It is hard to imagine what the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles looked like in 1921, the year that St. Teresa of Avila Church was founded.

The Glendale freeway offramp that faces the church doors today wasn’t there. It was most assuredly a lot quieter then, without the constant drone of car traffic. And there were certainly no hipsters — or the pricey homes they live in — surrounding St. Teresa’s in 1921. Other terms often associated with Silver Lake, such as “gentrification” and “yuppies,” had not yet been minted, and Silver Lake was far from trendy.   

The century that has passed since has seen a lot of change — and challenge — for St. Teresa’s.

In many respects this small parish is a microcosm of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles in general. The Silver Lake of today is much more culturally and ethnically diverse than it was when the church’s cornerstone was laid, and probably less family oriented.

chidi ekpendu

Father Chidi Ekpendu, administrator at St. Teresa of Avila, blesses palms before the procession. (Mike Goulding)

There has also been another important demographic upheaval that challenges all parishes. In 1921, the U.S. birthrate was 3.29 children per woman. In 2021, the rate was 1.78.

Those changes, together with the increasing financial burden on many parents, surely led to the difficult decision a few weeks ago to close St. Teresa’s school. The parish’s roster of registered families is just under 200. Yet, like so many other parishes across the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, St. Teresa abides, and in doing so becomes a mirror of the faith universal. 

Many of the homes clustered around St. Teresa’s probably don’t boast the square footage of a studio apartment, but still command price tags north of a million dollars. If there are families that attend St. Teresa who live in some of these homes, it is probably because they have done so for decades and now, like a lot of us, live in a home they could not possibly afford to buy if they were in the market today.

Despite what appears to be an insurmountable challenge, parish administrator Father Chidi Ekpendu is determined to revitalize his parish.

Along with his associate at St. Teresa, Father Pedro Valdez, the strategy is to keep the current parish membership engaged, active, and inspired while at the same time looking outward to draw new people in. In just the past few months, they say, they’ve seen evidence for hope.

palm sunday

Several hundred parishioners turned out for St. Teresa's Palm Sunday procession and Mass March 24. (Mike Goulding)

“I see new faces at Mass, and it feels we are moving in the right direction, even if it is only one step at a time,” Ekpendu told me.

These priests are not basing their hopes on a miraculous demographic shift in their neighborhood, or a sudden baby boom — although I am sure they would not be averse to that kind of intervention. In the meantime, Ekpendu believes there are other important “steps” he can make, and they include taking the words of Pope Francis — “I want the Church in the street” — to heart. This Palm Sunday gave him a chance to put Francis’ words into action and show his Silver Lake neighbors that “a lively church makes for a lively faith.”

The 11 a.m. Mass of the passion of Our Lord started to the sound of the peals of church bells. I found myself in a large contingent outside the church, all of us with palms in our hands. After the blessing of the palms, it began: a procession not inside the Church, not in and around the Church parking lot, but out on the streets of Silver Lake for all to see. Ekpendu’s message was as basic as it gets. “Our goal is to let people know in our neighborhood that we are here, that we are joyful and that we proclaim the good news of Jesus.”

That message may be a tough sell in one of the most secular enclaves found in the increasingly secular city of Los Angeles. But you would not have known that on this Palm Sunday, walking in procession with this joyful and faith-filled bunch of people.

Parishioners process with palm fronds past St. Teresa of Avila School, which is set to close this year. (Mike Goulding)

As I walked amid the throng, up the steep hills this part of Silver Lake is renowned for, we encountered several onlookers along the way. There were a few people out walking their dogs who stopped and smiled at us. I even noticed someone recording the procession from their kitchen window. I wondered if some of the bystanders thought we were part of a Horticulturists of the World Unite march. But this march had no signs, no angry slogans, only songs of praise and a beautiful sense of worship.

Ekpendu realizes that apart from the disaffected Catholics (which can be found anywhere), Silver Lake is a place with a substantial population of “nones”: those with no religious affiliation whatsoever.

He sees it as missionary territory. Maybe the person with the chihuahua in the baby stroller saw this procession and was briefly taken back to a time when she would attend Mass on Easter. Maybe the person recording the procession on her phone through her kitchen window was reminded of a childhood that included the Triduum.

Or as Ekpendu put it: “If only one person sees the procession and comes to see what St. Teresa of Ávila is all about, that will be a win.”