“Camarillo is steeped with history,” says Father Preston Passos, who as the seventh pastor of St. Mary Magdalen Church should know, given that five of his six predecessors each served a decade or more as pastor of this “bilocated” parish rooted in California’s rancho era.

The original, 10,000-acre Rancho Calleguas was the last of the Mexican land grants, owned originally by Jose Pedro Ruiz, and obtained in 1875 by Don Juan Camarillo, a native of Mexico City. After his death, Camarillo’s older son Adolfo operated the ranch for 68 years, and both he and brother Juan Jr. were active in church activities.

In 1913, Juan Jr., seeking to honor his parents, built St. Mary Magdalen Chapel on a hill at the east end of Ventura Boulevard in what is now Old Town Camarillo. Dedicated in 1914, the chapel served as a mission of Santa Clara Church in Oxnard for a quarter century. (See more about the chapel on page 12.)

In 1940 — a year after the opening of St. John’s Seminary (for which the Camarillos donated 100 acres of ranch land) — St. Mary Magdalen became a parish. Archbishop John Cantwell formally dedicated the chapel as a parish church in April 1940.

The founding pastor was Father Hugh Crowe, the first of five Irish-born pastors to lead St. Mary Magdalen. The native of County Galway, ordained from St. Patrick's Seminary in Maynooth, came to California for health reasons and served as pastor of Our Lady of the Valley, Canoga Park, before his appointment to Camarillo. Three years after he oversaw building of the rectory, he died in 1951 at age 55, and was lauded by fellow priests as "an exemplar of the sacerdotal life worthy of imitation."

He was succeeded for a few months by Msgr. Patrick Pierse of County Kerry, whose pastorates included St. Paul (Coalinga), St. Matthias (Huntington Park) and, for 25 years, St. Clement (Santa Monica). He later headed St. Boniface (Anaheim) and St. Peter (West L.A.) before he died at age 77 in 1964.

St. Mary Magdalen School was built and opened in 1954 under the pastorate of Father (later Msgr.) John Moclair of County Galway. A friend of G.K. Chesterton, no less, he came to California in 1920 (six years after ordination) and for 19 years (1932-51) was pastor of Immaculate Conception, Monrovia. He then served 10 years at St. Mary Magdalen, and died in 1961 at age 71.

His successor was the priest anointed "Padre of the Hills" by California poet laureate John Steven McGroarty — Msgr. Dennis Falvey, known within the archdiocese as a builder extraordinaire. At virtually every parish he led, he oversaw design and/or construction of a rectory, church and/or school, including Sacred Heart (Covina), Our Lady of Lourdes (Tujunga, for 20 years), Mount Carmel (Newport Beach), Holy Cross (L.A.) and Our Lady of Malibu.

Named pastor in Camarillo in 1961, the County Kerry native also served as dean of Ventura County and archdiocesan director of rural life. He retired and became pastor emeritus in 1971, and died in 1975 at age 82.

By then, the longest-serving (and first American-born) pastor in St. Mary Magdalen’s history was into his first of nearly three decades of leadership. Msgr. John Hughes, a Los Angeles native who grew up in St. Augustine and St. Paul the Apostle parishes, was ordained in 1949 from St. John’s and spent many years in secondary school administration, including seven years as principal of St. Bernard High School in Playa del Rey, and several years as seminary procurator.

On Dec. 29, 1974, with the parish population at 2,000 registered families, groundbreaking was held for an 850-seat, “modern mission” church on a six-acre site two miles away, at the corner of Las Posas and Crestview in the northwest sector of the city. The new church’s first Mass was celebrated on Christmas Day 1975, and was officially dedicated by Cardinal Timothy Manning in 1976, with the original chapel continuing in use to this day.

Msgr. Hughes retired in 1999 and still serves as pastor emeritus. In 2008 he was among the first to be honored as a “Distinguished Alumnus” of St. John’s Seminary, just a few miles from the parish he serves.

His successor as pastor was another St. John’s ordinand, Father James Stehly, born in Tacoma, Wash., and raised in Fillmore, attending St. Francis of Assisi Church. Ordained in 1983, he was on the faculty at St. John’s Seminary College for five years. He was named administrator of St. Mary Magdalen in 1999, and appointed pastor in 2000, overseeing the renovation of the chapel courtyard. In 2012 he was named pastor of St. Jude, Westlake Village.

The current pastor, Father Passos, was born in Honolulu and ordained from St. John’s in 2008 after working for a time in the Tourist industry. After serving as an associate at St. Charles Borromeo, North Hollywood, he was named St. Mary Magdalen administrator in 2012 and this month begins his term as pastor — like his predecessors, determined to honor the traditions of faith rooted in this community.

Established: 1940

Location: 25 Las Posas Road, Camarillo

Santa Barbara Region: Deanery 4