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New buildings: Honoring a saint who was in the neighborhood

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A mission church in Lake Los Angeles and a parish hall in San Fernando share something in common: both will be named in honor of recently-canonized John Paul II. 

It’s fitting, perhaps, that the archdiocese’s San Fernando pastoral region will be the first with parish buildings dedicated to Pope John Paul, as he visited the San Fernando Mission for five-and-a-half hours during his 1987 visit to Los Angeles. (See memoir of visit on p. 24).

“He blessed our community with his presence in our parish boundaries,” said Oblate of Mary Immaculate Father Stan Zowada, Polish-born pastor of Santa Rosa de Lima Church in San Fernando. Father Zowada wasn’t present during that 1987 visit, but he was present for several gatherings coordinated for teens and young adults when John Paul would make pastoral visits to Poland every three or four years. 

Following his Army service, Father Zowada entered the Missionary Oblates and was sent to the U.S. after his ordination. His desire to minister to Latinos led him to be assigned to the San Fernando Valley, where the Oblates administer three neighboring predominantly Spanish-speaking parishes: Mary Immaculate in Pacoima and Santa Rosa de Lima and St. Ferdinand in San Fernando.

In 2009, Father Zowada was named pastor at Santa Rosa de Lima, which had been raising funds for a new parish hall for more than 20 years. The old hall, built by volunteers in the ’40s, had been in constant use over the decades, where popular evangelization retreats were conducted in the ’80s. 

“During those retreats, many changed their lives, marriages were saved, and people quit their addictions — the old hall was the place where God did his work,” said Father Zowada, who supported parishioners’ renewed efforts in 2010 to rebuild the hall.

“We started praying to God first, then we made prayer cards” with John Paul’s image on it. At the time, he noted, there were many conversations about JPII’s beatification and future canonization. Parish council members and staff considered other patrons for the rebuilding, but, according to Father Zowada, John Paul was favored for his sanctity and evangelizing efforts that included numerous pastoral trips to the U.S. and Mexico, among more than 100 countries the pope visited.

“John Paul had inspired them in many ways with his life, how he related to Latino people,” said the pastor. “As they started praying in 2010 and invoking his intercession, things started happening very quickly. Two years later, the new hall project was approved by the archdiocese on April 2, the seventh anniversary of his death. I would say it is a miracle because the parish had tried for years” to get the project going.

Currently under construction, the John Paul II Parish Hall — which will also house offices for religious education, youth ministry and a preschool — is expected to be completed this fall.

St. John Paul II Mission

On the day Pope John Paul II was canonized in Rome, the first Catholic community in the archdiocese to take him as their patron held dedication ceremonies in Lake Los Angeles northeast of Palmdale April 27.

More than 200 people packed the auditorium for Mass at Lake Los Angeles School — their temporary worship space for several years — before driving to the center of the one-streetlight town for the blessing and dedication of the recently-acquired church building. 

On two acres of land, the two-story building of offices and small attached church is the town’s largest structure. The building’s many rooms are already being used for religious education. Following church enlargement renovations, Masses will be held on-site.

The Mass, led by San Fernando Region Auxiliary Bishop Gerald Wilkerson, presider, and Father Vaughn Winters, pastor of St. Mary Church in Palmdale which administers three area missions (including the newly-named St. John Paul II Mission at Lake Los Angeles), was a joyous celebration for members who have waited 27 years, diligently raising money for a permanent worship space. Co-incidentally, Pope John Paul II’s papacy lasted nearly 27 years, from 1978 to 2005.

“You have a patron saint now in heaven to sustain you and watch over you and encourage you,” said Bishop Wilkerson in his welcoming remarks, adding that the community of about 300 families had grown since he had last visited. At the blessing ceremony, which included a sprinkling of holy water inside the building’s rooms, Father Winters noted that their new home would be a center for parish activities and evangelization.

“We thank God for the opportunity to acquire this new building and look forward to it becoming the center of the life, work and worship of our mission community,” said Father Winters.

“I’m honored that the church is named after John Paul II,” said founding member Laurie Galbreath, a Eucharistic minister along with her husband, Kirk, who is treasurer for the pastoral council. “Pope John Paul was a good example of the work that we need to do as a church to spread the [Gospel] message, and that’s what we are trying to do. It’s such a family feeling here that we have had people who were here at Lake L.A. at the beginning who have moved out of town and still come back for Mass.”

“We’ve been committed from the beginning to have a bilingual (English/Spanish) Mass,” added Kirk. “It’s brought people together who would never have otherwise met one another and become friends.”

“We waited a long time for this,” said Karen Bateman, a longtime member who recently relocated to Tehachapi but returned to celebrate the dedication. “It will add more people and probably more of a closeness. Some people don’t like to come because [Mass is held] in a school. I think [the church] might change things.”

“It’s a blessing to have this church named after John Paul II,” said longtime member Lee Olivarez, who still attends Mass at the mission occasionally even though he and his wife, Lupe, have relocated to Lancaster.

“I’m pretty sure with the name John Paul II, people will really come and worship just because of the name and what he did all his life serving the Lord,” said Olivarez. “This is a very special day. We reached our goals, and now we have to go on in faith and keep going forward.”

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