It was, initially, dedicated in 1914 for the private use of the Camarillo family and those associated with the rancho on which it was placed. In the century since, it has become a defining landmark of the Camarillo plain, a hillside chapel visible from miles away, and home to an active faith community.
As the Camarillo community celebrates the 100th anniversary of St. Mary Magdalen Chapel on July 4, The Tidings presents this history, excerpted from the parish’s own historical records:
A family dream
Standing in a place of honor on the rough wooden plank platform next to the priest, a dark-haired little girl holding a small metal box, and dressed in her Sunday-best, fidgeted in the warm summer sun. Along with a small group of nuns, neighbors and family members, she waited impatiently for her part in the ceremony as the priest seemed to drone on endlessly in Latin verses over a block of imported grayish marble.
Finally, after sprinkling the carved block one last time with Holy Water, he turned to Carmen, youngest daughter of Adolfo Camarillo. The youngster handed him the box containing the family history and other memorabilia. The priest placed it within the foundation. Workmen then moved the heavy cornerstone into its final place.
It was July 1, 1913. St. Mary Magdalen had been officially established.
The spectators slowly disbanded. Climbing into black convertible touring cars, they drove down the dusty hill and rough road to celebrate this event at the nearby Camarillo Victorian mansion with its multi-cupola-ed red rooftops thrusting above the surrounding lush green grove of trees. It marked the fulfillment of a dream for Juan E. Camarillo and his brother, Adolfo.
For several years the brothers had planned to build a more permanent structure to replace the overcrowded one-room wooden family chapel atop the hill along El Camino Real. Across Ventura Boulevard from the chapel stood a drug store with a high wooden billboard-like front — the former Southern Pacific railroad depot that had given Camarillo its name.
A few blocks westward, near the middle of what is now Arneil Road, was the Pleasant Valley Baptist Church that was built in 1890. A new hilltop church of ample proportions would set the tone of the growing city for decades to come and serve as a fitting tribute to God, the city, and the first family.
One day while Juan was traveling near his father's birthplace of Mexico City, a mission-style church caught his eye. He commissioned architect Albert C. Martin to design the Camarillo church along the same lines, in honor of his father, Don Juan Camarillo, and his mother, Martina Hernandez. It was named for Juan and Adolfo's oldest sister, Magdalena.
The chapel design included an east wing, a family crypt and a picturesque foundation. The east courtyard foundation, modeled after one at Santa Barbara Mission, quickly became a popular bird bath and favorite gathering place for parishioners after Sunday Mass. To celebrate Mass, a priest drove over from Santa Clara Church in Oxnard.
The crypt beneath the southwest corner of the building was unfortunately used all to soon by the Camarillo family and now contains the remains of many of its members. (There once was a drop door in front of the white marble main altar to lower the casket down into the crypt, but the mechanism was unreliable. Consequently, it was sealed over, and caskets were carried around the chapel and down the stairs.)
On July 4, 1914, the magnificent chapel was dedicated by Bishop Thomas Conaty at an impressive ceremony attended by most of the townspeople coming in flag-draped cars. From its hilltop position, the chapel's belfry tower, looking like a multi-tiered wedding cake, was the dominant landmark in Pleasant Valley. From this tower, the bell tolled thrice daily calling the faithful to the Angelus.
Juan spared no expense in furnishing the new family chapel. The doors, floors and pews were of warm, handsome oak which highlighted the white marble wainscotting along the walls, and softened the cold, hard atmosphere of the stone. Flanking the main altar were white marble bust-size statues of the Sacred Heart, the Blessed Mother and St. Mary Magdalen holding a vial of precious ointment — all mounted on black marble pedestals. A full-size statue of the Little Flower stood nearby.
Stained glass journey
The most notable chapel fixtures were its magnificent 13 stained glass windows. These azure, crimson, green and gold windows tell a double story — one of the life of Christ, the other of a world at war.
While on a trip to Europe, Juan Camarillo selected the windows in Munich, Germany. The year was 1913 and the early rumbles of the continent preparing for conflict were growing.
Somewhere between the studios of glass-blower F. X. Zettler of Munich and the church on a hilltop in faraway Camarillo, the stained glass windows were lost. Despite the best efforts of the Camarillo family through consuls and ambassadors, the windows appeared lost forever. Mrs. Carmen Camarillo Jones recalled that her uncle Juan feared they were at the bottom of the sea.
One day a letter arrived from a German official in Munich, who had noticed several large crates outside a building with Juan's name on them. He had written Juan several letters; finally one got through at the end of World War I. Much to the joy and relief of everyone, the lost windows had been found. Still, it was a painfully slow and long trek to Los Angeles, and to Camarillo, before they were finally installed in the thick brick and plastered chapel walls in 1919.
The late Mrs. Rosa Camarillo Petit remembered the heavy white paper windows that were used in the chapel until the real ones were found, as she was married during that time — Nov. 11, 1914, the first wedding to be performed in the new chapel. The Petit family also held the first baptism when their first child, Ynez, was born. Tragically, they likewise claimed the chapel’s first funeral when their 19-month-old daughter died in 1917.
The Adolfo and Isabel Camarillo family consisted of six girls and one boy while Juan Camarillo remained a bachelor. The Camarillo children were Frank, Isabel, Minerva, Rosa, Carmen, Ave Marie and Martina.
The rugged hilltop chapel has withstood the ravages of earthquakes, fire and time. Mrs. Gloria Petit Longo recalls the effects of a smoke damaged interior resulting from a fire. It occurred a few days before her wedding and the ceremony was held under paint scaffolding.
In 1940, four years after the death of Juan Camarillo, the family chapel of St. Mary Magdalen was given to the Los Angeles Archdiocese to use as a parish church. Just the previous year, 100 acres of Rancho Calleguas that had been bequeathed to Adolfo and Juan by their father, was deeded to the archdiocese for the purpose of building a seminary. The first buildings for the St. John's Major Seminary were completed in 1939.
The present rectory at St. Mary Magdalen was built in 1948. Adjacent to the rectory, Adolfo turned the first shovel of dirt on St. Joseph's Day, March 19, 1954, to break ground for the St. Mary Magdalen School. The first class was admitted on Sept. 14, 1954 with the dedication during the Marian Year occurring on Nov. 6, 1954.
Soon afterwards the building which had originally been the caretaker's house, and then the first rectory, was again to undergo changes. This time it was to be renovated and expanded to accommodate the Sisters who were teaching and running the new school.
Several years after Adolfo Camarillo's death (at age 94 in December 1958), Mrs. Carmen Camarillo Jones donated the family mansion and several acres of land to the Augustinian Order of priests for use as a residence and house of prayer and studies for Catholic priests, nuns and seminarians.
With the newer, larger church completed in 1976, St. Mary Magdalen Chapel has continued in use, today hosting weekday Masses in English (Monday-Saturday) and Latin and Vietnamese (Sundays), as well as weddings and funerals. Both churches serve the needs of a growing, vibrant parish and continue to the proud traditions initiated by the Camarillo family.