Father Daniel Johnson, 77; preserved pre-Vatican II traditions

Times Staff Writer

Father Daniel Johnson, a champion of pre-Vatican II Roman Catholic traditions and the centuries-old Tridentine Mass, has died. He was 77.

Johnson died Sunday at a Duarte hospital after a long illness.

“He was a pioneer in reforming liturgical reform,” said Michael J. Sundstedt, a longtime parishioner at St. Mary’s by the Sea in Huntington Beach, where Johnson served as pastor for 25 years before retiring in 2004.


When Johnson arrived at the tiny wooden church in 1978, it was in danger of closing because membership had dwindled to about 400 people, church administrators recalled.

Johnson began walking door to door in the neighborhood, sometimes in the rain, inviting people to church. He also visited the Huntington Beach Pier every evening, striking up conversations.

“He touched a great many lives in profound ways,” said Suzanne Donnelly, the parish secretary.

Although regarded as stodgy and closed-minded in some quarters, he was a hero to Southern California Catholics who disliked the “peace hugs” and “hootenanny music” of modern services, parishioners said.

Some drove from neighboring Los Angeles County or various Orange County cities to attend his church.

Emphasizing tradition and decorum, Johnson discouraged parishioners from snapping photos at baptisms and weddings -- and he resisted Vatican II reforms that allowed people to receive Communion in their hands, Sundstedt said.

In 1992, Johnson revived the all-but-banished Tridentine Mass at his parish. Believed to have originated in the 6th century, the highly choreographed Latin rite was standardized by the Council of Trent in the late 1500s. It remained the only Mass celebrated by Roman Catholics until 1962.

After Vatican II, some priests defied church orders to discontinue the Tridentine rite. But in 1984, Pope John Paul II said Latin services could again be offered -- with permission from local bishops.

Johnson’s parish wasn’t the first in Orange County to bring back the old Mass. In Garden Grove, St. Columban’s resumed Tridentine Masses in 1984. The services then migrated to the Serra Chapel at Mission San Juan Capistrano, where they are still offered.

But under Johnson’s leadership, St. Mary’s by the Sea quickly became a rallying point for conservative Catholics, growing to about 1,400 families.

Born in Michigan to devout Catholic parents, Johnson grew up in Torrance, where he served as an altar boy.

After attending St. John’s Seminary in Camarillo, he was ordained in 1954. He served in the Diocese of Los Angeles until 1976, when the Diocese of Orange was created.

During the last decade, Johnson was afflicted with numerous health problems, including a cancer on his ear that required multiple surgeries and radiation treatments. He also developed Bell’s palsy, which paralyzed the right side of his face and spurred him to convert his favorite golf putter into a cane.

After retiring at age 75, he returned to Torrance to live with his brother Gerald and play golf (over the years, he had racked up about three dozen holes-in-one). But after a bad fall, he spent most of his final years in a nursing home or hospital.

The Diocese of Orange stopped offering Tridentine Masses at St. Mary’s by the Sea after Johnson left. But the Latin service will be briefly resurrected there for his funeral Mass, church officials said. The date hasn’t been set.