“This is an award for our parish,” said Father G. Peter Irving III, smiling as he lifted the framed picture of St. Giana Molla holding two young children on her arms.It is an award Father Irving received during the ninth annual Walk for Life West Coast Jan. 26 in San Francisco, which drew more than 50,000 participants. The 59-year-old pastor of Holy Innocents Church in Long Beach was one of a large Los Angeles contingent represented at the Walk for Life.
And lest anyone doubt his commitment to defending life, he made it very clear in his homily for that weekend’s Masses.
“In a fallen, upside down world which calls evil good and good evil those who are truly sane will be written off as crazy,” he noted. “They did this to Jesus, they did this to the saints throughout history and they will do the same to those who faithfully follow Him today.
“Defend the dignity of the unborn child? They will call you an ‘anti-abortion extremist.’ Fight for the protection of marriage as the union of a man and a woman for the purpose of begetting children? They will call you a ‘hater.’ Strive to be a faithful Christian and live a life in conformity with Christ's teachings? They will call you a ‘right wing nut job.’“If this is madness, would that we were all so mad.”
‘Concerned about our spiritual growth’
Holy Innocents Church might go unnoticed by many, if it weren’t for its “little army of people” involved in the pro-life apostolate that reaches well beyond its boundaries in central Long Beach.
A relatively small white stucco building in a quiet neighborhood on the corner of 20th Street and Pasadena Avenue, the church, established in 1923, holds just 300 people for its six “well-attended” Sunday Masses (four in Spanish; two in English), and its parking lot has space for only 15 cars and 17 bicycles. There is also a 6:30 a.m. weekday Mass in Spanish, followed by a weekday English Mass. A Saturday morning Mass and a vigil Mass are held at Holy Innocents School, about a mile away.
Most parishioners, who live in the neighborhood, work in the service industry (hotels, house cleaning, restaurants, transportation), and have become a noticeable pro-life-conscious community following the lead of Father Irving.
Like Cecilia Chavez, who got involved in pro-life efforts after listening to Father Irving talk passionately during Mass about the pro-life movement, and how many babies are saved every week. Effectively evangelized, she started supporting the cause seven years ago.
After dropping her son off at school every morning, she spends an hour or more outside of the Family Planning Associates Medical Group’s building, less than a mile away from the church, where she approaches mostly young women who are on their way to have an abortion.
She offers counsel, including other options, such as a list of centers where the women can get financial support before and after pregnancy.
Many times, she said, the reasons for their decision are financially-related.
“Most are single women,” Chavez notes. “Some of them say they don’t have enough money for an extra car seat, or for diapers, so we offer them different options.”
Most women reject the advice, but since 2008, when the parish started getting involved in pro-life activities, 564 babies have been saved (seven in 2013), and Chavez is so committed that she has even accompanied some women during delivery.
Stay-at-home mother Adela Garcia is another parishioner who joined the cause three years ago, after her 14-year-old son became an altar server. Two months into her pregnancy she had complications, and doctors told her she would lose her baby, but instead she offered her son to God in exchange for his life.
“I am so grateful to Father Peter,” she told The Tidings, “He is concerned about our spiritual growth. His goal is that we grow in holiness,” she said.“He is very approachable and trustworthy,” added Chavez.‘
George Peter Irving III was born 59 years ago in Syracuse, New York, to George and Norma Irving, who instilled the Catholic faith and traditions in their six children. He is the second to the youngest.
When he was six years old his parents moved to California. He attended Catholic school from fourth to eighth grade, and during high school and college never missed daily Mass. After beginning a major in biology, he ended up majoring in history with a minor in philosophy at Cal Poly Pomona, and then earned a second bachelor’s degree in religious studies at Cal State Fullerton. There he met George Saint-Laurent, who inspired him to look more seriously into the priesthood.
The first time he heard the calling, though, was at the early age of five, and it was something he kept in the back of his mind throughout the years, he said.He said it was “a no-brainer” for him to support the pro-life movement, as he has all during his priesthood. “I was always interested in it because I’ve always thought it’s the issue of our time.”
He recalls the “Pray to end abortion” bumper sticker that his father put on his car back in the early 1970s, when abortion was legalized in the United States.
Once he discerned he wanted to become a priest, he was not sure if he wanted to be a diocesan or a religious priest, but to “get things going” he entered St. John’s Seminary. Once there, he said, “I was very happy,” and since then, “I can’t imagine myself being anything else but a diocesan priest,” he said. “I love being a priest more and more; I feel more and more like a spiritual father and closer to my family.”
Upon ordination in 1983, he started serving the less fortunate communities in Pacoima, East Los Angeles and Wilmington, where he was pastor of SS. Peter and Paul Church for 13 years. In 2006 he was named pastor at Holy Innocents. Throughout the years he has “raised awareness on every possible aspect of life,” which he considers the highlight of his priesthood. And as an added value, through his contact with first-generation Latinos, he has become very fluent in Spanish.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, he was actively involved in the Operation Rescue movement, “a peaceful, non-violent movement to stop abortion,” that he considers one of the “the largest civil rights movements in the history of America.” Admitting that serving the growing multi-ethnic community that attends Holy Innocents could bring some challenges, such as language barriers with the Asian community (Long Beach is home to the largest Cambodian community outside Cambodia, and more first-generation Filipinos have populated the city), he said that “by and large people at the parish are great, very supportive and loving.
“Everything we do here has to be duplicated,” he said, referring to the Spanish and English services, but, “I think we have a pretty united community.”
‘A big priority’
He believes the “right to life is the most fundamental human right;” therefore, “everybody has a part to play.”
“I do this because I’m Catholic. This [abortion] is the biggest social injustice issue of our time. We should be concerned about many social issues, but everything pales compared to the murder of unborn children. All Catholics should be pro-life.”
Consequently, he chose that as one the “big priorities” of the church, which “adopted” the medical clinic where he goes every Monday morning for at least one hour when he stands silently on the sidewalk and makes himself available in case any woman or couple needs spiritual direction.
The recent award, he said, was given to the parish because organizers of the Walk for Life “were intrigued by how a parish in a poor part of town has been chosen by God to touch the lives of so many women and save a lot of babies.”
“This is a hard job,” he said about the work that a “handful” of women do. “It’s really a vocation because on many occasions they have to hear offensive comments and threats. They’re out there to offer assistance, concrete help.”
Other parishioners support with financial support or through a wide variety of donations that range from baby car seats and strollers to diapers and formula.
Among the 564 babies saved, Father Irving recalls the case of a young Cambodian woman, whose hospital bill was paid by parishioners. Her daughter is now four years old. He also remembers the young mother who showed up at the clinic holding a rosary on her hands, accompanied by her now husband. Her pregnancy had been misdiagnosed and they were sent to the Long Beach clinic by an OB-GYN. The girl was born healthy and now has a younger sister.
“This is a very delicate issue,” admitted Father Irving. “When we address it at the parish, we do it in a very non-threatening way because everyone is touched in one way or another.”
He is proud that the pro-life movement has a “real ecumenism on the front line with everyone praying and respecting one another.”
Still, he believes awareness needs to be raised in the church. “There’s a holocaust of human beings happening in our backyard and once you deal with that fact, the next step is asking, ‘What am I going to do?’ And anybody can do it if you have the commitment.”