By nearly all measurements, St. Mel Parish in Woodland Hills would be considered a small parish. With only 2,500 families, St. Mel’s is about half the size of other parishes in the area. As small as it may be, this parish is big in heart, with representatives from many different languages and cultures.
“That’s the beauty of this parish,” says Father David Whorton, St. Mel’s pastor. He estimates that more than half of those who go to Mass are from non-European lineage. “We have a variety of languages here. This is a multi-cultural community parish. Parishioners are Filipino, African, Indian, Asian, Hispanic, Middle Eastern and more. The parish is different than it was 20 years ago or so.
“They don’t take it for granted that they are blessed either,” Father Whorton says.
A very faithful parish, this community’s hallmarks are its charitable giving and its inclusiveness of everyone.
The parish gave $30,000 to Operation Rice Bowl this year. Such a large contribution from such a small parish shows how St. Mel’s reaches out and shares from the heart.
Under the direction of parishioners Nancy and Stephen Gruenfelder “Brown Bag Lunches” are prepared for the hungry, support is given to Guadalupe Center and “Bags in the Basket” are assembled. They also support the hot lunch program at St. Joseph the Worker Parish in Canoga Park with donated food provided by St. Mel parishioners.
The Gruenfelders are also involved in the Justice and Peace Council. The parish also provides outreach and support for the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, JustFaith, and Detention Ministry.
Another parish cornerstone is Hilda Velazquez, a volunteer who is present at most Masses, greeting those who come for liturgy. She can also be seen dusting and cleaning all of the statues in church, and with her supply of red candles. When people bring food for the poor, she takes it to the kitchen or the rectory. She visits religious education classes and brings the money they have collected to the office.
Hilda simply says of what she does, “It’s my job.”
“People are so nice here. These people are like my family. I don’t feel lonely when I am here,” she says. “Parishioners are so good to me. God has blessed me in that way.”
Before her mother in Peru became ill, Hilda says she was a pre-school teacher. She used almost all her money on care for her mother.
Then she came to the parish for help and found work in the church. “God has blessed me a lot,” she says.
Parishioners Brian Conroy and his wife Esperanza have found a wonderful home in St. Mel’s. Brian is director of faith formation and evangelization and he and Esperanza attend classes together as they prepare for his diaconal ordination.
They love the parish and call it a “happy, welcoming place, a safe place.”
“When people visit here they see something that even I cannot see,” Brian says. “They feel welcome and at home. It makes evangelization a lot easier if they are welcomed as they come in through the door. That is evangelization…a welcome. As James Joyce said, ‘Here comes everyone.’ I say, ‘It is everyone.’ When we see the communion line, it really is everyone.”
Photos by: SISTER NANCY MUNRO, CSJ
St. Mel Church
Location: 20870 Ventura Blvd., Woodland Hills
San Fernando Region: Deanery 5
Not only is this parish named for an interesting Irish St., but three of the five pastors have come from Ireland.
St. Mel, who built the monastery of Ardagh in the fifth century, was an extraordinary person according to legend and old records. Most evidence lists him as a nephew of the most respected, famous and legendary St. Patrick.
Besides that unique lineage, Mel’s family is astonishing. His mother was St. Darerca (sister of St. Patrick) who had 19 children (17 sons and two daughters) and all became saints! St. Patrick built the original church at Ardagh (that means “high field”) and appointed Mel as bishop.
However, most of his life of ministry involved traveling as a missionary and supporting himself by working with his hands. He died in 488 and his feast day is listed on Feb. 6. Today St. Mel’s crosier is preserved in the Longford Cathedral museum in Ireland.
The Woodland Hills parish of St. Mel was one of eight founded in 1955 by Cardinal James Francis McIntyre who was in his seventh year as archbishop and had established 42 new churches in that time. The origin of parish names is not often known, but Cardinal Timothy Manning left notes on those he knew and for St. Mel he wrote: “This name was selected by the founding pastor, Msgr. Michael O’Connor — for what precise reason, I don’t know.”
Msgr. O’Connor, a native of County Kerry, Ireland, served in the archdiocese for 70 years before his death in 2005 at age 96. Even before his appointment at St. Mel at age 46, he had served at several parishes, spent three years as chaplain with the U.S. Marines and was the founding pastor of St. Cornelius, Long Beach, where he served for four years.
His assignment to the Woodland Hills parish in 1955 spanned 29 years and he accomplished building the complete parish plant — church, school, hall, convent and rectory — in just three years. Cardinal McIntyre blessed the complex, which featured the striking new church designed by J. Earl Trudeau, in 1958.
At the silver jubilee Mass in 1980, Cardinal Manning was the celebrant and Msgr. O’Connor said, “we’re all a family and we’re all one in the Mass, that’s our theme.” The first Mass in 1955 was at the Tarzana Women’s Club and then when numbers increased, at the Canoga Park Theater. The 16-classroom school was then staffed by St. Louis Sisters with an enrollment of 610 pupils.
The parish plant is in a territory that was once home to two Native American tribes for some 8,000 years until the Portola expedition of 1769, when the area was called “Valley of the Oaks.” Development and expansion continued until roughly the 1860s when American ownership began.
The Lankershim and Van Nuys families had land holdings and then Harry Chandler formed a syndicate. By 1910, Victor Girard Kleinberger bought 3,000 acres and founded the town of Gerard in 1922 and planted some 1,200 trees. Eventually the area was incorporated and in 1945 was named Woodland Hills.
The town was named just 10 years before the parish started. After the founding pastor, Msgr. O’Connor, the next pastor was Msgr. John Naughton, a native of County Mayo, Ireland, who was ordained from St. John’s Seminary in 1949.
He assisted at several parishes before joining the Air Force Chaplains Corps in 1956. His 28 years of service included stints in England, Germany, Labrador, Thailand and U.S. bases.
He retired with the rank of Lt. Colonel. Msgr. Naughton served at St. Mel for five years and in 1989 started construction of a two-story new parish center.
Comparing his military and pastoral work, he said, “there is really not much difference…except the military is very structured, while here everything depends on volunteers. But I couldn’t have come to a nicer place than here.” He died in 2012 at age 87.
In 1990, another Irish priest from County Mayo, Msgr. Padraic Loftus, started his 17-year pastorate at St. Mel where he had initially served in 1974 after his 12 years of teaching in Ireland. In the archdiocese he had worked in Social Services and directed the new office of Detention Ministry for several years.
After the Northridge quake damaged the church, extensive renovations were completed in 1996. Msgr. Loftus said of the remodeled church, “It is a visible sign of our faith for all to see.” He retired in 2007 as pastor emeritus.
Msgr. Helmut Hefner, a native of Yugoslavia, is the former rector of St. John’s Seminary and served on the tribunal for the archdiocese. In 2008, he was named pastor of St. Mel and retired in 2013.
The current pastor is Father David Whorton, a native of Liverpool, England, and a member of St. John’s Seminary class of 1998. He has served in several local parishes but this is his first pastorate for the church named for St. Mel, the bishop of spiritual lineage.
By: Hermine Lees