The ninth and last mission personally founded by Blessed Junipero Serra was San Buenaventura which, it has been said, was considered his favorite. A visitor today (and there are thousands during the year) can see why: attractive grounds, accessibility to the Pacific (two blocks) and the city (on East Main Street), and a long history of participation in the life of its namesake city, Ventura.
Parishioners Mike (Miguel Augustine Pro) and Elizabeth (Maria Isabel) Olivas, who married nearly 60 years ago while living in Los Angeles, certainly think so. While attending St. Agnes and St. Thomas the Apostle parishes (and Mount St. Mary’s College for Montessori classes), and raising their five children, the Olivases visited Ventura whenever they could and fell in love with the old Mission.
They are now longtime Ventura residents and fixtures in the parish life of San Buenaventura. Mike is the church sacristan and a member of the parish council, and he and Elizabeth attend daily Mass together and take Communion to the sick. They loved working with then-pastor Msgr. Patrick O’Brien, who “gave 100 percent,” says Mike. They see that same type of care in Father Tom Elewaut, named nearly three years ago as administrator, and now Mission pastor. And they say that when they die, they plan to watch over the Mission from heaven.
There is a sense among many in the parish that coming to San Buenaventura Mission is like coming back home. Nicole Ladwig Espinosa is not only principal but an alum (as is her husband) of the parish school, Holy Cross, named for the Sisters who founded it in 1922 (and who remain active as tutors, substitutes and advisors for the Academic Decathlon team).
“This was where I learned to be who I am,” Nicole says. When an opening for Holy Cross principal was announced four years ago, “I wanted to go back to my parish, where my roots were, and I wanted to teach those children who live in this community how to follow Jesus every day.”
Throughout the parish, there is a desire to build a community that extends beyond the parish. Before every homily, Father Elewaut, in his first pastorate after many years in education ministry, welcomes first-time visitors to the historic mission, while ushers present them with prayer cards, and the assembly applauds their presence.
“All the activities of a fully active parish are happening here,” says Father Elewaut. “People want someone to help them invest in the love of their life, which is their faith, and the Mission. This is the people’s parish and I am privileged to minister with them.”
Parishioners (both English- and Spanish-speaking) are engaged in numerous parish and outreach programs, including a new St. Vincent de Paul Chapter and ongoing support of nearby Catholic Charities of Ventura. “It is just tremendous, all the activity,” says Father Elewaut. “It is hard sometimes for groups to even book a meeting.”
And the parish continues to be actively engaged in the life of the larger community. In April, a group of 35 from San Buenaventura and other parishes joined on a cruise to tour sister missions in San Francisco, Santa Barbara and San Diego. And on Dec. 6, the parish hosted the annual lighting of its giant Norfolk pine trees on Main Street, accompanied by singing from community choral groups.
“There is a sense of pride and ownership because it is a mission and of historic import,” says Father Elewaut. “Some of our parishioners have been here their entire lives. Two who went to school here are in their 90s and they still are active. If you create a welcoming environment, people will come. This is a welcoming place. And we are happy to have you here.”