The parish with a mother’s arms
On the corner of East Fourth and South Chicago Streets in Boyle Heights stands a proud white church and a parish which, since its beginning in 1896, has welcomed countless new immigrants and returning parishioners, and has provided for the needs of all.
In a Salesian spirit of providing for all, especially the needs of today’s youth, St. Mary’s offers ministries for all ages, including young adults, youth and a Salesian Family Youth Center with its safe environment. Through “Pan de Vida,” parishioners provide food for needy families in the community from its food bank, and three sack lunch meals a day for the homeless who come to the door. Camp Bosco, a summer program, offers lunch, activities and support groups for young people.
The summer theatre program this year presents “The Three Musketeers,” directed by the pastor, Salesian Father Jesse Montes, with college professor George Bella volunteering instruction in stage combat. Young people, says the pastor, need more than meetings. “Starvation is not the only form of hunger,” he asserts. “They need the arts.”
A Salesian parish, Father Montes continues, “should be distinguished by its low-income population and interest in the young, especially those who are poorer. The entire Salesian community that I live with, headed by Father Nick Reina, is responsible for the animation of this parish.”
That means systematic catechesis of all, and linking evangelization to “human advancement.”
“My parishioners are loving, generous, and caring,” he adds. “They are also for the most part needy. Yet, when there is work to be done, they volunteer to do whatever is asked. They have a deep devotion and a living relationship with Jesus. They also have a wonderfully deep devotion to Mary, especially under the title of Our Lady of Guadalupe.”
Adults of all ages are involved in numerous support groups (the first Spanish-language AA groups in the nation were held at St. Mary’s). The Salesian Sisters administer St. Mary School (TK-8, including summer). There are helpers programs for the elderly, prayer groups, charismatic and healing Masses, and parishioners minister to the sick at nearby hospitals.
Many parishioners say they met their future spouses while serving in youth ministry or in other ministries. As teens, Ana Anguiano, now coordinator of the “Pan de Vida” food distribution program, and her future husband were members of the youth group.
“This parish is my heart,” says Ana, a member of the parish for 32 years. On a recent weekday she had about 20 helpers who arranged fruit, vegetables, tortillas and bread for distribution. Those to receive food had tickets indicating that they had checked in. Ana asked all those gathered to thank God for the food provided to raise their arms in prayer of thanks for all those responsible.
“I love to help these people,” she said as she watched the distribution. “The Lord says you must give to others. I have nothing to give but service and I am happy serving.”
The Pan de Vida team includes Guadalupe “Don Lupe,” Castaneda, a parish sacristan who lifts large boxes of fruits and vegetables and sets up the parish hall for the distribution. He and his wife have been parishioners for 40 years and since he is retired he works even more in their parish.
“We believe in our religion,” he says firmly. “It leads us, therefore we serve con gusto. I serve God, our Father, and Jesus Christ. I don’t work for money. Like Jesus said to do, I serve others.” With a boyish grin he adds, “I live here more than at home.”
A parishioner since 1955, Lupe Perez is the parish DRE. Lupe, the oldest of seven children, attended St. Mary School, her mother taught religious education, and her grandmother was involved in many activities and organizations. As she says now, it was just natural to learn how important it is to “live a life of service and give back to the Lord.”
Lupe was parish secretary for 29 years, and has now been DRE for the last seven years. “We don’t have money, but we have to give back,” she explains. “It is a little grain from the harvest God has blessed me with. You have to be grateful and have a grateful heart.” Her husband shares her views. “If it is for the church, then he never says no.”
She is surrounded by loyal helpers. “People from as far back as 20, 40, 50 years ago come back to help. There is something about home and heritage here. Somehow people come back. Children will bring their parents back to be buried from here. It’s like coming back home here and into your mother’s arms because that is where you started.”
Lupe’s goal is “for parents and children to live out the life of the Church and get away from the issues that confuse them. It means living out the mysteries,” she says. “A difficulty in religious education for many families is that the parents work and speak in Spanish. They know only a little English. The children do not speak Spanish, only English.”
She tries to emphasize with the parents and students that “God loves you unconditionally. Our God is a loving God.”
Marilyn Cobos, who succeeded Lupe as parish secretary, and her mother have long been active in religious education and youth groups. “When I grew up my mom was a profound influence,” says Marilyn.
“It is tough out there,” she continues, “and we need to reach out to those in danger of losing their faith. These people face so many obstacles and because of that they can stop believing. And I want them to believe in themselves and in God. We can make a difference.”
“They come here when they need help filling out all the long forms and applications they receive, or even just with understanding the language. There is satisfaction in knowing that you have helped them meet a need.”