He Always Reigns in Southern California
You can't miss them as they stride purposefully to the front of the church, the two solidly built men in bright tropical shirts.
Once at the front they move to the corners, then turn to face the congregation and lift conch shells to their lips. The first blast fills the air with shimmering sound, the second and the third echo on top of it, leaving everyone's ears ringing as they stand for the Gospel reading.
The bimonthly Samoan Mass is one of the highlights of the St. Joseph Church calendar.
About 65% of the Santa Ana, Calif., church's parishioners are Spanish-speakers. Samoan Catholics travel from across Orange County to celebrate Mass at this church, incorporating their native traditions into a typical Southern California Mass — in a not-too-typical English Gothic church.
In its early days, Santa Ana — now a city with eight Catholic churches (soon to be nine, after the Diocese of Orange builds its new cathedral there) — had a majority of other denominations. In 1887, the Catholic minority opened Our Lady of the Rosary, the first Catholic church in town and the third in Orange County.
During the summer of 1896, a fire broke out under mysterious circumstances three hours after Mass had let out. At the time, there was some speculation that the anti-Catholic American Protective Association might have been behind it. Santa Ana residents made it clear that not all non-Catholics felt the way the association did; the entire town helped to rebuild the church.
The current church building opened on Thanksgiving Day 1947 to much fanfare. It's still a jaw-dropper.
To the right of the entrance is a chapel with several niches, each holding a statue of a saint. Kneelers are conveniently located in front of the niches, facilitating private prayer and meditation. Each saint is especially important to a different cultural community St. Joseph serves.
The Hispanic community has a special devotion to St. Anthony, for instance, while Santo Niño is particularly important to the Filipino community. They hold an annual procession to carry the statue to the church. Each of the statues were gifts presented by representatives of different communities, Father Christopher Smith, the pastor, told me.
Inside the nave, it's easy to imagine it's still 1947. The glorious stained-glass windows depict the 15 mysteries of the rosary, commemorating the original church built 60 years before this one, and each pew is carved with a “Crusader's cross.” This motif is repeated throughout the church. Outside, the bell tower stands a proud 100 feet tall, and the open belfry allows the sound of bells to travel in every direction, as the architects explained in the dedication booklet.
A landmark in downtown Santa Ana, close to the hustle of the business district and just blocks away from the county courthouse and governmental offices, St. Joseph looks like a throwback to a different era — but it's far from lagging behind the times.
Even back in the '40s it was a trendsetter; St. Joseph opened with a built-in public-address system and six audiophones for parishioners who were hard of hearing.
Today the church has expanded its focus to serving the community outside the church walls — Catholics and non-Catholics alike.
The Noah Project learning center, where last year 40 volunteers worked with 115 children, gives kids a place to go in the afternoons before their parents get home from work. The after-school learning program is open to any neighborhood kids attending elementary school, whether or not they attend St. Joseph school or church. (The teen Noah Project meets down the street at an Episcopal church.)
Through its Loaves and Fishes program, St. Joseph provides a meal for homeless people and low-income families. Every Saturday close to 800 people come to the parish for this meal, which is served not only by volunteers from St. Joseph but also from across the county.
Cultural differences within the church and faith differences outside it have only served to bring the parish of St. Joseph closer together. Holidays such as Thanksgiving bring a multicultural Mass at which Samoan, Hispanic and Anglo parishioners jointly celebrate their different traditions.
But, even on the most ordinary of Sundays in ordinary time, there are Spanish-language Masses and the bimonthly Samoan Mass complete with conch shells, the radiant song of the Samoan choir and the flowers laid at the altar.
“There's a real sense of unity here,” Father Smith says.
It's a sense that's palpable even to visitors stopping in to enjoy the sounds of the Samoan choir.
Elisabeth Deffner writes from
St. Joseph, Pray for Us
“The extreme discretion with which Joseph carried out the role entrusted to him by God highlights his faith … which consisted in always listening to the Lord, seeking to understand his will and to obey it with his whole heart and strength,” Pope John Paul II said in a 2002 Angelus message. “This is why the Gospel describes him as a ‘just’ man (Matthew 1:19). In fact, the just man is the person who prays, lives by faith and seeks to do good in every concrete circumstance of life.” The Church celebrates the solemnity of St. Joseph, spouse of the Virgin Mary and patron of the universal Church, on March 19.
- March 14-18, 2004