near Piru and northward through the eastern Ojai Valley and to the county line near Gorman.
In the past 100 years, St. Sebastian’s shrunk as four parishes were cut from its territory: St. Thomas Aquinas in Upper Ojai; St. Francis of Assisi in Fillmore; the Spanish-speaking Our Lady of Guadalupe in Santa Paula; and Sacred Heart in Saticoy, Rothe said.
“We’re a much smaller area than we used to be,” said the 28th pastor of St. Sebastian’s Church.
Today, parish activities center around St. Sebastian’s Church, which was built in 1955 to replace the original turn-of-the-century wooden building. Its 1 1/2-foot thick concrete walls suggest a permanence that parishioners feel.
“I’ve been going there all my life,” said Jacob Valenzuela, 21. "[The parish] has survived everything the last 100 years have thrown at it.”