“To have it fashioned from a piece of wood from the Thomas Fire, it brings tears to people’s eyes. Especially those who lost their home. A lady said to me last night, ‘This means so much to us because it’s such an important reminder of from the ashes of a fire there’s hope.’ ”

Father Leon Hutton, pastor of Our Lady of the Assumption Church in Ventura, was talking to Angelus News about his church getting a handmade 9-feet-by-6-feet cross carved from a eucalyptus tree partly burnt in the devastating December 2017 Thomas Fire. 

The cross is a labor of love from Deacon Mike Burns, whose tractor service shop was one of the 1,063 structures destroyed in the conflagration that burned nearly 282,000 acres in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties. 

But the story goes back before Hutton came to the parish three years ago. Fran Perrone, a parishioner, organized a group to buy a new crucifix to replace the much smaller one mounted behind the altar. But the project made little progress after he died and a former pastor left. 

Then came the fire that started near St. Thomas College in Santa Paula. “I stood out in my balcony here and watched the fire move,” Hutton recalled. “And then it just raced across the hills. They say it was moving a football field a minute.” Although fire trucks sped up the hills after the flames, they retreated just as quickly, unable to stop the spreading blaze. 

Members of his congregation soon showed up in the church’s parking lot. Together they watched the fire from 10:30 p.m. that Monday night until early the next morning. Hutton offered the rectory for parishioners who needed shelter, although no one stayed. 

Remains of a leased shed destroyed by Thomas Fire where cross carver Mike Burns stored equipment for his business. The tree from which the cross was made stands in the background. (MIKE BURNS)

The parish helped out through the Los Angeles Archdiocese’s Cardinal McIntyre Fund with cash grants, as well as providing clothing, toiletries, and water — especially to renters who didn’t have insurance and lost everything in the fire.

“It’s only been a little over a year, but people are slowly getting things together,” the pastor reported. “Some are in the process of rebuilding or getting ready to rebuild. But finding a new place around here was difficult. So many have had to move out of the area. But we’ve continued to try to help people, not just parishioners.”

Back to the cross. 

It happens that Ventura is known for two of its old eucalyptus trees. One fell over during the fire, and the parish asked to use its wood for the cross. But the local conservancy declined the request. 

So Burns suggested they use a tree that had toppled over behind his tractor service shop but was only scarred on the outside. “God provided something better,” the pastor pointed out with a chuckle. 

And even though the cross still needs the representation of Jesus, known as a corpus, Hutton has already put it to good use as Our Lady of the Assumption’s Lenten “Mercy Tree.” In the sanctuary, the cross has been laid on its front side, while some 500 white, paper crosses have been nailed to the back by parishioners. Each cross contains a prayer petition.

Hutton said, laughing, “The church has never had a crucifix bigger than about 8 inches,” adding that the bigger cross “wasn’t a reality until the new wood cross came into the church the night before Ash Wednesday. Now it’s our ‘Mercy Tree,’ and throughout Lent, people will take the prayers off and home to pray for them, with new ones added.

“Then, hopefully, through the Easter season the cross will be repurposed until we get the corpus on it. And then we’ll bless it as part of our remodeled sanctuary. It’s a sizable chunk of wood — 700 to 800 pounds.”

Lauren Burns, wife of cross carver Mike Burns, says it’s been the dream of Our Lady of the Assumption parishioners for years to have a bigger crucifix on the altar. The “very, very” small one, many believe, is the original when the parish was established back in 1933. 

“Every time my husband would work on the cross, I would snap pictures, and that’s how the video of the project came about,” she said. “It finally got to the point where Father Leon was like, ‘Hey, is there any way we can get this cross in our church by Ash Wednesday?’ And I told him, ‘Oh, my gosh!’ 

“But it all fell together,” she added. “Another deacon and handy guy, Daniel Bojorquez, worked with my husband. And other parishioners helped, like with getting the huge cross into the church. So it was not by any means a one-person thing. Our whole community did this.”

The raw cut of the cross rests on a metal stand. Parishioners spent many more hours preparing it for the Ventura church. (DAN BOJORQUEZ)

At the head of the cross for Ash Wednesday was placed the word “Surrender.” Then for the first Sunday of Lent “Humility.” After that on Sundays, “Hope,” “Conversion,” and “Healing.” Palm Sunday will have “Abandonment.” And Easter “Triumph.”

The pastor explained, “We’re calling that the ‘Word of the Cross.’ ” 

R.W. Dellinger is the features editor for Angelus.

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