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Out of the Picture?

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

At the end of the movie “The Rock,” Nicolas Cage speeds away from a white clapboard church with the secret to the Kennedy assassination, which he found in a pew.

The secret was never revealed on screen. Now, any other untold tales the century-old Sacred Heart Mission Church holds may also be lost forever.

Construction of a planned housing development near the county landmark along Highway 118 could destroy the charm that has attracted filmmakers. Another group of developers would like to build a shopping center where the church sits, which could force its demolition.

Ventura developer Don Jensen recently bought land near the church for a 10-acre, 42-home project. The owners of the remaining acreage have offered him the one-room, 200-seat church, but he can’t figure out a use for it.

“It’s too small to do most people any good for a community building,” Jensen said. “Structurally and architecturally, it’s simple but not that unique.”

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What the plain white building lacks in architectural distinction, it makes up for in quaintness. In the winter, the snow-dusted Topatopa Mountains rise in the distance above the church’s wood-shingled steeple. In the spring, a field of wild mustard creates a bucolic scene that seems out of place just a few hundred yards away from a mobile home park.

Whatever is built nearby may signal the end of the church’s Hollywood career. Besides its role in “The Rock,” the church has been used in such diverse productions as a “Kodak moment” commercial featuring a newlywed couple beaming for cameras in 1996, as well as a music video and regional ads. But like an out-of-favor actor, the church hasn’t landed many roles recently.

Jon Petersen, whose company, Paramount Ranch Locations, rents the church on behalf of its owners for up to $3,000 a day, said the church has not been used for filming in at least 18 months. Location scouts can find better rural churches, he said.

“In the right location, it would be a good moneymaker, but it’s really not the right place,” Petersen said. “If that building were set out in the middle of a ranch in a field, it would work quite a bit.”

Richard Newsham, who coordinates film permits for the city of Ventura, said filmmakers have often used the church when they needed a Southern California location that doesn’t look like Southern California.

“Generally that area, because it doesn’t have palm trees, looks a lot like the Midwest,” Newsham said. He said a 1996 presidential campaign ad supposedly set in a field in middle America, was actually shot next to the church.

Sacred Heart began as an offshoot of St. Sebastian Catholic Church in Santa Paula. St. Sebastian’s pastor traveled by horse-and-buggy to the mission, which was built in the 1890s as a general store and post before being moved to Saticoy in 1915 and converted to a church.

When Sacred Heart outgrew the sanctuary and moved out in 1968, the building was left vacant. Its current owners, Rosewood Park Partners, moved the building to their land on Darling Road in 1987, set it on a temporary foundation and hoped to turn it into a wedding chapel and Saticoy museum. Their plans were never realized.

Ventura County lists the Sacred Heart Mission Church as Historical Landmark No. 102. Therefore, the Cultural Heritage Board could delay any plans to move or tear down the church for six months. But it lacks the authority to veto any plans the owners might have for the chapel.

Kim Hocking, a heritage board staff member, said the county would certainly prefer its landmark be preserved.

“The historical integrity is more believable in the middle of a field of wildflowers than it is in the middle of an asphalt parking lot,” Hocking said. But moving the church to a parking lot is “better than it being demolished.”

The owners of the old church could not be reached for comment Wednesday, but Sacred Heart’s current congregation does not have a preference for what happens to its first home, said retired pastor Father Arnold Biedermann.

“If someone asks me what happened to the church,” Biedermann said, “well, I will tell them it went the way all earthly things go.”


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