It is easy to drive through Fillmore and Piru, the northernmost communities in east Ventura County, and admire the vegetation and the small-town character that is as abundant as the communities are compact.
So it wouldn’t take that much more effort, as one drives into town, to search out two recent landmarks, both situated on Catholic parish property, both especially suited for visiting during this season of Lent.
They are outdoor Stations of the Cross, designed and constructed under the supervision of Father Bernard Gatlin, a retired priest of the archdiocese whose ministry includes years as pastor of St. Francis of Assisi Church in Fillmore and its parochial mission, San Salvador, in Piru.
These sacred spaces, clearly distinct from one another but united in their purpose as places of meditation and reflection, are easily accessible to all who live in or visit Fillmore (population 15,000) and Piru (pop. 2,000).
The San Salvador “Stations” project came first, about eight years ago, when Father Gatlin — joined by members of the congregation (many of them farmers and farm workers) — plowed a 1.5-acre dirt lot behind the church and planted grass, 100 trees, 100 bougainvilleas and 100 roses — “all donated by the people,” he says proudly.
The Stations themselves are six feet high, each comprised of kiln-cured, six-inch squares of tile created in Tecate, Mexico, then mounted on a block wall by Father Gatlin himself, who also did much of the masonry work. The stations are connected by a pathway of about 1,000 Mexican pavers set in place by the priest and parishioners.
The centerpiece of the entire garden is an eight-foot statue — one solid piece of cantera rock — of Our Lady of Guadalupe with her patio. Father Gatlin found the statue while traveling in Mexico with Msgr. Joseph Hernandez, archdiocesan vice chancellor.
“The project turned out very well,” says Father Gatlin. “The people love to visit La Virgen, and pick avocados, oranges, plums, lemons and roses as they meditate on the Stations. What surprises the people is that a priest knows how to actually lay brick and do landscaping with his own hands.”
In Fillmore Father Gatlin created a similar work on an unused 1.5-acre back lot at St. Francis of Assisi. These stations are eight feet high with murals, by an artist in Ventura, on one side and devotional pictures of Jesus, Mary and the saints on the street side.
“We also planted many trees, all donated by the parishioners,” he says. “That’s an advantage of living in a rural area.”
Now technically “retired,” Father Gatlin remains active, attending to the people in Piru and assisting St. Francis’ pastor, Father Artur Gruszka.
St. Francis of Assisi Church is located at 1048 W. Ventura St., Fillmore; (805) 524-1306. San Salvador Mission is located at 4045 E. Center St., Piru; (805) 521-1565.