On April 18, the parish community of St. John Vianney Church in Hacienda Heights held a successful golf tournament fundraiser to rebuild their church, destroyed when an arsonist dowsed the building in lighter fluid five years ago.
The fundraiser brought in $75,000, with a net of $50,000, but the church still needs more than $1 million for the new structure. Until then, they have been making do with a temporary building.
“We are in a hut. We are in a tent,” long-time parishioner Sandy Niccoli, 73, told the Tidings. “When we had the ferocious winds it was frightening. We thought the whole thing was going to pop up and just blow away.”
Following the fundraiser, Sandy’s husband Dominic Niccoli, 78, a chairman for the event, told the Tidings, “It was a nice turnout. We had 116 golfers and another 110 people for dinner. So it was well supported. We are happy it went so well.” Following the tournament, golfers and non-golfers gathered for a dinner, silent auction and a raffle at the Whittier Narrows Golf Course in Rosemead.
The new church building will cost about $16 million dollars, but even with the insurance and the capital campaign, the church is still over $1 million short.
“We realize we can’t [get] that kind of money with just a golf tournament, but what we are doing is building community and getting people excited for the rebuild of the church,” says Alfred Salcido, 72, who also served as a chairman for the recent fundraising effort.
In 2013, the man responsible for starting the fire that destroyed the Spanish-style church as well as part of the rectory was sentenced to 18 years to life in prison.
Investigators say that the two priests sleeping in the rectory narrowly escaped from the building. Some of the windows from the rectory were broken and part of the rectory roof was burned. The fire caused $9 million in damages.
Dominic says the church burning was both heartbreaking and a shock.
“We were just taken aback when this happened, but eventually everyone gathered and joined together and felt that the church building was destroyed but not the church community,” says Dominic, who has been a parishioner at St. John Vianney together with his wife since 1969.
Dominic says that although the fire was devastating, the incident brought the community closer together. “We couldn’t believe that it had happened. People were sad and crying that night and the next day, but we overcame that. Now we are working hard towards a better future.”
The fire left the church entirely gutted. Even the church’s Stations of the Cross, which were 40 feet from the actual fire, melted from the flames. “It was really a hot fire. The flames were leaping over 100 feet in the air — you could see it from the freeway. It was still burning the next morning. They finally got it out in the morning,” Dominic recalls.
Despite St. John Vianney’s tent-like structure, weddings still take place at the church. In fact, three years ago, the Niccolis’ son, James, got married there. “Their story is so cute,” Sandy recalls. His bride, Tammy, had fallen in love with the Catholic Church after attending Mass.
“Someone told her, ‘Well, your boss is Catholic, why don’t you go talk to him,’ and so she did. … That’s how they met. She went to talk to him about the Catholic Church. And he said to her, ‘Would you like to go to Mass this Sunday?’ She soon became Catholic and they were married,” says Sandy with a laugh, adding, “She wanted to get married in a cathedral, and she ended up in a tent.”
Sandy says she hopes the church is rebuilt soon so that the church community of St. John Vianney can be whole again.
“We’ve lost some of our community that are worshiping in other churches around, so we hope that we all come back together as a community,” she says.