“I’m happy because it’s the only time in my life that my church is 100 years old.”

Even a circus-sized white tent couldn’t come close to holding the estimated 3,000 men, women and children who came out for the 100th anniversary Mass of Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish on Jan. 29, in East Hollywood. 

Archbishop José Gomez presided at the 11 a.m. schoolyard liturgy, which was concelebrated by Auxiliary Bishop Edward Clark, Fathers Rodel Balagtas, pastor, and Camilo Pacanza, assistant priest, together with former pastors Msgr. Carl Bell and Father Henry Hernando and other members of the clergy.

“My brothers and sisters, I would like to ask each one of you, all the parishioners of Immaculate Heart of Mary, in this jubilee year to try to reflect on what has happened in this 100 years,” proclaimed Archbishop Gomez during his homily. “And especially to try to recognize and follow the spirit of the founders of this parish, the first pastor and first parishioners, the first men and women who came to worship God in this beautiful parish….

“I’m sure they were enthusiastic about starting a new parish. And they were working together for the glory of God, for the service of the people of God in this area of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. And I especially ask you to deepen your trust in Our Lady’s Immaculate Heart. Talk to her Immaculate Heart for her loving protection and most probable intercession.”

Mission chapel

The urban parish on busy Santa Monica Boulevard at Alexandria Avenue today, actually started in 1910 as a rural mission chapel of Blessed Sacrament Church in what was known as Colegrove. A new church was finished a year later with seating for 300 people, and Father Daniel Murphy, pastor of Blessed Sacrament, celebrated the first Mass on Dec. 22, 1911, using a temporary altar. In January of 1912, the parish was established by Bishop Thomas Conaty, who named Father Stephen Cain as the founding pastor of Immaculate Heart of Mary Church.

As the Hollywood movie industry flourished during the Roaring ’20s, Immaculate Heart of Mary Grammar School was built under second pastor Father James Martin. It opened in September 1922, staffed by the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. 

Despite the Great Depression and the start of World War II, the third pastor built the second, and current, church in 1940 — the same year as Los Angeles’ first freeway (the Arroyo Parkway, which is now the Pasadena Freeway) was finished. Msgr. John O’Donnell celebrated the first Mass in the modified Gothic-style structure with heavy beam arches and a capacity of 700 early on Christmas morning. Archbishop John Cantwell dedicated the new church Feb. 21, 1941. 

During Msgr. O’Donnell’s 30-year pastorship, a new brick-and-concrete two-story school replaced the old, smaller one in September 1955. And in 1968, the Religious Sisters of Charity took over its administration. Connie McGhee is the current principal of the now lay-staffed parochial school. 

The next four pastors were Msgr. George Cranham (1968-1973), Father Charles Harmon (1973-1984), Father Carl Bell (1984-1995) and Father Henry Hernando (1995-2002). Pastor since 2002, Father Rodel Balagtas, presides over a multicultural parish of about 2,000 families, mostly immigrants from the Philippines, Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala and other parts of Latin America. 

Father Balagtas, who holds a Doctor of Ministry degree in preaching, believes strongly that preaching has been “transformative” for Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish. After an extensive study of his congregation, the pastor has continued to foster theological reflection and “communal preparation” of homilies, or making parishioners partners in preaching. He has also engaged churchgoers in a successful capital building campaign, which is renovating the 71-year-old church and other plant structures.

“I’m just overwhelmed by the grace of God, because God has joined with his people over 100 years,” Father Balagtas told The Tidings during the reception after the two-hour liturgy. “We’re part of the history of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, and it’s just a privilege to be a pastor and part of the generation of Catholics who are still practicing their faith at Immaculate Heart. 

“What makes this place special is the people,” he explained. “They’re so vibrant. We’re a multicultural community. There’s so much of a Catholic fervor here. That’s in the simplicity of the people. But they own their church and really love their church. They love their faith. And that gives me a lot of hope. You know, we’re not a rich parish. But the church is the people of God. The beauty of the parish is the people of God.”

Nurturing a vocation

Growing up two blocks away from Immaculate Heart of Mary Church, Father Thomas Peacha says the parish always has had good people, good families — only back then they were all Anglos, mostly Irish and Italians. The 79-year-old retired priest’s family lived in the neighborhood from 1938 to 1946, and he attended the parochial school from second to eighth grade. 

His memories of those boyhood times are of playing football on nearby Mariposa Avenue, collecting rubber and metal after Pearl Harbor and the outbreak of World War II, taking the famous Red Car trolley and being an altar boy starting in fourth grade. The Immaculate Heart Sisters who taught him and the parish priests fostered an early vocation that began when he entered the Los Angeles College junior seminary on Detroit Street in Los Angeles. 

“The Sisters taught us in every grade,” he recalled. “They were really wonderful women. Before the eighth grade, I was all set to go to the junior seminary, and so were several other boys, which was common back then. It was the example first of the Sisters and their spirituality and their practicality, too, and just the way they taught religion so excellently. And then we had some wonderful priests. There were associates I really remember: Father Timothy Crean and Father Emmet McCarthy. They were great examples for us kids.

“I have so many memories and, of course, Msgr. John O’Donnell, who was there at the parish before and after I was. He was a real Irishman. Oh, man, he could be tough, but he was real nice, too. So being at Immaculate Heart today really brought me back. Surprisingly, physically speaking, the place was pretty much the same as it is right now. 

“It was like I never left,” the priest for 52 years added with a chuckle. “See, when you get old and you go to old places where you grew up, you become young again.” 

‘Full of miracles’

Today, Loraine de Jesus does a “little bit of everything” at Immaculate Heart, including being involved in leadership programs and outreach to the East Hollywood community. A parishioner since 1994, she says her daughter, Kristin, got a great education at the parochial school, both in academics and faith formation. 

“The best thing that ever happened to me is when I was going through a financial crisis in my family’s life and my uncle said, ‘Just go to church and talk to God,’” recalled the 55-year-old woman. “And I did. For two weeks I sat in the back pew alone during afternoons, and I cried every day. Then I would stay for the 5:30 Mass. 

“When I saw Jesus at the altar calling me to come forward, I felt this feeling of peace and the release of all of the anger and frustrations that I was experiencing. And from that day forward, I stepped up and volunteered myself to work in the church. So this church is full of miracles, and I’ve had a lot in my life.”

Teresa Escalante, a native of Guatemala, has been a parishioner of Immaculate Heart of Mary Church for 19 years. The 53-year-old single mom received “lots of help” from the parish in raising her two children, Jessi, 28, and Karina, 20. And now she’s paying back that help by being involved in the Hispanic Charismatic Movement, the Hermandad del Se√±or de Esquipulas (the Black Christ of Guatemala group) as well as working during parish fiestas and events, like the centennial celebration. A favorite memory is the pastor, Father Balagtas, celebrating a 50th birthday Mass for her.

“I started my new life with Jesus Christ at Immaculate Heart,” Escalante pointed out. “This is where I got initiated. This is where I changed my life around. When my eyes found the church, my life changed. So now I work for the church all the time. And for the centennial, we worked very, very hard. I work with a lot of Filipinos and there are no problems. 

“So I am excited about today,” she said. “I’m happy because it’s the only time in my life that my church is 100 years old.”  

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