Over the last 20-plus years, plenty of guardian angels have watched over the effort to build a new church for parishioners of the Guardian Angel Catholic community in Pacoima.

But last month, at last, trucks were moving dirt and pouring concrete behind a gate adorned with a piece of plywood that reads “12305 Terra Bella Street.”

The milestone was celebrated as a testament to the faith of Guardian Angel’s parishioners at a Sunday, June 18, ground-blessing ceremony attended by Archbishop José H. Gomez and nearly 400 people at the four-acre parcel of land steps away from Pacoima’s Hansen Dam Recreational Center.

The new 17,000-square-foot church, on track to open in summer 2024, will seat some 1,300 people. The project calls for parking space for more than 200 cars, parish office and meeting room space, plus widened surrounding streets and new sidewalks.

Currently, Guardian Angel Church only holds some 200 people. For years, the overflow crowd has had to listen to Mass while sitting in an outdoor patio area. (Victor Alemán)

It is a notable improvement over the site of the current 200-seat church that sits about a mile east, built almost 70 years ago at 1088 Lehigh Ave., just off Van Nuys Blvd. It is surrounded by the densely populated and landlocked San Fernando Gardens, one of the oldest low-income public housing project developments in Los Angeles that has overcome a troubled past with gang violence.

Parking there is almost nonexistent. Even when the church celebrates five Masses every Sunday, it only allows for about 1,000 total worshippers. A small patio behind it with folding chairs serves as a gathering spot, whether for Mass overflow or fellowship afterward despite often baking in the San Fernando Valley summer sun or on chilly winter days.

“I have seen parishioners stand outside in the rain for Mass,” said Gerardo Ascencio, a Guardian Angel parishioner for more than 40 years and president of the parish’s capital campaign for the new church.

Ascencio said he was first drawn to Guardian Angel when in high school while helping his father in music ministry. Ascencio met his future wife at a church fiesta and they now have three sons who attend school there. He’s been inspired by the parishioners’ resolve, including the drive to make this new church happen.

“They would never give up on Guardian Angel,” Ascencio said of his fellow parishioners. “I think that standard sent out a strong indication of how they were brought up. For a new church, we can ask the Mexican American community to think of this as a heritage building, like they do in small towns in Mexico. They can put their muscle and money into making this a reality.”

Jose Ponce said the parish’s peaceful, welcoming ambiance has kept them for all his 28 years. Witnessing the groundbreaking gave him hope. 

“I look forward to having everyone being able to be inside the church, not sectioned off, all coming together,” said Ponce. 

For a community that already has a source of pride in Eric Mejia, a 28-year-old parishioner raised by a single mother in the surrounding projects who was ordained a transitional deacon in June and has one year of studies left at St. John’s Seminary, the opening of the new church is expected to coincide with his planned ordination to the priesthood and only adds to their gratitude.

Bishop Gerald Wilkerson has been involved in efforts to build a new church at Guardian Angel for 25 years. (Victor Alemán)

But few in the crowd that day knew the history of the project as well as Bishop Gerald Wilkerson. 

Soon after taking over the San Fernando Pastoral Region as a new auxiliary bishop in 1998, Wilkerson heard from the pastor of Guardian Angel at the time, Father Juan Enriquez, about plans for a new church. After a feasibility study was completed, the bishop and Enriquez’s successor, Father Steve Guitron, canvassed the area to find a site.

Once the property at Terra Bella was agreed upon in 2003, Wilkerson needed a new source of help.

While the Guardian Angels parishioners could do fundraising — sales of tamale or menudo or fruit drinks on Sundays, or larger raffles and fiestas — it wouldn’t be nearly enough. Wilkerson asked leadership at the 55 parishes of his region to help purchase the land through a three-year donation added on to their Together in Mission commitment. When some $2.5 million was raised, a six-acre L-shaped spot was bought in 2009, with the plan to have not just a larger church on one end, but room for the school, a rectory, and parish hall.

Now the challenge was finding a way to pay for all the construction.

Guitron’s plans to the archdiocese building commissioner were considered not financially viable. After revisions, more land entitlements, and permits, architectural firm Jp Darling & Associates was hired for the project in 2014. Wilkerson retired in 2015, but not before he reluctantly agreed that two acres of the original six-acre plot had to be sold off in order to fund construction. 

When Father Rafael Lara arrived as pastor in 2018, he tried to rebuild momentum and tamp down discouragement, but was dealt two new setbacks in 2020: the death of architect Darling and the COVID-19 pandemic. 

In 2021, architect Chuck Kluger — with more than 25 years experience in archdiocesan projects — was brought in to work with the existing designs. Hoffman & Associates Building in Van Nuys was asked to take over construction.

Today, a project that the Archdiocese of Los Angeles estimates will come to $12.7 million is only half funded with the latest influx of donations and grants. Those include the steady support provided by the annual Cardinal’s Award fundraisers and the philanthropic efforts of the Shea Foundation through Brother Hilarion O’Connor, operators director and Strategic Capital Projects leader for the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels.

There is still $6.5 million outstanding to pay a construction loan.

Architect Chuck Kluger looks at blueprints during a visit to the church construction site. Kluger took over the project in 2021 after the original architect died in 2020. (Tom Hoffarth)

The circular irony is not lost on Wilkerson, who was asked by Archbishop Gomez last fall to come out of retirement and oversee the San Fernando Pastoral Region once again while Auxiliary Bishop Alex Alcan recovers from a stroke.

“I know I wasn’t sure if I would still be here to see this,” Wilkerson, 82, said with a laugh. “The archdiocese and the region should really be proud of this. Guardian Angel Church is going to rise a year from now as a result of every pastor and every person in this region continuing their effort to make it happen.”

Kluger described the new Guardian Angel church with its arches, tiles, and colors as a modern interpretation of a traditional Spanish architecture. He said he feels it fits well into the personality of the community it will serve.

“They have really embraced this design from the start, and those who were here at the start took community involvement into it,” said Kluger. “Considering the story of where it started and where we are now, you see God may not have a plan that’s straight, but it will be done right. It’s having faith in the process.”

Chris Hoffman said his construction company rarely gets to build churches from the ground up nowadays. 

“This is more than building a church. It’s building a community,” said Hoffman, a parishioner at Our Lady of Grace Church in Encino. “It is very much ministry work for us. No shortcuts. This building has to be around for a long time.”

One of Hoffman’s first steps in a focus on “value engineering” was to change from an expensive steel structure framing plan and move to a more flexible wood-frame approach, in the wake of current escalating prices for materials.

While the parish school will stay at its current site, the future use of the soon-to-be former church is still to be determined.

Meanwhile, the start of the construction project coincided with another change: the departure of Lara, who was assigned as pastor in the town of Guadalupe outside Santa Barbara. 

“For me as a pastor, this experience was almost like touching heaven,” said Lara. “The church will be a great benefit and spiritual comfort to hundreds of families in Pacoima.”

New administrator Father Luis Estrada, who comes from St. Rose of Lima Church in Simi Valley, knows how hard his new parishioners have worked to get to this point. 

“I am sure we can raise what is still needed,” said Estrada. “This is a mission not just for Pacoima, but for all of us in Los Angeles to say thank you to God.

“I can envision still having five Masses every Sunday,” he added, “and all of the seats filled in each one.”