For Catholics, the Nov. 1 solemnity of All Saints is a holy day of obligation, a day on which the faithful are obliged to attend Mass as if it were a Sunday.
But this past Friday, Nov. 1, students, parents, and staff at St. Martin of Tours School in Brentwood had something else obliging them to thank God around the eucharistic table: Their church, as well as many of their own homes, had been spared from the devastating Getty Fire. This was their first day back at school since the fire broke out in the early morning hours of Monday, Oct. 28.
Specifically, their gratitude was directed toward Los Angeles Fire Department (LAFD) firefighters, who worked quickly to help evacuate families and protect homes in the Mandeville Canyon area of Brentwood from the fire.
“The firefighters did an incredible job getting this fire contained at a relatively fast pace, and we were able to hold it at 745 acres,” explained LAFD Assistant Chief Jaime Moore.
Moore was there, sitting in the first pew at St. Martin’s during the All Saints’ Day Mass celebrated for students of the parish school, representing the firefighters who had spent the week working around the clock to put out the Getty Fire and help families affected by it.
Ironically enough, it wasn’t his first time.
As a college student at UCLA years ago, Moore used to attend Mass there and even served as an adviser to the Brentwood parish’s youth group.
“God has mysterious reasons for the things that he does, and it’s almost full circle,” Moore said in an interview the morning of the All Saints’ Mass.
When St. Martin of Tours pastor Father Paul Sustayta called Moore the night before to tell him about the Mass, the veteran fireman got a funny feeling.
“I can’t help but think back to when I was a young 19-year-old, sitting in the pews as a college student, wondering and praying as to where my life would go,” Moore recalled. “So it’s kind of nice to be able to come back and serve my community.”
At the beginning of Mass, Moore accepted a donation of $1,000 on behalf of the LAFD from the school community, as well as a thick stack of letters and richly illustrated thank-you cards from students.
“I want to thank all of you, because I know it was difficult being away from home, worrying about when you were going to get home, especially right before Halloween,” Moore told the children.
(Minutes later, duty called: Moore had to leave Mass early to help residents return to their homes — some of them destroyed — as final evacuation orders were being lifted.)
One of the students affected was fifth-grader Stella Tesoriero. Her parents woke her up in the early morning hours of Oct. 28 as the wind-driven Getty Fire approached her street, near Mount St. Mary’s University, where the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet in residence there had to shelter in place that day.
“I thought [my parents] were waking me up for school, but really they were waking me up because we had to evacuate,” she recalled.
The Getty Fire ended up burning within five houses of the Tesoriero home, but thanks to the quick work of firefighters (and some help from “Mother Nature,” in the words of Moore), it was saved. Others were not so lucky: At least eight homes were destroyed and another five damaged, according to fire officials.
“I wasn’t really panicked, because I knew the firefighters would help us,” said Tesoriero, whose family stayed in a hotel that week. “I was just praying that our house and everyone else’s houses wouldn’t burn down, and that no one would get hurt.”
Principal Debbie Margulis has worked at St. Martin of Tours for 27 years. She can’t recall a fire that got so close and affected so many families during her time at the school.
“It’s been a really crazy week because we never knew when we’d be able to come back. We’re just happy to be able to come back today,” said Margulis, who noted with relief that the parish carnival was still happening the next day.
It was a phone call from a parent with the news of the fire that woke her up around 3 a.m. that morning. She called Sustayta right away, and within a short time the school’s parents had all been notified of the fire and its corresponding evacuation zone, which included the school.
Margulis noticed how quick the school’s families were to help one another. One parent who works at a nearby hotel reserved a block of rooms for school families to stay in that week. Margulis and several parents opened up their homes for evacuees to stay in.
“Families got together and stayed with families who weren’t evacuated, so it was really just a rallying point for the community,” she said.
The principal thought it was appropriate that the children’s first day back at school coincided with this particular holy day of obligation.
“Today’s a day when we celebrate the heroic virtue of the saints, and the firefighters remind me of that. They are true heroes, and they really risk their lives to save property and lives.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article stated inaccurately that Catholics are required to receive Communion on holy days of obligation. They are not. They have, rather, a duty to attend Mass on the holy day or its vigil.