The Faces of God:St. Bridget Church

The Chinese New Year of the Black Water Dragon, which began Jan. 23, alludes to a legendary creature in Chinese mythology that symbolizes the sky, or “power from heaven.” In fact, a powerful bit of heaven can be found in a small corner of Los Angeles’ Chinatown: St. Bridget Chinese Catholic Church, a small parish in terms of physical size, but a giant in the hearts of its loyal parishioners.

In this parish where parking is at a premium, Sunday Masses are celebrated in Cantonese (9:30 a.m.) and English (11:15 a.m.). The Cantonese Mass more often draws a larger crowd, and draws more young adults, many of them recent college students who have immigrated to the United States and begun to have families. The Mass in English is mainly attended by families with small children who have attended religious education classes during the Cantonese Mass. Young families, say parish leaders, want their children to learn more about their culture.

Clearly, family is the core of St. Bridget’s social and religious structure. Salesian Father John Lam, pastor for the last six years, credits the late former pastor, Salesian Father Joseph Cheng, “for promoting unity and the word of God. This is a family. It is a playground, like St. John Bosco wanted, where the people can play and pray together.”

In addition to American-born Chinese, many St. Bridget parishioners are relatively new immigrants, says Michael Lau, parish secretary and general manager. “They came after the ’60s, some from the ’70s, but most after the ’80s and ’90s. Many came here to escape from the fear of living under communist rule when Hong Kong was returned to China sovereignty in 1997, after over 100 years as a British Colony.” 

Today in China the official language of the country is Mandarin. But Father Lam points out that many at St. Bridget’s are former residents of Hong Kong and southern China where Cantonese is traditionally spoken, and they have come to St. Bridget’s to find their “parish family.” 

That includes some who remember when the parish began 72 years ago, when they were children (or were born in Chinatown). Yet for its history, St. Bridget Church is a very young parish as evidenced by those involved in scouting, young adult activities and youth retreats. 

Older parishioners, meanwhile, tell of the extreme prejudice of the Exclusionary Laws for over 60 years that forbade immigration from China, the owning of property and the reuniting of families and spouses. Prejudicial property rights laws against the Chinese were not repealed until 1943.

Parishioner Ruby Ling Louie remembers that no one would sell her father a house in Long Beach, even though he had a restaurant in the city. Others recall the suspected arson that burned down the first Chinatown or “China City” in the area around present-day Union Station. 

It is a different story today, as St. John’s seminarian Nicholas Lau says: “I am 100 percent American, 100 percent Chinese and 100 percent Catholic.”  

His father Michael, parish secretary and general manager, notes that previous prejudice has helped form a closely-knit parish. 

 “Honestly,” he says, “I think many of our parishioners did not face any of the discrimination like our predecessors did. But they should be reminded. Nothing comes to us without somebody paying a price. But here we are a tight family of believers, a tight family.”

Notes Father Lam: “People ask me, ‘What is your idea for the future?’ I think we have to catechize. Maybe the next generation does not know Chinese, but they have the heart. This is their family. We are trying our best to create a family spirit here — for the young, for the old, for everybody.”       

Editor’s note: St. Bridget parishioners share their stories in a future article in The Tidings.

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